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  • Writer's pictureMme Vanessa Williamson

Exploring French cooking in a time of confinement

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

A journey through my culinary life

When I saw how long it was, since I last sat down to write my blog, the dates corresponded to when a dear friend who lives in Beijing called me to say, CoronaVirus19 is coming and share her experiences. I glad she did, making our early preparation and business management decisions somewhat easier to face, and we felt ready for the announcement by President Macron on March 15th 2020. Watching our entire Spring seasons bookings disappear took some bravery. I knew a plan for a new project was necessary to distract me, my lifelong solution for dealing with unexpected circumstances, keeping me refocused and practical. I had not planned to write/compile a cookbook on French cooking. After joining a webinar brainstorming session for B&B owners facing this crisis, I heard B&Bs should have a cookbook, a great reminder for guests of the regional cuisine enjoyed so much. My initial reaction was I'm not a cook!!!! After thinking about this, I realized perhaps we all are, in our own way, cooks and commentators on food! Its 45+ years since at age 13 I attended my first ‘Cooking with Gas’ classes in the school holidays, and that same year at High School Home Economics was an actual part of my education. I grew up helping my mother in the kitchen cooking Meringues, Hard Sauce, Green Goddess Dressing, Christmas Pudding and Potato Bake all from our only cookbook, the now-famous classic Joy of Cooking by Erma Rombaugh. I confess to a romance with Italian Food when living in the inner west of Sydney in the 1990s. I was totally delighted to received Maggie Beers & Stephanie Alexanders new Tuscan Cookbook for Mother’s Day. Looking back I see I have been on my own culinary journey that has led me to France. My Australian background has given insight into the differences of the regional French cuisine of where we now live in Mayenne. A quiet place and not celebrated really for specialities of cuisine, more a fusion of Normandy, Brittany, and Loire Valley food and cooking. Chatting about French food, holiday menus, and cooking lessons with my French neighbours is a happy time. I have been having video calls with Soizick who can answer all measure of odd questions I have as I explore recipes for my book.

I have spent these first weeks of our confinement reading and researching online, writing the core outline and formatting the book, and now I am well on my way to plotting out the full draft template. I have been writing lists of the French food we now eat, the core recipes that are typically Mayenne French. These are regional foods eaten farm-fresh in season, we now in summertime find ourselves in the kitchen cooking confiture, preserving summer fruits and sunshine for the long grey winter to come. At present Matt and I are watching our cherry trees every day to see how they are faring and have constant discussions about the size of the crop compared to last year.

I have been enjoying rereading Elizabeth David French Provincial Cooking, it captures a time in many ways now past of French food locally prepared and eaten, a snapshot of pre-war France. I am delighted to discover the classic dishes David records are still here, eaten and enjoyed. I have been watching Julia Childs The French Chef 1960s B/W tv shows on YouTube. I realized the cooking matches the French 1938 La Cuisine froide simple et pratique, one of a series of similarly-titled cookbooks I found in boxes upstairs in our house. It was a fascinating realization that Child and the French cookbook series both resulted from the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. For further comparison and cultural points of difference, I dug out Home Management 1934, published in Great Britain by the Daily Express, A self-described comprehensive household management book! My copy once a gift to Mrs Blackshaw on 1/12/1940. The extensive cookery section comments on the differences between British and American and Continental styles of baking, cooking styles and recipes.

My research back through my own history has been thought-provoking and after messages to my family to consult on my dads wonderful warm chocolate sauce recipe, made for decades, I discovered it’s not written down. Dad’s memory is now past, and he can’t recall. A telling reminder to record family recipes for posterity, as a fond part of our family memory. I will find one similar and dedicate it to him in my book, after all, chocolate sauce is typically French. I am enjoying having time to sit with my cookbooks, revisiting them as old friends, it has helped me form an even clearer understanding of the quintessential essence of French food and recipes. I can see now how easy it would be to have 100+ recipes, and a book way too long. Yet I feel remiss, capping it at about 60 when alone the variety of tarts and soups and hot entrées could be expanded. So back to the book and listing the ingredients into the recipes as part of the formatting of each page.

Thank you for reading

Vanessa Williamson April 2020

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"To understand the present, I like to look back on where we have come from, to arrive at what is fresh new, and special about today." Vanessa Williamson, 7 April 2020

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