Leisure: Time Wells Spent
An apricot sunset slants across the terrace at Chanteduc as eight Americans assemble for a weeklong cooking class in Provence with author, food critic, and teacher Patricia Wells. "This is my romantic dream of France," Wells declares as she pours flutes of Veuve Clicquot Brut. "All of us doing what we love: cooking, learning about, and enjoying wonderful Provençal food and wine."
We have arrived from all over the United States—California, New York, Texas, North Carolina—and from all walks of life. Our group includes a public relations executive, an energy trader, two homemakers, a nutritionist, a caterer, a writer, and a banker. Doug and Michelle are here to celebrate her 40th birthday. Coco decided to attend after September 11, because, she tells us, "it seemed important to do something positive in the face of so much negativity." I am in the middle of a nine-month trip through Europe, and the class fulfills a longtime dream. All of us share a love of cooking, a desire to broaden our knowledge about one of the world’s great cuisines, and an admiration of Wells.
We spend much of that first night in the candlelit dining room at Chanteduc, the country home of Wells and her husband, Walter, drinking the 2001 vintage of their small winery, Clos Chanteduc. The fruity red Côtes-du-Rhône accompanies a feast of roast lamb with eggplant and tomato gratin. Wells has prepared this meal, but the rest during our stay—save for three superb restaurant visits—will be our own creations.
Class begins in earnest the next morning when we gather around the worktable in the sunny courtyard. We tie on our white aprons, each with the student’s name embroidered on it, and busy ourselves preparing lunch, a rustic Provençal soupe au pistou. "My food philosophy is simple," Wells explains while we dice a small mountain of vegetables. "What grows together, goes together—tomatoes and basil, for instance. I also believe the ingredients should lead—rather than a sentimental attachment to the history of a dish or to a particular recipe. Today we’re using fresh pumpkin and cranberry beans in the soup because they looked wonderful in the market."
Wells is an expert home cook rather than a professional chef, so her style is instantly accessible, and because she tailors instruction to suit her students, the classes are appropriate for both novice and experienced cooks. "Do you want to know why chefs don’t cry when they mince an onion?" she asks, then demonstrates the answer. "First you peel it and cut it in half, then make paper-thin slices that will melt into the sauce. Less onion juice released means fewer tears on your face."
As she will do every day, Wells assigns teams to prepare the various recipes for each meal, and soon an air of industrious contentment descends on the house. Several of us prepare the two pestos—traditional basil and an unusual parsley version—that will garnish the soup. Next to us a group separates eggs and measures ground almonds for the financiers, the delectable cookies that will be dessert, while another trio laboriously stems what seems like a bushel of fresh sorrel and mint for the salad. We chat, chop, baste, and braise, trading restaurant suggestions along with the little earthenware pot of sea salt. Wells moves from group to group, gently correcting technique and discussing the organized art of mise en place. "Before you break an egg or uncork the olive oil, measure every ingredient and put each utensil you need on a tray," she instructs. "The tray should be empty when you’re done. This way, the whisk is right where you need it, and you won’t realize you’re out of butter in the middle of mixing the cake batter. It’s how professional chefs work, and I do it every time I cook."
There are frequent trips to the garden to snip handfuls of herbs and salad greens as we work in the yellow-tiled kitchen, in the adjacent courtyard, and in what Wells calls "Julia’s kitchen," which lies between the outdoor brick bread oven and the cave. This unassuming space is something of a shrine: It houses the stove that Julia Child once cooked on at her French country home near Grasse. "It’s the first thing I’m going to tell my cooking friends," Ann says. "Guess what? I cooked on Julia’s stove."
We eat lunch on the terrace beneath the massive oak tree that is depicted on the Clos Chanteduc labels. Acorns occasionally plop onto the table, and roses, thyme, and grape leaves perfume the air. Spooning up the chunky, garlicky soup, we savor the beautifully blended flavors of zucchini, tomatoes, leeks, and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and listen to a brief history of the property. "Chanteduc means ‘song of the owl,’ " Wells tells us, "and the house is an 18th-century mas, or farmhouse. At one time the building included space for the family’s mules, pigeons, and other animals." All livestock has long since been banished—though a local wild boar helps himself in the garden occasionally—and Patricia and Walter have turned the once humble abode into a beguiling country retreat.
Wells is the author of eight cookbooks, including Patricia Wells at Home in Provence, which won a James Beard award in 1997, and the acclaimed The Food Lover’s Guide to France and The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris. She is also the restaurant critic of the International Herald Tribune, a post she has held for two decades. And, Wells tells us as she presents a lavish plat du fromage, she is a "cheesehead." A native of Wisconsin, she includes cheese with almost every meal. Over the course of the week we will sample everything from delicate, day-old goat cheese to Tête de Moine, a nutty, dense Swiss cow’s milk variety that is served in flowery spirals.
Every meal at Chanteduc is also accented by lovely wines from Wells’ cellar, and the class includes a private tasting at one of her favorite vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "Everything they make at Château du Beaucastel is top of the line," she says. "We’re going to taste some wonderful things today." She is correct. We try some extraordinary vintages, among them the 1989 Châteauneuf-du-Pape red, once judged "the best wine in the world" by Wine Spectator. "This is too good, I’m not spitting," says my classmate Carol. We laugh, but see her point: The discreetly placed receptacles receive little use that day.
Our idyll concludes with a farewell luncheon at the villa, and everyone seems a little sad that morning when we meet in the kitchen to cook. Maybe it is all the hours we have spent at the table eating food that we prepared together, or that we will soon return to our quotidian lives, or maybe it is just the wine, but we all feel as though we are saying good-bye to longtime friends whom we might not see again. "Has any group anywhere ever laughed this much?" Michelle asks. Perhaps yes, but it is certainly true that a week spent with Patricia Wells in Provence is vibrant, creative, hilarious, delicious, and, above all, unforgettable. Every class meal begins with Wells reading a food-related quote, and one in particular distills the Chanteduc experience. "Ponder well on this point: The pleasant hours of our life are all connected, by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table."
A Menu of Classes
Patricia Wells offers 13 five-day classes every year, nine at Chanteduc. The schedule includes Basic Cooking in Provence sessions, Food and Fitness classes that include hikes and water aerobics, a Food and Wine course, and one called the Black Truffle Workshop. Each is limited to 10 students and includes a combination of hands-on cooking experience, restaurant meals, a wine tasting, and excursions to local markets, an olive oil mill, and a pottery shop. Wells also teaches four classes in Paris. The $3,000 tuition does not include transportation or lodging.
Located in the village of Vaison-la-Romaine, Chanteduc is less than an hour by car from Avignon. Students fly there or take the TGV from Charles de Gaulle airport or from the Gare de Lyon in Paris and rent a vehicle.
The most convenient lodging is available at a number of inns and bed-and-breakfasts in the area. Additional information about the classes as well as lodging suggestions are available at www.patriciawells.com.