If you could spend one day in someone else’s life, who would you want to be? And I do mean someone living now, not a thousand years ago. My choice would probably be considered odd to most. In fact, until a month ago, I had never even heard of her.
My obsession with her charming life began totally by chance. It was during the Christmas holidays, and I was enjoying one of my favorite pastimes. I was shopping, well, meandering might be a better description, in Barnes and Noble. I had the day to myself and was in no particular hurry, so I decided to peruse the store, and ultimately the cookbook section. Those that know me well, know that I love cookbooks. I love to read them, collect them, and cook from them. Am I a little obsessed? Well, I might be…just a little.
And, yes, when I’m at B&N, I’m one of those people. I get several books that I’m considering and sit in a corner studying them, deciding one by one, if they make the cut. I can get absorbed for hours.
And that’s exactly what I was doing on this particular day. I must have picked up 4 or 5 cookbooks to examine. I know I had Frank Pellegrino’s latest one, Rao’s Classics; and two from Ina Garten, her recent release, Cooking for Jeffrey, and an older one, Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics. And I think I had one more that I cannot remember…it must not have impressed me. And by some miracle, without yet knowing it, I had found this treasure, written by an author I’d never heard of.
The book is French Country Cooking – Meals and Moments from A Village in the Vineyards. I’m not sure if it was my love of wine or Julia Child that drew me to this book, but oh what a find. This is no ordinary cookbook. As soon as you open the pages, you’re transported to the French countryside and immersed in the author’s love of cooking, French food, good wine and family. All of the things I love!
What’s interesting too, is that she didn’t grow up in France. She was raised in Hong Kong by her Chinese father and her French mother, but traveled to France often as a child, to visit her grandmother. It wasn’t until later, after marrying Oddur, her Icelandic husband that she settled down in Paris. And finally, wanting more space for their growing family of eight kids and fourteen dogs, they moved to the countryside, in Medoc.
Medoc is a region in the southwest of France, north of Bordeaux, on the left bank of the Gironde estuary. It’s this inlet that divides the region into its famous “left” and “right” banks. The right bank is planted predominantly in Merlot grapes, but also has a lot of Cabernet Franc, some Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdoc and Maldec. The left bank is planted primarily in Cabernet Sauvignon, but also has some Merlot and Cabernet Franc too. It is home to over 1500 vineyards and four of the world’s most prestigious wine villages: Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Estephe, and Saint-Julien.
The little village where she and Oddur settled is St. Yzans; population 396…plus a few more now. While looking for a house in the countryside, they absolutely fell in love with No. 1 Rue De Loudenne, in the middle of town. The history of this grand old house is as colorful as the flowers on the wallpapers that adorn the rooms. It was originally a château, but about a hundred years ago, the ambitions of a woman named Plantia Pautard, would alter its course forever. She lived in the village with her husband, the baker; however, she was also the mistress of the town’s mayor, the wealthy Monsieur Brion. When he purchased the grandest house in the village, his original plans were to convert it into government offices, but Plantia had plans of her own. She convinced him to let her turn the house into an upscale hotel and restaurant. It wasn’t long before it was well-known in the entire south of France, for Plantia was an excellent cook, and visitors would travel long distances to taste her cooking. Always dressed in black, she was a formidable woman, and she cooked with only the freshest, finest ingredients. Years later, Plantia’s daughter and granddaughter, cooked with her in the house, until they all passed, and the house was left to her great-grandson Monsieur Ladra, who sold it to another woman, who loves to cook. The house had been vacant for over a year when she moved in with her husband, and their bustling family and large brood of dogs. And the kitchen came to life once more.
While not all of her recipes in this book are necessarily in my food repertoire, I like that she preludes each one with an anecdotal story to explain its significance and ultimate inclusion in the book. From these, you gather more insight into her life; you begin to know her children by name, and what vegetables are planted in the garden down the road from her home. And you find out that Oddur is a very talented photographer who loves red wine, even more than I do, and took the wonderfully stunning pictures in the book. From these, I can imagine the smell of her Gateau Breton baking in the oven, while she broils the cassoulet just until the breadcrumbs are golden. And I get a tiny glimpse of what it might be like to spend my days cooking in a grand old house, in the French countryside, surrounded by some of the best chateaus in the world! So while I love the recipes for Black Peppered Filet Mignon with Cognac and Crab Feuillete, it’s his photographs that bring her storytelling to life and make me wish that for just one day, I could be Mimi Thorisson, and spend a day in her life.