It is day four of cooking class at La Bastide des Saveurs, and many of the 14 students are looking for chairs to catch a few minutes of rest before the whisking begins. But it is also dessert day, so a delicious reward at the end is guaranteed.
Such are the joys, and challenges, of a gourmet cooking class at the estate of the Hostellerie Berard in La Cadiere d'Azur, France.
There is work to be done, and instructions to follow, during a day that can stretch to seven hours. The key also is to have fun. Who wants to work on vacation?
The setting is movie-set-perfect: The rustic kitchen of a 19th-century country house in the Provencal countryside. Pass by the herb and vegetable garden on the way to the kitchen with chef Rene Berard.
A cutting board and knife await each student around the wooden block table. Bowls of cubed butter, sugar, yellow apples and pine nuts give clues to the day's tasks. Berard walks in, and it's time to grab your knife, or your pen to take notes, and get cooking.
This class has its share of English speakers - from Australia, Canada, South Carolina and Chicago - so the translator takes her spot across from Berard. The veal stock is already boiling on the stove, and the smell is heavenly. Every so often during the day, an assistant stops by to pour in another bottle of red wine or drop in herbs, vegetables - even hooves.
The cooking lineup includes two kinds of tarts, lemon and apple, along with chocolate fondant (think: the original molten chocolate cake), a wafer and fruit creation, and a French classic in sauce vanille bourbon.
The students take turns cracking eggs, whisking ("No air!" cautions the chef), rolling out pastry, stirring sauces, even tossing cooked apples in the pan before the concoction is set aflame. Do something wrong, and you get a gentle suggestion from Berard. Do it correctly, and you get a smile and "Ah, perfect."
Savoring atmosphere - and more
There is time to soak in the atmosphere. The window is cracked open and reveals a prototypical Provence countryside. Copper pans crowd the space above the stove, and dried herbs in glass jars line the countertops. The tile walls of red and yellow shout Provence.
Desserts do not make a meal, so the lesson also includes an artichoke salad featuring artichokes from the garden. The students have had a hand in the entire lunch menu, so the lamb that was deboned and put in a marinade days ago is brought out. Berard arranges the meat just so before he hands it over to assistants to cook. That pot of veal stock is strained; not much is left from a day of work, but what a taste it has.
Then it is outside to the terrace to enjoy the fruits of the students' labor. A table under canopy is already set with glasses, cutlery and bottles of wine.
The students and Berard take their seats, and the food parade begins: bread and olive tapenade and anchovy paste; ratatouille; lamb with pistachio butter; vegetable terrine; mashed potatoes; artichokes with shallots, celery and mushrooms. And desserts.
Conversation ranges from the nightly parties (the seaport of Cassis is on the night's agenda) to the bouillabaisse to the honey farm visited earlier in the week.
One of the younger students, recent college grad Arielle Saporta of Chicago, marveled at the garden tour earlier in the week. "There were four different types of basil," she said.
The 1 p.m. stated ending time stretches to 3:30 p.m., but no one wants to leave.
There is talk that Berard will not be doing this much longer. Someone asks him directly. His words are translated: "The day I don't have a passion, I'll stop."
The students nod knowingly, then offer a toast.