As the snow comes down outside and I sit surrounded by blankets and candles recovering from the flu, my mind naturally starts wandering back to warmer times and places and dreaming of what trips might come. The start of a new year is always a time for taking stock and thinking of the possibilities that the year to come might bring. A time for evaluating the year gone by and remembering to give thanks for the good things that happened.
For me, 2017 was a time of hard work that was made bearable by the ever-present promise of something new to learn or somewhere new to explore. Although my job has been incredibly tough this past year, I am extremely grateful for the opportunities it has afforded me to travel and to indulge in my favourite past times. Living with an attitude of gratitude is difficult to maintain in a city as bustling and full of everyday annoyances as London, but it’s something I’m keen to try for 2018, because somehow, things don’t seem quite so bad when you remember to give thanks.
One of the people I met in 2017 that I’m most thankful for is Marlene, the wonderful owner of Le Gargantua, a cooking school in southern France. Quite unexpectedly, I had the opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream in October and learn how to make croissants when I signed up for a weeklong patisserie course at Le Gargantua. As a result of one memorable yet disastrous attempt to make croissants at the age of 13, I had always considered these pastries to be the holy grail of home baking; something only for the brave and truly magic-fingered. What better place to conquer my fears, I thought, than in France.
Le Gargantua is situated in the beautiful rolling countryside between Bordeaux and Toulouse, so I decided to try and see as much of France as possible on my trip down by taking the train. This was probably not the greatest idea ever in terms of reducing stress, as some of the changes were quite tight (I nearly didn’t make it onto the Eurostar at all thanks to late running engineering works in Battersea), but on the French side, everything went like clockwork, and the views of vineyards as I passed Bordeaux more than compensated for the stress of the morning.
Arriving at the farmhouse was like coming home after a long day. There were just four of us on my course and only five staying in the guesthouse in total, plus occasional visits from two dogs and a cat, so it felt cosy and family-ish. And the food, the food was heaven sent. Confit duck, smoked mackerel pâté, locally made preserves with warm croissants; sorry parents, but I’ve never been looked after so well in my life. After a period of extreme stress at work, the tranquillity of the French countryside was exactly what I needed. If you add onto that good company, exquisite food, charming surroundings and the promise of the secret to an endless supply of buttery, flaky goodness, what more could you ask for?
And Le Gargantua did not disappoint. Thanks to Marlene’s patience and know-how, my little class of keen amateurs were not only able to create tartes Tatin, tartes aux pommes, éclairs, Paris-Brest, tartes au citron, brioche, gâteaux opéra, macarons and, of course, croissants and pains au chocolat, but also to understand what makes great patisserie and how each ingredient comes together to create a whole.
We were also treated to a bakery crawl in Casteljaloux, ancient home to the school for musketeers, and a visit to Nérac and Vianne, the inspiration behind Chocolat. Ancient bastides, crumbling buildings and proud palaces all added to the feeling that we were existing in a charmed landscape, far away from the modern world. Leaving at the end of the week was like coming back from another time as much as from another place.
Suffice it to say that my new-found patisserie confidence was not left behind in France. The croissants have kept coming, even if I did have to track down a Swedish delicatessen to get my hands on fresh yeast, and as soon as I have an excuse, the tarts and éclairs are sure to follow. I suppose that’s what I’m really thankful to Marlene for: the confidence to cook the things I love for the people I love.