- 02 Oct 2013 -

Bonjour Bretagne!

One item on my bucket list is to go on a culinary adventure in the three regions I adore in France - Brittany, the Loire Valley and Provence. Many would profess Paris is the center of the universe in the cooking world. For me it lacks the authenticity of the true essence of French cooking because I don't get to witness the whole farm to table process. I want see the grounds where the very crop is grown, the market where the fish is bought and the community behind the scenes that make the whole experience possible.

My journey began with me taking the TGV from Gare Montparnasse in Paris to Lamballe. I was in luck as the train journey was relatively uneventful and Poul Erik, our chef (and co-founder) for the week from the French Dining School in Kerrouet was on the platform in Lamballe train station to welcome me. It was difficult to miss him as he had a straw hat with the logo of the dining school and the biggest smile. Despite my jet lag (I flew in from Shanghai to Paris the night before) and fatigue from legging my suitcases across the train platforms (yes… one of those with an underpass and before you ask, no escalators), I instinctively knew I would be in safe hands. In the car journey cruising through the country lanes of Lamballe, I had an immediate rapport with our friendly host who possess a wicked sense of humor (hey it is a cooking course, I need the comfort that someone can crack a joke when I make a fool of myself!). My worries of the airs and graces that go hand in hand with most esteemed and accomplished chefs and restaurateurs immediately dissipated.

The village of Kerrouet lies in the heart of "The Mene", the beautiful rolling hills of Brittany which are so famous for walking and cycling. The region is famous for its seafood and oysters, and the world famous Kerrouet Royale was created in this very place and names after the village. I could not have chosen a more idyllic setting for my learning experience.

Poul dropped me off in a charming house in the village of St. Gilles Des Landes within minutes from the dining school, which would be my home for the coming week. Ray and Gaynor, a lovely Welsh couple are the proud owners. They live in a beautiful French gite on grounds that bore striking resemblance to an English garden, which I must add was in its full glory. The sun was shining so bright to show off their pride and joy.  Gaynor took me on a tour of their garden; I met with our gatekeeper the garden gnome, Ash their adopted cat and their pet rabbit. The couple grew their own fruit and veg, there were grapes, tomatoes, pumpkins, cabbage, rhubarbs… Some of the seeds were sourced from the UK as these varietals are unheard of in the continent - runner beans, parsnips and many more. Aside from tendering to their garden and looking after their house guests from the dining school now and then, Ray is an avid painter in his spare time and Gaynor was the Martha Stewart who brought the whole Bretagne living experience together for me. You cannot imagine a more peaceful and tranquil setting, and warmer hospitality from my hosts.

Oh and I mustn't forget there are pictures of Matthew, their very handsome son around the house - think the lead actor in a period drama! Gaynor told me a lovely Frenchman dropped up one day to gather some information about the inhabitants of the village. The picture of Matthew caught the corner of his eye, he proudly showed off his knowledge of L'Angleterre " I know this man, Grant Hughes....!!!" Matthew could pass as a young Hugh Grant (more attractive if I may add!) and I am told is an outstanding actor living in London. I will put my money on him as the next Mr. Darcy or the next Matthew in Downton Abbey!!
Poul whipped up a delightful (simple he calls it) welcome dinner for his students in the night of arrival for the course.  The idea is to break the ice, warm our appetite and give us a sense of what’s to come in the days ahead. Sweet melon with parma ham drizzled in balsamic, followed by veal escalope pan fried in rich French beurre dressed with lemon, capers and anchovies (a Danish tradition). We finished the evening with panna cotta made with fresh vanilla pods in strawberry and cointreau sauce with gooseberry and chocolate chips sprinkled on top.

Every English family who reside in an old house in France live to tell the tales of their remodeling woes. Poul's was no different, only more colorful and graphic as the prior inhabitant of the house was a Sorbonne mathematics professor whose artistic talent was ahead of our times and living standards were more akin to our ancestors (the cavemen?!). You need to see the photos for yourself... Rest assured I can say Poul and Niall, the co-founder of the dining school restored the charming establishment to its former glory adorned with modern comforts. Whether it is the installation of an open fire barbecue area atop the fireplace, the quintessential chef oven with antique wood trimmings on the side of the cooking hood, you can tell this is a labor of love and artful expression of a professional chef.

The whole evening was a sensory experience and set the scene for what’s expected in the journey ahead. It goes without saying the cooking was superb, every bite was a testament to the freshness of the food and the skills of the chef. The wines kept flowing and what a delicate and thoughtful complimentary selection it was. As we looked out to the garden, we saw the awakening of the moon as the evening descended on us. Throughout the night I caught whiffs of the logwood as it glowed then withered away in the centuries old monastic fireplace. As the candles flickered into the night, the music and conversations gathered momentum, I took a deep breath and reminded myself to take a mental note of how awesome it is to learn to cook and dine in this historic building which stood the test of time. I knew I picked the right course and I couldn't wait for my week to start.

; The French Dining School, Kerrouet Hous