French Cooking and Farmhouse Living at Le Gargantua with Marlene Deparis

9 Things I Appreciate About Le Gargantua’s cooking course:

  1. Hands-on learning, with sufficient explanations
  2. Taught by a French-born authentic cook but conducted in English
  3. Cooking Course Fee  includes Stay-in at French Farmhouse in the Southwest France   countryside (no need to worry about additional accommodations, meals, and trip to Casteljaloux/ no hidden costs)
  4. Family atmosphere with a taste of French country living
  5. Cooking course custom-designed to students’ level and wishes
  6. Course covers both cooking with some dessert
  7. Covers traditional French dishes and techniques, kitchen tricks
  8. Field trips within the course to the market, village patisserie, the Foie Gras Farm
  9. Choice of nearby activities for independent exploring

Quoting Marlene from her website:

Cooking… is for everyone, every day, and should never be reserved to an elite. I will demystify French cooking for you, by guiding you into producing French patisseries or traditional French cuisine, from rustic every day meals to dinner-party food!  You will cook from scratch, to learn not only recipes but mainly techniques that will stay with you for the rest of your life, so you can improvise a French meal or French pastries back home for family and friends… I have a multitude of tips and tricks to share with you that will make your life easier in the kitchen. 

There are many cooking courses in Europe to browse through. I’ve never heard of Lot-et-Garonne/ Aquitaine before and wouldn’t have planned a trip around this area but when I read the story of Marlene [French pronunciation] Deparis from Le Gargantua, I got inspired. She learned how to cook from her Grandma and teaches a residential cooking course in a French farmhouse in the countryside of Southwest France.  That reminded me of how I learned how to cook from my Rotary Mom, Shirley, in the countryside in New Jersey.

I felt I would get my dose of French in an approachable, friendly way without needing to be an expert at French…   I would be right!

ARRIVAL DAY

Straight from the contemporary sophistication of La Grande Maison from my 24 hour stay in Bordeaux, I headed for the rustic simplicity of Lot-et-Garonne via the wiiiiide opeeeen no-traffic situation of the Autoroute (highway).  I didn’t realize this sudden freedom of movement can be dauntingly disorienting coming from my long-term immersion in phenomenal Manila traffic.  I said a constant prayer that I would reach my destination before sunset, praise God I did!

The drive is straightforward following the GPS.  The area is a spacious agricultural region and it is not uncommon to see hazelnut or apple trees, corn or sunflower fields, rolls of hay in farmlands as far and wide as the horizon.

The GPS was able to locate Le Gargantua…

img_7699-1…but I missed it on Round 1 because the farmhouse is not easily visible from the road.  Until Marlene puts a bigger sign, watch out for the Le Gargantua signpost with the pots! 🙂

FARMHOUSE LIVING AND COOKING.

…And just past the little gravel road stood my home for the next three days:  Le Gargantua’s Farmhouse Cooking School:

Seeing Marlene for the first time was like meeting an old friend.  She and Tom welcomed me with a delicious home cooked dinner. Marlene told me that I was the only student signed up for this particular course so she gave me latitude to choose what food and desserts to cook. The occasional dog barks and bird songs highlighted the artistic sunset painting across the evening sky.

img_8399Over the next few days, Marlene and I prepped, cooked, and baked in her beautiful well-equipped kitchen in the mornings.

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We picked herbs from the potted garden to cook and garnish with.  This is literally garden-to-table.

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DUCK AND FOIE GRAS FARM.  On Day 1, Marlene took me to visit Ferme de Ramon Foie Gras/ Duck Farm in Aiguillon.  We got a fresh duck.

According to Marlene:

A lot of the cruelty to animals like chickens and pigs (or ducks in improperly maintained farms) take place when they are cramped and unable to move while they are grown as well as during transport from the farm to the abattoir, stacked in tight boxes. “For animals that are destined to feed us,” these ducks in their lifetime are treated humanely, allowed to roam around in the sunshine under the walnut trees. For the feeding room cages, they are able to move around even though they prefer to huddle together… with ventilation, clean running water all day long, an air curtain to keep humidity in. The ducks here are the bigger variety such that they are able to carry on without being weighed down by a large liver. This farm is able to monitor the quality of what the ducks eat and the conditions in which they are raised/ processed as every stage is done in the same location. They have a shop where they sell the whole liver, liver pieces, rillettes, pate, dressed duck pieces or dressed fresh whole duck which would have been slaughtered (through instant electrocution so the duck does not suffer) the morning you get them. The foie gras is only the byproduct of the whole duck as except for the beak, all the other parts are also utilized, even the feathers for pillows. Duck is one of the favorite meats consumed in France.  Ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference, but Marlene encourages people to be connected to the source of their food to make informed decisions on what to eat and what not to eat. 

Marlene demonstrated how to cut up the duck:

We used the ducks in several recipes:

MARKET, CASTELJALOUX VILLAGE. On Day 2, Marlene and Tom took me to the village. The local food growers offer their produce without being pressured to bring huge quantities; therefore, nature is really able to give the season’s best in organic ways. No GMO’s, induced ripeness, or artificially precipitated propagation here.img_0417

Marlene let me choose a dessert at the pretty patisserie and we took some tea and coffee al fresco at Le Grand Cafe.img_8232

We walked around the village…

THERE’S SUCH A THING AS A FREE LUNCH.  Tom served lunch…what better way than to take in the cool breeze and sunshine al fresco.

INDEPENDENT EXCURSIONS.  In the afternoons, I was free to do excursions of my choice.

PRUNE FARM AND MUSEUM.  Musee et Ferme du Pruneau  (Prune Museum and Farm) in Agen is prefaced by seemingly endless rows of prune trees on the road leading to it.  The displays as well as actual processing area of the prunes are quite elaborate.  There is a wide variety of prune products available including wine-soaked prunes, chocolate covered, juice.

HAZELNUT FARMLa Maison de la Noisette (The House of the Hazelnut) in Lacepede  closes quite early so if you love hazelnuts, it’s best to schedule this early.

THE MOVIE “CHOCOLAT”‘S INSPIRATION.  Chocolaterie Artisanale La Cigale in Nerac inspired writer Joanne Harris’s novel, Chocolat, which became a movie with a cult following that starred Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Joanne Harris’s French grandmother used to take her here as a young girl. In the novel, the chocolaterie in the fictional village, Lansquenet-sous-Tannes had artisanale chocolates like the ones served here. The name of the main character in the novel, Vianne, is the name of a town ten minutes away. I loved the chocolate covered crisped rice. The lady helping me said that the base of the chocolates they use is Valrhona.

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Back at the farmhouse, at dinner time, we picked up where we left off in the morning to finish off our cooking.

Marlene had taken the time to talk about ingredients, explain the processes; she is patient to make me try the cooking steps myself as she answered my questions. She talked about Lot et Garonne, the region, the country, her family… At the end of the course, she was not only my mentor but also my new friend.

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It was a very engaging, educational, entertaining, enjoyable time not just having a taste of French cooking but a taste of French life as well.

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The birds above Casteljaloux’s church reminded me of God’s command not to worry about His provision because He will take care of our needs, not just food, shelter, and clothing, but courage to go to a foreign place where I am not proficient in the language, the many traveling segments, health and strength to be able to go from place to place, not getting lost, new friends, learning… Everyday, there is something to be grateful about!

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