We awoke the following morning to find that the rainy weather had moved on and that we were to be treated to a bright and sunny day for our next adventure at Bastide de Capelongue. First order of the day was, of course, breakfast, which can be enjoyed both in the breakfast room or at tables in the courtyard when the weather is fine. As with the main dining room, the decor here is Provencal, with weathered wooden dressers and tables, and tableware to match. There was a good selection of freshly baked pastries, utterly glorious homemade jams (the apricot is like the essence of apricot – not sweet like commercial versions, and full of chunky goodness), and cakes including a peach tart and a fresh cherry loaf. There were aso mounds of fresh fruit, especially local cherries, a great selection of charcuterie and cheeses, and who can resist a breakfast served with champagne?
After breakfast we had a few minutes to explore the picturesque Capelongue gardens and the sparkling blue swimming pool before meeting up with two other couples who would be joining us on a half day cooking class led by Cyril Lapeyre, the chef de cuisine at Bastide de Capelongue. We were a varied group: a French chef, two Alsatians, two Americans and two South Africans, and together with an a young English trainee chef doing a stage in the kitchen, we set off to the kitchen garden, secateurs in hand. The garden is situated across the road in the grounds of the Ferme de Capelongue, together with 10 luxury self-catering apartments in a garden setting and a striking 40m lap pool. Despite the language barrier, Cyril and his trainee did a great job of talking us through the various vegetables and herbs that are grown in the garden, some familiar (bay leaves, thyme, rosemary) and others less so – to me at any rate: savory (sariette), lovage (livèche) and absinthe. As we walked, he would cut bunches of particular herbs, show us what they look like, and then let us smell and taste them – a great hands-on way to learn. And once our baskets were full of herbs and vegetables, we made our way back to the Bastide de Capelongue kitchens.
The kitchen at Bastide de Capelongue is an oddly comforting mix of a 2-Michelin star chef’s professional domain, and a family kitchen. As we arrived back with our haul from the herb garden, Mr Loubet’s wife also arrived in the kitchen and helped to arrange some of the herbs we had picked on the impressive tea trolley for the freshest infusions; and at various intervals during the morning, their young son and the large, friendly and hopeful family dog also wandered in and out – so there was no question of Big Sweary Gordon-esque performances from chef Cyril! Once we had rearranged the herbs on the tea trolley (and tasted sponfuls of the most astonishingly good first batch of apricot jam of the season, bubbling away on the stove), Cyril explained to us what we would be cooking and set us to work on our first task: stripping thin slivers of orange peel from the fruit and removing as much pith as possible with insanely sharp knives. “Non! Non!”, exclaimed chef Cyril, seeing me constantly trying to cut away from my fingers, “like this, towards your fingers!” – something he would not have advocated had he known how prone I am to cutting myself in the kitchen! Once we had scraped the skins to within a millimetre of their lives, the strips were boiled in a sugar syrup before being baked flat between two baking sheets. As they cooled, they crisped up, making a simple and delicious garnish. But a garnish for what? The answer soon materialised in the form of a tray of wild sea bass fillets which we would be cooking. We were told to brush the plancha with oil, salt the fish skin, and then place it skin side down on the grill and hold it flat by pressing our fingers down on it. “After 30 seconds, you will feel the fish relax”, said the chef. Hah, thought Cooksister, likely story. But… after 30 seconds the fish did indeed relax beneath my fingers and stop trying to curl up. A revelation! Try it at home (but remember it needs to be wild-caught, not farmed, fish as wild fish have more developed muscles). While the others were cooking their fish, it was also great to observe what the other chefs were up to, each lost in concentration at their own station – this one making only potato gratins; or this one making only mini vegetable steamers.
From there we moved across the kitchen to where the meat course was to be prepared. Cyril showed us the beautiful racks of lamb and explained that these would be pan-seared before being finished in the oven to perfect pinkness. In the meantime, he showed us how to take a rich lamb stock and thicken it with caramel – something I have never seen done before but which results in a fantastic rich sauce, nothing like the goopy mess that sauces thickened with cornstarch can often be. He also showed us an enviable collection of Staub cast iron Dutch ovens, filled with an assortment of semi-dry herbs. These were then set alight with a blowtorch and left to smoulder, and once the lamb came out of the oven, the racks were added to the Dutch oven to acquire the sublime smoky herb flavour we had experienced the night before at dinner.
And that concluded our stint in the kitchen – from there we were ushered out to the terrace to enjoy out canapés and a glass of wine in the sun, over looking the pool. The wines (included a wonderfully pale salmon-coloured rosé) were once again from “Cuvée Edouard Loubet” – wines made by local cooperatives which are tasted and selected by Edouard Loubet before having his selection bottled under his own name. Once we had finished there, we returned to the dining room to sit down to the feast that we had (in some small measure!) helped to prepare. I am not going to do a detailed run-down f the dishes as many of them were a repeat of the dinner we enjoyed the night before, but here is a list of what we had followed by the photos:
a tiny savoury cone filled with anchovy cream and topped with crisp diced vegetables;
foie gras bonbons in a beetroot glaze;
a potato and cheese purée and cream topped with crisp potato spirals
escargot in a herby lemon soup velout with a bouquet of herb flowers
foie gras two ways (confit and pan-seared) – outstanding!
green asparagus in a savory and citrus soup
grilled sea bass in a sage sauce with a citrus skin crisp
a very green herbal sorbet palate cleanser – possibly made of lovage?
rack of lamb smoked with wild thyme, served with steamed baby vegetables and Grandma Loubet’s potato gratin
iles flottante and chartreuse flavoured ice-cream in a bitter chocolate soup
jasmine crême brulée
And with that, our cooking class and lunch were, sadly, over. Not that we felt in any way inclined to leave, but we had already stayed on for far longer than anticipated and we had appointments to keep at our next destination! Both Nick and I had really enjoyed the course – it is unusual to get a guided tour of such extensive kitchen gardens and as I said, there is no substitute for picking, smelling and tasting herbs yourself to get a feel for their flavours. Cyril was sublimely French, his manner sometimes perplexed at the odd ideas that his students had (like the one American student who earnestly asked whether chefs rinse their hands in between touching the raw fish and grabbing pinches of salt from the caddy to salt them on the grill…!), but his sense of humour never far from the surface. Few of us ever have a chance to peek behind the scenes in a Michelin-starred kitchen, and having a chance to see how the kitchen functions was fascinating. If I have any comment, it would be that this is more of a gourmet experience than a cooking class – you do not do that much hands-on cooking. But you do get hours of free access to expert chefs to ask them anything you ever wanted to know, and because classes are small each person has ample opportunity to chat to the chefs. Nick also mentioned that he enjoyed some of the dishes more the second time around as he knew more about their context and how they had been created which enriched the experience for him. And considering the fact that many of the dishes were the same as we’d had on the tasting menu for €140 the night before, the cooking day’s price of €120 is quite a bargain. Thank you once again to Cyril and the team for a memorable morning in your company!
Stay tuned for our next adventure: a cherry-themed tasting menu in the beautiful Chateau de Mazan – one of the Marquis de Sade’s former residences.
GOOD TO KNOW:
The Bastide de Capelongue gourmet day cooking classes take place every Monday and start at 9.00 am with a coffee and a croissant, followed by herb gathering in the kitchen garden, a cooking class in the kitchen, followed by canapés, a five-course meal and wine. The day costs 120 € per person (70 € per non-participating lunch companion) and participants can stay in the hotel for one night for the special rate of €100 including breakfast. Longer 4-day courses are also available for €645 person including accommodation and breakfast.
Double rooms at Bastide de Capelongue start at between €140 and €250 per room per night and breakfast costs €22 per person.
DISCLOSURE: I visited Bastide de Capelonge as part of a self-drive trip that was partially funded by the Vaucluse Tourist Board, and both my meal and accommodation at Bastide de Capelongue were paid for by the tourist board.