Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Researching a French Chef and a Childhood Food Memory
“A cook is creative, marrying ingredients in the way a poet marries words.” These words were spoken by Master French Chef Roger Verge. Roger Verge is a master of Provencal cooking. Provence, a region of France is located along the Mediterranean Sea across from Italy. His restaurant, Le Moulin de Mougins is located in the village of Mougin, Provence France. Translated into English the name of Chef Verge’s restaurant means the mill (or windmill) of Mougin.
A classic spice aptly called Herb du Provence is a blend of dried spices: thyme, sage, rosemary, lavender, savory, basil, fennel seed, marjoram, tarragon, oregano and bay leaf. Used throughout the region of Provence this blend has now become the backbone to some of the dishes I make at home.
While I was doing research on Chef Verge, I learned some things about the cuisine of Provence, France. The French, use fresh seafood and herbs in their cooking which are simple ingredients to a degree, however, the methods of cooking are far more complex than let’s say Italian Cuisine. A lot of the dishes require laying flavors. Bouillabaisse for instance, a seafood “stew” is traditionally made with 2 kinds of fish, shellfish, tomatoes and then layered in are the garlic, the saffron various herbs, wine and olive oil. A Bourride which is a Bouillabaisse minus the tomatoes is thickened with an aioli sauce. Then another classic dish of Provence is called Pistou (soupe au pisto) which is a French version of minestrone.
Chef Verge also has been quoted as saying: “A recipe is not meant to be followed exactly – it is a canvas on which you can embroider.” I can relate to that inasmuch as that has been the way I remember my grandmother and mother cooked. They did not follow recipes to cook and pretty much, neither do I. Basically, I will take what I learned from them and cook the dishes that they introduced me to. Also when I find a recipe that appeals to me I will make it the way a cookbook instructs me to, or alter it from the get go. If I follow the recipe exactly I may find that I do not like it in it’s’ entirety and then I begin to deconstruct it to fit my own palate. That’s what I think cooking is all about. It’s all about putting your own spin on something else based on your individual taste buds, or that of your family. Therefore, most dishes are a blank canvas just waiting to be recreated in some form.
While writing this, it brought this to mind: when we eat, and before we even get to put the food into our mouths, we eat with our eyes and our sense of smell. If the dish doesn’t look good or if there is not a pleasing smell emanating from it, we are hesitant to want to even try it. I recall that as a young teenager who had a mother who could cook well, my friends often asked if they could eat dinner with us. So friends that were going to have a sleepover with me were treated to dinner at our house. I had the same courtesy offered back to me and I will never forget some of the dinners I had at friends’ homes. Let me preface this by saying that I did not know that other mom’s just could not cook. I was forewarned by one friend, Mary that her mom was the worst cook in the world. Since she and her mother had a somewhat tumultuous relationship I felt that she must be over exaggerating. I found out she was not.
It was during the mid to late 1960’s that I was invited for a sleepover at Mary’s house and asked to have dinner with her family. At my house we sat around a dinner table, but there was a hominess and down to earth approach to our night time meals. When my friend and I were called for dinner at her house it was like I was transported into another world. Although they had a kitchen table, their night time ritual was that they “dined” in the dining room, with lighted candles. My friend’s mom wore a dress and her father wore a suit and tie and the kids were required to wear proper dinner clothing. I had been politely asked if I liked shrimp as that is what was being served that night. Growing up with proper manners being taught from home I said yes; besides I really did like shrimp. As I took my place at the dinner table I recall thinking: does this lady think she is Donna Reed dining with Doctor Stone? Had they never gotten out of the 1950’s?
Needless to say when the dinner came out it was this pasty white rice with canned baby shrimp and some awful sauce poured over it. What a gastronomical failure to say the least. However I ate it and stupidly (because of my upbringing) praised my friend’s mother for the wonderful dinner and thanked her for inviting me. Would you like to know what came next? My friend’s mother then heaped another helping onto my plate! The plate of food was not inviting to look at; it didn’t smell well and quite honestly was at that time one of the worst things I ever ate.