Got Spice? Four Long-lost Friends Spend a Cooking Week in Provence
By Heidi Lloyd-Price
Published in the September, 2004 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
Photos by Elizabeth Powell, Heidi Lloyd-Price, Stefa Williams, Cynthia Russell and Sylvie Lallemand
Last fall, the e-mail said the three were booked for a week’s cooking course in Provence in March and would I join them? My three ex-roommates from Montreal McGill days, that is. Since graduating about thirty years ago, we had pursued different paths, leading to various careers, husbands, families and distant homes. Beth and Stefa were in Toronto, Cindy, in Vermont and me, Heidi, in Calgary. Now we were in our fifties (how did that happen so fast?), the children were grown and it was time to re-connect.
Well, how could I not go? My intuition said this was an opportunity not to be missed. The funds were there, fortunately, so I signed up for the week at Les Mégalithes, which is just to the east of Avignon, a region made famous by Peter Mayle in his colourful book ‘A Year in Provence’. Cooking is not my top priority, but I figured a few classes wouldn’t kill me and it would be fun to go to France to see my long-lost women friends. Beth is a doctor at a large Toronto hospital (three boys), Stefa, a retired chartered accountant (two girls and a boy), Cindy, a teacher and education grant administrator (a boy and girl plus three more children from a second marriage), and me, an erstwhile cell biologist, but now fulltime household manager after being widowed four years ago (two boys).
Just the thought of the upcoming trip brightened the short, dark days of winter. As departure time approached, there was a flurry of e-mails about TGV schedules and aprons. Efforts were made to upgrade my French by reading Pagnol and watching videos. At the last moment, there were fleeting thoughts of – Would we have changed? Would we argue about what to see and do? Would I burn the food?
Finally, there I was in the Avignon train station. Cindy was the first to arrive via Nice, and then, soon after, Beth and Stefa from Paris. We were overjoyed to be re-united! But, we couldn’t get too relaxed yet, because we still had a destination to make.
The immediate challenge was to find our rental car and fit our combined luggage into it. I am still amazed how we managed this – with even a few cubic centimetres to spare! This accomplished, we set forth into Avignon, smugly equipped with a computer printout of map quest directions for escaping the city.
Unfortunately, the initial road signs we encountered didn’t seem to correspond very closely to those instructions and we had to resort to rusty French and sun-sightings to get oriented. Soon we were driving along the desired route, breathing a sigh of relief and already drinking in the beauty of the early-springtime countryside. In mid-March, the green leaves were not yet out, but the cherry and almond trees were in blossom and delighted our North American winter-weary eyes.
Les Mégalithes was even more picturesque and charming than advertised. Sheltered midst old pine trees on an outcrop overlooking vineyards and olive groves, the well-maintained stone farmhouse with swimming pool (still canvas covered in off-season) was the essence of Provence. Sylvie Lallemand, our host and teacher, was waiting at the door to greet us. After we drew lots as to who got which bedroom, Sylvie did not waste time in putting us to work making bread for breakfast. Both Stefa and Cindy had brought aprons for each of us and one set of these was immediately commissioned.
During the week we cooked fish, lamb, beef, chicken and rabbit dishes and prepared accompanying vegetables as well as hors d’oeuvres and desserts. All the chopping and mincing required a certain level of wine consumption and we soon acquired a taste for the local Côtes du Luberon and Côtes du Ventoux vintages.
Thus lubricated, we learned not only about how to knead bread dough (not too much!) and to poach fluffy egg whites (not too much either!), but we also caught up on each of our life’s stories and shared advice about boyfriends, lovers, husbands, ex-wives, chick-flicks, what was really going on in the recent set-in-Provence movie ‘Swimming Pool’ and shoes. Mais oui, never underestimate the importance of a pair of elegant black shoes!
We soon discovered that Sylvie, who was happy to practice her English, could hold her own on the non-food topics as well. Each evening there was another layer of history revealed and we began to wonder how old Sylvie could be to account for the richness of her experiences.
Everyday the four of us went out on excursions to see neighboring points of interest. Where beauty and history permeate the very air you breathe, it was a challenge to select just a few of the many possible places to visit. Also, we discovered that, in addition to its wine production, this region of Provence is particularly noted for its superb olive oil and lavender. On our second evening we held a palaver to draw up a list of sights to see and in what order. Fortunately, we had no problem in reaching a mutual agreement on a tentative plan.
Traveling in the car was made easier by the fact that we had self-organized our respective roles from the start. Thus, Beth was our designated driver, since she had signed for the rental car and Heidi was the map-holder and navigator (any wrong turns were due to poor signage, of course!). Stefa and Cindy had traveled previously in Europe with Beth and thought it prudent to nab the back seat!
Cindy leaped out of the car whenever we needed to park and guided us into or out of the exceedingly narrow slots that pass for parking spots in Europe. Stefa’s job was to restrain herself from making acerbic comments about the performance of any of the foregoing endeavors and was thus probably the most difficult task of all.
We had one interesting near-incident where we almost left a small sample of fender paint on the stone wall comprising one of those impossibly tight corners that typify the heart of a French town. It was our first day and we had spent the morning and early afternoon in the market of L’Isle sur Sorgue.
One slightly wrong turn (another instance of poor signage, of course) had us driving into the now-vacated market instead of away from it and, to our growing concern, there was no way to turn around. The ever-narrowing maze of cobblestone streets delivered us ultimately to what appeared to be a prohibitively tight corner. And . . . now there was a truck behind us!
After some minutes of assessment and subsequent gesticulations on the part of our nimble parking authority Cindy and tentative maneuverings by Beth (whose thought bubble was easily read to include the possibility of many extra euros on the car rental invoice), the female passenger from the not-so-patient truck suddenly appeared next to us and exclaimed in very fast and exasperated French something which in general was not very complimentary about the road skills of Canadian drivers. This helped our corner reconnoitering tremendously, of course.
A few minutes later, with tremendous reserve and aplomb to her credit, Beth slithered the car around the corner with not even a single scratch as souvenir. After we regained the proper road and got over our indignation of the verbal assault, we wondered how we were so readily identified as Canadians and what were our compatriots doing on French roads to deserve such a reputation anyway??? Never mind, we were treated so kindly by other French people during our stay, that we can forgive one grumpy citizen with a bad-hair day.
Since we didn’t want to miss our afternoon cooking class, time constrained the amount of sightseeing we could do. Nevertheless, we managed to visit the Lacoste chateau (a sometime residence of the Marquis de Sade), the picturesque towns of Bonnieux and Roussillon, the restored stone huts of Les Bories, Saint Rémy with its famous plane tree tunnel, Les Baux and the massive Palais des Papes in Avignon.
We made two trips to the nearby medieval hilltop village of Gordes because we liked it so much. The second trip was by foot, following a hiking trail that started from the top of the hill behind Les Mégalithes.
What a treat it was to wander along this well-marked path that took us over the mountain and then down through the vineyards and olive groves below! The spring sun was actually quite hot and we were even down to T-shirts at times. Sylvie recommended her friend’s restaurant in Gordes and we were able to sit outside in its lovely café terrace garden for lunch.
We returned from our adventures in late afternoon (later and later on succeeding days, as it turned out) to begin the dinner preparations. Sylvie would be waiting for us with all the ingredients carefully laid out. She was very well organized having taught cooking at Les Mégalithes for over twenty years! At the end of our stay, Sylvie presented us with champagne and diplomas. We all had passed! Of the many dishes we prepared I think the Fresh Asparagus with Hard-Boiled Egg Dressing was outstanding. And our last dinner, an Aioli with codfish, really surprised me, as I didn’t think a cold dish (fish with assorted pre-cooked veggies) with garlic mayonnaise could ever be so delicious.
All our recipes can be seen in Sylvie’s book called ‘The Tastes and Colours of Provence’ (1997 Vaughan Printing ISBN 0-9661828-0-4). This gem also includes a description of some of the places we visited in the area and is illustrated with Madame Lallemand’s own watercolours, the originals of which we saw hanging in her house. Sylvie was happy to autograph the multiple copies of the book that we ordered. Since 9/11, she said, her business, along with many other tourist-dependent enterprises in the region, has suffered, as North Americans have become more reticent to travel.
Had we women friends changed from our university days? Not really. I think our temperaments and idiosyncrasies are still pretty much the same, perhaps even a little amplified over time. (Only in a charming sort of way, of course.) We got along just fine, just as we had so many years ago. Although most of our tears were from laughter, some of our stories were poignant, such as the recent stroke suffered by Beth’s husband. He had bravely encouraged her to go on this trip anyway, and it gave her much needed rest and support. We were all reminded that life and health must never be taken for granted.
There are many cooking schools in Europe and I’m not sure how we chanced upon Les Mégalithes, but it was an unqualified success. Madame Lallemand, as our knowledgeable teacher, gracious host, raconteur and ageless model of French femininity, was an inspiration. We also appreciated how economic Sylvie’s wine cellar was.
Going in March definitely had its advantages. The fruit trees were in blossom but the tourist crowds were not. The shopping urge was amply satisfied in the village markets where colourful Provençal textiles were partout. Among our collective purchases were tablecloths, earthenware pottery, a tapestry jacket, silk scarf and a dozen or so bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We also stocked up on ceramic garlic-grating dishes, attractively glazed in sunflower colours. Much to our dismay, Sylvie didn’t approve of them (you lose a lot of garlic on the rough grating center), but never mind, they make great olive servers! Being a notorious bug-lover, I also couldn’t resist a couple of those ceramic ‘cigales’ which are quintessential Provence.
Which reminds me, I’ll have to return to Provence in the summer to hear the cicadas sing. In the meantime, the photos, journal, a well-used white apron embroidered in yellow thread with ‘Les Megalithes 2004′ and the occasional cooking session will serve to refresh fond memories of our week in Provence.
The course can be booked through Teachers’ Travel. The off-season cost of one week’s stay was $CAN 1358.00 and this included accommodation, breakfast and dinner.
The web site for Teachers’ Travel is www.teacherstravel.com/taste/
Photo on right taken by: Sylvie Lallemand
From left to right: Elizabeth Powell, Heidi Lloyd-Price, Stefa Williams, and Cynthia Russell..
For More Info:
Maison de la France
1800, av McGill College, Bureau 1010
Montréal, QC H3A 3J6
Tel.: (514) 288-2026
Embassy of France
42 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, ON K1M 2C9
2000, rue Mansfield, Bureau 1510
Montréal, QC H3A 3A3
Tel.: (514) 847-1106 Toll-Free: 1-800-667-2747
E-mail: See Website
Teachers’ Travel Service Ltd
21 St Clair Ave East, Suite 1003
Toronto, ON M4T 1L9
Tel.: (416) 922-2232 Toll-Free: 1-800-268-7229