Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Cooking Class with our Beekeeper

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

We left our home in Avignon mid-afternoon and set out to drive down the West side of the Rhône, over the bridge at Boulbon, through Tarascon, to the small village of St. Etiènne du Grès. Taking a road to the right of the old bakery, we climbed into the Alpilles. Soon the pavement petered out and we switched to a dirt road beneath the tall pines and green oak. Up and up, over bumps, and crevasses deepened by the recent rains, around a few switch backs, till we reached the crest. At this point Leo sat on the window sill for the last 100 meters, till we reached Sophie’s home, right across from the 10th century prieuré that lies in ruins. Rough and bumpy as it was, her road is actually one of the oldest roads in the region; the prieuré is testament to the passage of people by this route for at least the last millennium.

We arrived, letting Filou out to run wild, and headed into her home where we were greeted by her fluffy little dog (kind of a cross between a yorkie and a guinea pig) Chataigne (chestnut). Filou quickly found a gray kitten who hissed terribly at the intrusion.

While Sophie got things ready for us the kids ran outside to play hide and seek, cache cache, amidst the trees, huge laurel bushes and piles of bee hives (not currently in use). From her doorstep, it's a short jump into the woods and the wild asparagus, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves and fennel. A couple minutes’ walk leads to olive orchards, and across the path of the occasional cross country biker. Pines tower above.

Then, back to Sophie’s home and into her kitchen. Her kitchen is a tiny affair neatly filled by a large gas oven and a professional stainless steel sink. We set ourselves up on a table in her front room, a wonderful glass enclosed space encircled by the outside greenery.

Sophie had chosen three recipes for today’s class:

A salad of cucumbers in fromage blanc (or yogurt) with spices
A honey spiced roast pork, and
A honey and spice chocolate cake.

She loves working with fresh herbs and spices in her cuisine and shared this with the kids. She has nearly every herb growing haphazardly outside her house. Her spices are stored in an overflowing wheeled cart of warm-toned jars.

Hands washed, we got to work.

Sophie’s Cucumber Salad

Preparation time: 15 minutes


One cucumber 8-10 inches in length, or two smaller cucumbers
2 tablespoons Olive oil
1 tablespoon old style seed mustard
2 tablespoons honey vinegar (may be replaced by raspberry or cider vinegar)
2 plus 2 tablespoons Acacia honey (mild Clover honey is an ok replacement)
250 grams or 2 cups fromage blanc (This can be replaced by plain yogurt)
1 tablespoon crème fraîche – can be replaced with heavy
Fresh picked oregano sprigs
Or freshly chopped chives
Or freshly picked tarragon
Salt and pepper


a chopping surface
a vegetable peeler (called an “econome” in French)
a chopping knife
measuring spoons
a large mixing bowl
a wooden spoon
kitchen scissors

To split the work Sophie chopped the cucumber in two width wise. Then she showed us how to use the peeler. She prefers peeling towards herself (but my mother has always told me to peel away from myself to avoid accidents…). After we’d peeled the cucumber, we split it in half lengthwise and scooped out the seeds in the middle with the pointed end of the peeler. Sophie also showed us how we could use a small spoon to do this. The cucumber has lots of water, so, either, we scoop out the seeds and then proceed with the recipe, or we slice our cucumber, sprinkle it with salt and let the salt draw out some of its water – this would take about an hour.

Since we want to do the recipe right away, we’re using the seeding method today. Once the cucumber pieces are seeded, we slice them into thin rounds and put them aside.

Then, in the mixing bowl, Sophie puts in the olive oil, the mustard, the honey vinegar and 2 teaspoons of honey. She carefully showed us that when using really runny honey, it helps to turn the spoon back and forth till the drips stop, and then to bring it over quickly to your bowl. Otherwise you can get it everywhere. She mixes these together with her wooden spoon till they make a paste. Then she adds the fromage blanc (or yogurt) and a spoonful of crème fraîche to give the dish a more “unctuous” texture, aka smooth and rich, but unctuous is such a great word!

Then out to the garden to pick some fresh oregano. We brought it back in and she let us snip it in two ways, both with her kitchen scissors and on the chopping surface with a knife.

We sprinkled this into the creamy mixture, and then added the cucumber slices. But before we stirred them in, Sophie sprinkled salt on top and a couple turns of the pepper mill, as well as the other 2 teaspoons of honey. Then we mixed it all together and tasted. We thought a bit more salt would make it better. And then, when we were all satisfied, we put the bowl into the fridge to take out and serve nicely chilled when we were ready for dinner.

Since our day together, we’ve tried this recipes for other dishes. For instance, as a sauce for spicy grilled chicken, or lamb it is really superb.


Michelle said...

I'm going to Provence this summer! Can't wait! Thus I'm researching!!! I came across your blog. I love it!!! I liked this post, are these cooking classes available to anyone?

Also, Id love to interview you for my blog. It is just a small thing but I'd really love to have you on!

Madeleine Vedel said...

Hello Michelle, I don't believe Sophie is holding cooking classes any more, but if you are in Arles on a Saturday or Wednesday, you might ask her yourself. She's on the market those days and is easy to spot. You can always see about a cooking class with Erick Vedel - erickved@gmail.com - on traditional Provençale Cuisine. I'd be happy to answer any questions, but I'm not in Provence now to be interviewed in person. Take care.