A Week in Provence: French Cooking with Chef Rene Berard

British author, Peter Mayle, wrote a memoir about him and his wife, Jennie, moving from Devon, UK to Provence. The new life in the new scenery came with surprising new problems as well… unexpected harsh weather, frozen pipes in their newly purchased 200-year old farmhouse, less than scrupulous truffle dealers and construction workers, and transitioning from passing vacationers to permanent residents.  But there was something  charming about the novelty of something new and foreign in the faraway, idyllic French countryside that was enchanting; it inspired my prayer to be able to visit that place someday.

That day of answered prayer came in 2009 when I had the opportunity to upgrade my cooking skills through a residential cooking course by Michelin Star-rated, Chef Rene Berard, on a hilltop village in Provence called La Cadière d’Azur.

My friend, Maricor, once told me that God allows trials in our lives (that He will equip us to triumph over) but He will also give us sweet graces tucked away which unfold in unexpected times… so when the blessing comes, savor it.  How I did!…

Here is my own memoir of A Week In Provence:

La Cadière d’Azur is a little, medieval village perched atop a hilltop ridge with a beautiful view of the Castellet village across, olive trees and pine tree forests around, and a view of the renowned Bandol (AOC) vineyard and Mediterranean Sea beyond.IMG_3148

It is a beautiful hidden place to explore that has a more local, quiet, authentic rather than a frenzied, touristy appeal.

The accommodations for the cooking course are at the boutique hotel, Hostellerie Bérard, a cluster of charming Provencal houses consisting of an 11th Century ancient monastery, artist’s pavilion, and ramparts.

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Madame Berard (Chef Rene’s wife) was on hand at the lobby when I arrived.  She was very kind and gracious and did a fine job of tastefully decorating the comfortable rooms.  The view from the window was pretty with the pool, the rhythm of blues from shutters, tiles, and pool water, and the enveloping expansive Bandol hills around.

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The lovely vintage Provencal interior decor is complemented perfectly by the modern, immaculately clean bathroom.

Just outside the hostellerie main entrance is a tree-lined cozy street complete with restaurant choices and retail shops selling on-trend stylish home decor, clothing, other modern things which I was delightfully surprised to find in a seemingly ancient street.

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Back at the Hostellerie Berard itself is a fine dining restaurant where we had our delicious, festive welcome dinner. 

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Miriam (extreme left above) is our English interpreter).  There were four of us students at the course.  Jackie (center above) and husband and wife team, Keri and Will (top right).

The cooking classes were held a short drive away at the Bastide des Saveurs, a 19th century Provencal country house owned by the Berard Family.  The beautiful gardens are divided into two purposes: one side is an ornamental extended living area for lounging and walking in:

pre lunch wanting siesta

The other is a wonderland of fruits, vegetables, and herbs whose harvest is used for cooking and eating. For basil alone, there were three varieties.  We harvested what we needed to cook for the day.  This was my first encounter with garden-to-table cooking; I loved the use of that-fresh ingredients.

The 19th century Provencal Country House has the Provencal-yellow color theme in the tiles and upholstery.  The antique furnishings are very handsome:

I loved the exquisite 19th century kitchen with its fascinating vintage details that was well-equipped with modern Robot-coupe and I believe that is a La Cornue stove!

IMG_2261IMG_2260IMG_2417We went to the fishing village seacoast port commune, Sanary Sur Mer, to get our ingredients for the day’s menu:

Rene talked to his regular vendors and I had a blast meeting all the varieties of glorious fruits and vegetables, spices, fresh pasta, cheeses.

Then it was time to cook.  Our classes were full of practical hands-on tips applicable for home entertaining or business. It was like visiting with friends.  Rene’s life story is very inspiring for a food enthusiast like me and he is so humble, kind, affable and generous in answering questions and throws in jokes for good measure.  Miriam (our interpreter) did a terrific job at translating everything including the jokes so we didn’t miss anything.

IMG_3644Rene’s cooking assistants did such an efficient job with prepping, helping, and on Day 2, they also harvested from the garden the herbs needed for the day.

IMG_2875Work, work, work, work, work, work.

Cut, wipe, mix, pour, sift, whisk, heat, cook, toss, arrange…

The fish from catch to finish:

Eat, drink, enjoy…

Afternoons were spent for field trips. This one was to the honeybee farm, Meillerie de l’Oratoire.

This one was to the winery.  Here we discovered that rose bushes were planted by the grape vines as their growth reflects the soil’s health. If the roses start to show any signs of distress, remedies can be made quickly before the grape vines get affected.  This having taken place before I was able to get a wine education from Oddur Thorisson  at the Manger Workshop, I didn’t have any sip of wine at this field trip.

Jackie drove us through the coastal town of Cassis.

Soon, the course was over and we got our diplomas; it was time to say goodbye to Chef Rene and classmates, Jackie, Will, and Keri…

IMG_3758After the course, there were a few days to explore the surrounding areas of Provence.

Aix en Provence is a happy place with live music, lots of food, al fresco dining, lively market, shopping.

Calissons are a sweet tart-like delicacy typical of Provence.  This was a visit to a Calissons Factory. Their small operation supplying the region was very inspiring for someone who has a small kitchen operation herself.

The port city of Marseilles with a stop at Miramar Restaurant for supposedly the original best Bouillabaisse:

The beloved and I had already seen Robert De Niro’s movie, Ronin, set in the UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed, Romanesque city of Arles so it was a treat to walk through the streets. Vincent van Gogh lived here for a year and produced over 300 paintings and drawings during his stay… including the The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum.

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue’s pretty water wheels along the Sorgue river is known for its antique markets.

Avignon is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This visit had a spot-on timing coinciding with the energetic annual Festival d’Avignon.  From across the water is a stunning view of the Palais des Papes (Palace), the cathedral, and the Pont d’Avignon (Bridge).

We drove through several picturesque towns and I walked through my dream visit to Provence.

IMG_1935I praise God that I can credit this to my continuing education for my work to learn more about food and cooking, visit food producers and see how they do things; experience the lifestyle of using in-season (which maximizes food’s  best flavor and quality) nearby locally produced, fresh ingredients; appreciating tradition and history;  mixing vintage pieces with modern equipment and facilities, making friends with people from other countries, and experiencing His gracious hand daily.  Life is never perfect but it is the imperfections that sweeten the surprises that the perfect God dishes out. Thank You, Lord!

Psalm 40:5 (NIV)
Many, Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
they would be too many to declare.

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