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A Delectable Birthday Gift

Nov. 7, 2004 – Hmmm…a big birthday this year and what to do? For the husband who doesn't seem to need anything, what creative solution lies in the recesses of imagination? My mate is one of those who is entirely self-sufficient; shops for all his clothes, our food and does 90 percent of the cooking (I keep him away from the laundry because he is a killer with Clorox).
He is passionate about cooking and me! Two good things. So I decided to do a little research and see if there was some place, somewhere, that he would thoroughly enjoy both interests. Alright, Google could hit $200 a share soon which is mind-bending, but it was worth its value to find The International Kitchen. The Chicago-based company whips up culinary vacations in France, Italy, Morocco and various ports of Asian calls.
Having had the lunch of a lifetime in Monaco at Alain Ducasse's Louis XV last year, I looked at his school: very expensive and very little time spent in the kitchen. The final choice was Walnut Grove, outside the sleepy hamlet of Livre la Touche in the Loire Valley, two hours west of Paris.
The credentials of the two owner-chefs were impressive: Maynard Harvey and Benedict Haines. Maynard worked alongside Chef de Cuisine Richard Brooks – who was Princess Diana's personal chef – at the Savoy Hotel and The Royal Bath Hotel. Benedict was chef at Wentworth Golf Club and the country house hotel Tyddyn Llan in Snowdonia.
On the last Saturday in September, we were picked up at the train station and driven 20 minutes through a countryside still bursting with roses and geraniums whose scent held the promise of fall. Around the last bend, there was a long driveway through a stand of trees and there we were at Walnut Grove cooking school. The barn had been converted into a professional kitchen with a dining mezzanine, ready for sampling the pleasures of the chefs' and students' efforts. Our room in the farmhouse was large, beautifully sunny and simply decorated.
The five-day classes are very small and fellow students included Margarita and Phillip, vineyard owners in Portugal; English chef Louise from a large yacht that sometimes sails our way; Laura, a young Irish woman in finance; and, of course, my better half. I opted to let this be his gift alone, and I would bide my time exploring the neighborhood, reading books and finally attacking the instructions for my three-month-old camera.
After everyone arrived, there was an introductory talk on aims and course structure. This was the last time the chefs would prepare dinner alone. It began with spinach and mascarpone roulade, chilled into a tube shape, then sliced and put on a bed of gazpacho. What followed were caramelized scallops on a cauliflower puree, sorbet, breast of duck and vegetables in an oriental sauce, passion fruit and orange bavois with orange crisps, cheese and biscuits, coffee and petits fours.
I patted myself on the back for great judgment and the gift that would keep on giving if Bob could cook like this at home. The routine began the next day with work in the kitchen beginning after breakfast and breaking at 5 p.m.. At 7:15 canapés and aperitifs were offered and at 7:45 a six-course dinner began. What is most remarkable is how great chefs, so possessed about good tastes and impeccable presentation, can wear down the resistance of our food habits. My mate is not fond of cauliflower, quail or baking. Or wasn't. By the time the team served seafood chowder, warm salad of quail, fois gras and wild mushroom in a lentil dressing, sorbet, seared salmon on a bed of crushed new potatoes with fresh spinach and a crab bisque sauce, iced banana parfait, cheese and biscuits, coffee and truffles, Bob was open to any cooking possibility. I made friends with a brace of donkeys on a farm down the road.
The afternoon excursions we went on were food-related. Monsieur Lemoine, a lively septuagenarian, took us up his three-story windmill built in 1824, still grinding the flour that he and his wife bake into organic bread. Another day we met Madame Bois, a farmer's wife, who showed us the animals – ducks, geese, cows, lambs, horses, and chickens – that populate her landscape. She showed us how to make peasant cheese, pressed into the shapes of the old wooden holders that are so treasured. Hard cheese takes two months to cure and everything that is not used in both processes has another use on the farm. On our way in we heard that the farmer was slaughtering a pig. Coward that I am, I took the last place on line for the cheese demonstration and tour. But luck ran out when the farmer pushed a wheelbarrow full of pig innards past me.
The real challenge was day four. The students were to learn how to make ice creams, do delicate sugar work, candy floss, chocolate piping, bake honey wafer baskets plus tuille work and pastry. Now a few weeks before we left, when key limes were readily available here on the island, I made a key lime pie. Whereas the recipe said twenty minutes for preparation, it took me an hour and a half to zest the limes. That's my 10 percent of the cooking chores. Bob always said it was too tedious for him, so how would he fare in gourmet pastry prep?
I walked to the village, heard the bells of the ancient church peal, and investigated the cemetery for hints and clues to this very, very quiet place. It must have been a battleground in World War 1 as the proportion of civilians, both women and children, and soldiers remembered, was extraordinarily high. On the walk back, the one dog in town who barked at me on the way in…didn't.
And back to the kitchen to check on Bob's progress. I was astounded to see he had made a candy floss demi-globe to top a pastry basket trimmed with chocolate piping, ready for the banana pecan ice cream. A caramelized and baked strip of banana would flag the piece, pierced by a candied skewer. Oh joy!!!
Our last evening was spectacular, I'm sure you can imagine. But even more than the menu, we had met wonderful people who shared a common passion: food. They worked hard, they laughed heartily, they learned well and we all vowed to keep in touch. We opened a bottle of champagne and toasted the moon. On my second glass of champagne I said to the couple from Portugal, "If you need two extra hands for the next harvest, Bob and I would be happy to come." Phillip replied, "We even have a cottage for you on the edge of the vineyard." Hmmm…
When she’s not planning perfect birthdays for her husband or being barked at by French dogs, Ruth Butler is overseeing operations at Sea Trek – the underwater adventure at St. Thomas' Coral World.

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