Experiencing world-class cuisine used to mean having to leave home, but these days, we can enjoy the world’s best, whether it be French, Thai, Chinese, Middle Eastern, or whatever, in our local restaurants.
And with European-style farmers’ markets and artisan-type products available almost everywhere, not just in Europe, we can even bring home high quality ingredients to cook up and serve in our own kitchens.
But when I tell my friends that my family is going to Europe for an entire year of gastronomic pursuits, their eyes tend to narrow with envy. Apparently, culinary tourism – traveling for the purpose of eating – is still worth the effort, despite the inconveniences of making the journey. No wonder, really. Is there any doubt the most compelling way to experience another culture is to ingest it? Regular tourists remember great cathedrals or landscapes, culinary tourists remember great food.
Not that our trip will be one gourmet meal after another. We’ll be working hard, volunteering on organic farms in Ireland and France, harvesting and weeding and perhaps even butchering some of the food that we eat. Our accommodations on these farms will range from rustic to simple. We’re not going to be culinary tourists so much as culinary laborers. Even so, I can hardly wait for our year to begin in early September.
The organization that makes such volunteer work possible is known as WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms ( www.wwoof.org). We joined the network last winter after making the decision to take a break from our “normal” lives by spending a year abroad in pursuit of culinary and agricultural know-how. WWOOFing is not meant to be a cheap vacation, of course, but a way to gain hands-on experience with organic and sustainable farming practices. While we’ve chosen two countries famous for their cuisine – France has been the culinary tourist’s destination for more than a century, and Ireland’s cuisine has recently made its mark on the gastronomic map – one could “WWOOF” in Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands … the possibilities are wide open. In France and Italy, the idea of vacationing on a farm, as opposed to volunteering, is not unusual. In Italy, look for “agriturismo” destinations (www.agriturismo.com), and in France, check out the network of “gites” (www.gite.com).
It was difficult to narrow down the choices to just a few from the over more than farms in France that host WWOOF volunteers, but we decided to look for a very specific size and type of farm. I’m most excited about learning to make cheese, especially goat cheese, which one of our hosts, the Colin family in Retournac, France, makes and sells at the local outdoor markets. We’ll also learn to make farmhouse cheese by renowned cheesemaker Giana Ferguson at Gubbeen Farm, near Schull, Ireland.
Most people don’t have an entire year to devote to strictly culinary pursuits, but for those who would rather spend their vacation cooking and eating instead of, say, visiting yet another museum, there are plenty of culinary vacations – ranging in length from a single day up to several weeks – from which to choose. So many, in fact, that would-be culinary tourists can afford to be choosy.
In Ireland and France, check out these possibilities.
Belle Isle School of Cookery
Cookery courses at the Belle Isle School of Cookery near Enniskillen, in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, vary in duration from weeklong courses to weekends and one day courses to evening classes. Designed for any level of cooking ability, from beginner to experienced cooks, each course involves a “hands-on” approach as well as practical tips and demonstration. Wine and good food go hand in hand, so wine is featured as part of the learning and appreciation process. The setting is a picturesque country estate.
Ballymaloe Cookery School
Overseen by Darina Allen, one of Ireland’s most famous cooks, the Ballymaloe Cookery School, Ireland’s longest running cookery school, is in County Cork, Ireland. People who come to the school range from those who wish to become confident cooks at home, to those who intend to pursue a professional career.
There are many short courses (one-, two-and-a-half-, and five-day programs), some of which are aimed at the complete novice, while others appeal to the more experienced and adventurous cook. The school is set in the middle of 10 acres of organic market gardens, orchards and greenhouses which are, in turn, surrounded by a hundred acres of organic farm.
To whet your appetite, here’s a recipe Allen suggests for enjoying the season’s cherry harvest. Or, freeze some cherries and use this recipe later this winter, when citrus is in season:
English Cherry Sauce
From “Good Things” by Jane Grigson. This sauce is good served hot with ham, duck or venison.
1 generous tablespoon red currant jelly
1/4 pint each port and red wine
2 tablespoons of boiling stock, or juices from a roast, as appropriate
4 ounces stoned black cherries
Cut the zest thinly from one orange and the lemon. Slice it into matchstick-long shreds, simmer them in water until they are soft. Drain and reserve.
Bring the juice of all the oranges and the lemon to the boil with the jelly, wines and stock or roasting juices. Whisk to dissolve the jelly. Boil down to half quantity.
If slices of meat need to be reheated, put them into the serving dish and keep them warm (remove the slices with a pierced skimmer, so that the sauce falls back into the pan).
Add plenty of black pepper to the sauce, put in the cherries and simmer until they are cooked (frozen cherries will not take as long as fresh ones.) Add any juices that emerged when you stoned the cherries. Put in the shreds of peel to heat through.
Pour some of the sauce over sliced meat, or round roast meat, and serve the rest in a sauceboat.
Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate due to recipe variables.
‘On Rue Tatin’
Susan Hermann Loomis, of Louviers, France, has done what many of us have dreamed about: studied cooking in Paris, bought a beautiful old house in a Norman town and fixed it up, and made a career for herself as a writer and a cooking teacher. Besides reading her book “On Rue Tatin,” we can enter her enchanted world for a time by taking one of her week-long courses in her Louviers home, or occasionally, in Paris, in the kitchen of another famous cookbook author and fellow expatriate, Patricia Wells. Wells, too, offers cooking classes at her homes in Paris and Provence: www.patriciawells.com.
Anne Willan founded La Varenne, the famous French cooking school, in 1975 and directs its culinary programs at the beautiful Château du Feÿ in Burgundy, France. She is well known on both sides of the Atlantic as a leading authority on cooking, with more than 35 years’ experience as a teacher, cookbook author and food columnist. For this fall, La Varenne is offering a new five-day The Country Cooking of France program and three-day Taste of Burgundy programs.
Gratin of Summer Vegetables in Mint Pesto
From Anne Willan. “At home we make this recipe all summer long with vegetables from the market. Then, in early September, the magic moment arrives when every ingredient comes from our own garden. The name pesto comes from the Italian “pestare,” to pound, as with a mortar and pestle. Basil is the traditional choice of aromatic herb but others, such as flat leaf parsley or cilantro, are just as good. Mint is my particular favorite an underestimated herb, I think.”
2 medium zucchini (about 3/4 pound)
2 medium yellow or scallop squash (about 3/4 pound)
1 pound tomatoes
2 onions, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper
For the Pesto:
Medium bunch (about 1 1/2 ounces) mint or other herb
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons pine nuts
3/4 cup olive oil plus more for oiling the baking dish
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Wipe the zucchini and squash with damp paper towels and cut them in uneven 3/4-inch chunks. (There’s no need to dice them neatly). Toss them into a large bowl. Core the tomatoes, cut them in chunks, and add them to the zucchini and squash with the onions, salt, and pepper. Brush a 1 1/2 quart gratin or baking dish with olive oil.
To make the pesto: Tear the mint leaves from the stems, discarding the stems, and, if you like, reserve some sprigs for decoration. Purée the mint leaves, garlic, cheese and pine nuts in a food processor with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Gradually add the remaining oil with the blades turning so that the sauce emulsifies. It should be a rather loose consistency, thinner than mayonnaise but thicker than salad dressing. Season it to taste with salt and pepper.
Add the pesto to the vegetables and toss so they are well coated with sauce. Spread them in the baking dish and bake until they are very tender and brown, 40 to 50 minutes. Decorate the vegetables with herb sprigs, and serve the gratin hot or at room temperature.
Shortcut: Use one of the good ready-made pesto sauces on the market.
Getting ahead: Gratin of Summer Vegetables says Mediterranean to me, a dish that can be baked ahead and keeps happily for a day at room temperature, longer in the refrigerator. Just before serving, you might want to pick up its flavors by sprinkling the gratin with a little more olive oil and some lemon juice or vinegar – in effect a vinaigrette dressing.
On the side: A gratin of summer vegetables is the perfect accompaniment to grilled fish.
In the glass: A chilled rosé wine from anywhere you fancy.
Yield: 5 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 465 calories, 41 grams fat (7 grams saturated, 78 percent fat calories), 8 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrate, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 6 grams dietary fiber, 348 milligrams sodium.