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I have always loved serendipity and the tales of unexpected happy endings it brings to mind. I find it especially rewarding when it occurs while traveling. My week in Provence was twice blessed with adventures that came about because events did not go according to plan.
The first started with the cancellation of a cooking lesson in the kitchen of a renowned hotel which our small group of six had considered a highlight. Our trip coincided with a three-day French national holiday and our chef had dropped his whisk and his toque and took off. Holidays and vacations are untouchable entitlements in France. Pity the politician who would tamper with either.
All was not lost. Our guide, Henriette, happened to have a friend who was restoring a château not far from Avignon. This friend happened to be planning the opening of a bed and breakfast and a cooking school at the château. On Tuesday, Henriette persuaded her friend to open the school a little sooner than planned and, ready or not, that Thursday morning our van drove through the massive iron gates of Château Talaud.
The size of a small hotel, the château sits on grounds with an aura of history. In true French fashion, they had been nurtured back to grandeur through painstaking restoration. Beyond the wall where the gardens ended, a small vineyard began. Our hosts, Conny and Hein Dieters-Kommer, were at the door to welcome us to their home. One would have thought they’d been expecting us for weeks. They are a stunning couple, Hein handsome and confident in a classic Teutonic way; Conny lovely in every way, with an open, scrubbed face and thick blond hair, the kind that’s beautiful no matter how styled. She’s tall and slim, to boot. Though she was wearing chef’s whites, she looked like she belonged anywhere but in a kitchen. Aren’t people who work in food supposed to be round? The women in our group were prepared to hate her.
“Welcome to Château Talaud,” Hein said.
“Thank you for coming; we are so happy to have you,” said Conny, extending a hand to each of us and warmly inviting us in. She won us over instantly; Frank, our driver, was openly besotted.
The rest of us were awed to be invited to a château that was a private home. Some of us had toured châteaux in the Loire Valley – former homes of landed gentry long gone, their homes now viewable for an admission fee. But a couple actually lived here now and had transformed a rundown relic into the enchanting dwelling before us.
Beyond the iron gates, at the other end of a beautifully landscaped path, was a pristine cream-colored house. Above the front door was a graciously curved iron balcony with pots of topiary plants, rounded to perfection, in each corner. At ground level, there were yellow flowers everywhere, dripping from bushes and spilling out of pots. An impeccably groomed yellow lab, unquestionably the true ruler of this domain, stood at attention in the open doorway. Would he let us in?
Hein left us to return to his vineyard and, though the house was not ready for the public, Conny graciously gave us a tour of the first floor. It was furnished in an elegant mix of fine antiques and country comfort. The cottages that would house her guests were only partially decorated but already gave promise of the charm and intimacy that bed-and-breakfasters seek. Conny’s dream was well underway.
The tour ended in the kitchen, where we would have our lesson. It was large and lovely and newly equipped with every appliance a cook would need. The walls glistened with newly applied white paint. Bowls of ripe fruits and colorful vegetables were on the counters. Our menu’s ingredients had been prepped and laid out for us. A clay pig in full chef’s regalia presided at the table, ready to oversee our efforts in a more affable fashion than the hotel chef who had abandoned us.
We began our lesson with a simple appetizer that I have since served dozens of times – because it’s delicious, and because it requires very little preparation. Just wrap paper-thin slices of prosciutto around crisp cheese sticks and arrange them on a plate in a starburst pattern. Voilà! Instant, elegant hors-d’oeuvres.
Conny led us through several additional courses, some she had prepared ahead because they needed more time than we had; others were hands-on, with all of us around the table chopping, stirring, and stuffing. At no other point during the trip had we enjoyed each other so much. We all like to be pampered at fine restaurants when we travel, but nothing will bond a group more than preparing a meal together.
We left the kitchen with pots simmering on the stove and casseroles baking in the oven and moved into the dining room, where a table was set with crystal and china. Hein joined us for lunch, proudly pouring wine from his vineyard. We started with a cold soup made from scooped-out Galia melons and served in their fluted shells. “You can make this with other melons,” Conny assured us when we doubted the availability of Galias in American markets. The main course was veal rolls stuffed with ham and sundried tomatoes, which we had all stuffed and rolled.
After dessert, a strawberry-mascarpone mousse, we sat in the flower-filled courtyard, enjoying more of Hein’s wine. Conny and Hein had some questions about us, too, especially our cuisine.
“Why do Americans discard animal parts that are commonly used in European cuisine”? Hein asked. “The head, for instance.”
“It’s the eyes,” I said. “Americans don’t like eyes on the table.”
We lingered, relishing what had been an unexpected taste of Provence, not wanting it to end. We toasted the chef who had abandoned us and made it all possible. We toasted Conny and Hein for their warm welcome. The final toast was for ourselves.
“Au revoir, we’ll be back,” we vowed as we left Château Talaud.
On that same trip, a second dilemma resulted in another unexpected adventure, this one just for me. We were on a walking tour described in the catalog as “easy to moderate.” And so far, it had been. On this day a trek over the Dentelles hills was our agenda.
“That sounds challenging to me,” I said.
“No, no,” said Henriette. “You can do it.” She didn’t know that my knees buckle at the mere sight of a mountain peak. When we pulled into the parking area and I looked around, all I saw were mountain peaks. I’m not happy with heights and when Henriette promised magnificent vistas on the walk – always a warning that I might find myself up higher than my comfort level – I decided to stay earthbound with Frank. It turned out to be one of my best travel decisions.
The rest of the group trooped off into the hills and Frank and I set out to gather food for a picnic when the hikers returned. It was market day in St. Rémy, and what a market it is. Tubs of olives in infinite variety stretch the length of the marketplace. Baskets of spices in muted earth tones entice you with their exotic aromas. We chose charcuterie from bins of lusty sausages in their floury skins, and pâtés in mosaic designs which we spread on a still-warm baguette and ate as we shopped.
Frank, an American married to a French woman, had lived in Marseilles for ten years. He knew his way around a market. He chose some of his favorite olives, explaining the merits of each. “I keep coming back to the picholines,” he said, scooping a few for me to taste. We bought jambon, that distinctive dry-textured French ham, from a vendor Frank knew by name, then he led me to the stall that he said had the best chêvre. I didn’t know what that was and didn’t think I’d like it, so I declined the hunk of country bread covered with a pungent spread that Frank offered me. “You have to try it,” he insisted. This was my introduction to goat cheese – eaten under the Provençal sun with Frank and the cheese man awaiting my reaction. How could I not love it? Would goat cheese ever taste this good again?
I got to choose, too. I picked brilliantly hued tomatoes and pounds of firm, dark cherries. We loaded everything into the van, then drove to one of the small wineries in town, called domaines. Frank was known and welcome here, too, and that welcome extended to me. He showed me what to look for on a wine bottle label. Along one wall were barrels with spigots. “Farmers bring their own containers and fill them from the barrel of their choice,” he said. These wines are less expensive and available only in the domaine that produces them, I learned.
By this time the hikers should have been on their way back. We found a shady area in the park at the foot of the hills and set up the picnic. Then we sat on rocks by the side of a stream, snacking on cherries and wine as we awaited their return. Frank told me about his life as an ex-pat. One of the most difficult things he had to adjust to was the French work ethic. “In France,” he said, “family and social life come first. Offices clear out at the end of the day. Working overtime or on a holiday are emergency measures only.” Used to the frenetic American work style where the norm is late nights, limited vacations, and arranging your life around the job, he was totally out of sync in this new environment in the beginning. “Now I like it as much as the French,” he said.
The hikers were late getting back, but I didn’t mind. Because I couldn’t climb a mountain, I had lived, and loved, the life of a Provençal.