Finding the nuances of regional French food

For Lois Rothert of Fort Wayne, Ind., five days of French regional cooking was a "surrealistic experience." Only a few hours off the plane she finds herself skinning an eel while French chef Claude Vauguet, preparing monkfish, mullet, whiting, and snapper, explains the history of the classical Provence fish soup, bouillabaisse.

"Shellfish always goes in last," the chef says as he prepares the all-important rockfish for the soup. In this case it was a large Dungeness crab.

True bouillabaisse uses only Mediterranean fish because it was originally prepared by sailors and fishermen aboard their boats, using whatever fish they had caught. Substitutions can be made however, with other sea fish. Here at La Varenne it is served with fresh croutons and a peppery rouille, a sauce made with garlic, saffron, and red pepper.

Several time a year this cooking school, Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, offers a one- week course on the 11 culinary regions of France as part of the versatile curriculum, which also includes Nouvelle cuisine, Cuisine Minceur, and the standard French Haute Cuisine.

Continuing with the Provence menu, in our first course, chef Claude explained the nuances of ratatouille and salade Nicoise. Kay Pitcher of Vail, Colo., founder of her own cooking school, Jean Cuisine, is put to task. She moves off to a corner to "degorge" the eggplant and zucchini. Degorge simply means to drain out the water by salting the vegetables.

Judy Cozine, a cheese expert from Seatlle, Wash., begins to remove strings from a pound of french green beans as other students prepare a decorative melon fruit salad.

By lunchtime tables are set and the colorful Provence feast is presented. Proud faces beam over the day's accomplishments as Anne Wilan, owner and founder of the school, comments on the color, texture, and finally the taste of each dish.

Monday has been a success. The ratatouille is not mushy; the bouillabaisse is correctly served in two bowls with one for the fish, the other for the broth. Fruit salad is served in a basket made from the hollowed out melon.

After the meal the class has a break until afternoon. Students slip away to promenade along the Seine or the prestigious Boulevard St. Germain.

In the afternoon class chef Claude begins with three recipes from Bordelais, the southwest region of France: Ecrivisses Bordelaise, crayfish; Entrecote Bordelaise, rib steak; and Cailles aux Raisins, quail with grapes.

Christopher Keith, an intern or stagiare at the school, translates the chef's comment into English, including many of Claude's witty asides. A resident of Vermont, Christopher holds a doctorate in French from the University of North Carolina, and will be awarded La Varenne's Grande Diplome after 40 weeks of intensive work and study.

One student asks Christopher to ask chef Claude: How does one know what to use to bind a sauce?" The answer is: "Any sauce made with a stock base should be bound with arrowroot. Any sauce made with a wine base should be bound with a roux of cooked flour and butter.

By 5 p.m. the demonstration is finished. Crayfish, steaks, and quails are classically garnished and presented, and everyone is given a sample portion for tasting.

The routine is repeated throughout the week. Tuesday's Alsace-Lorraine menu includes several variations of quiche, a spectacular Choucroute a l'Alsacienne, a sausage and sauerkraut dish, and Kugelhopf, a raisin and current cake.

Chef John Desmond, trained in the kitchens of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, leads the class through foods of the Bourgogne and Languedoc regions, coaching us in the lengthy preparation of Cassoulet, a white bean stew with preserved duck. He also offers individual lessons in the somewhat difficult Pate Feuilletee, or puff pastry.

The culinary journey finishes on Friday with the region of Orleanais and a smartly garnished terrine de campagne; lapin aux pruneaux, rabbit with prunes, tarte tatin, carmelized apple pie, and gateau Pithiviers, almond filled puff pastry.

Other highlights from the week of French regional cooking include salade de pissenlits, dandelion salad with bacon, poached pike from the Loire, and guinea hen from the Valee d'Auge.

The week finishes with each student being awarded a souvenir Certificat de Presence as proof of their culinary training in Paris. The cost of such an experience is approximately $450.

The range of students who come to La Varenne varies greatly, although most are American women to able means. The school also attract a large number of students from Canada, Western Europe, and Australia.

The reasons for coming to La Varenne vary. Many people decide to stay for 6 or 7 weeks for a more advanced class, at the steep price of $2,100 per six-week session.

Some treat their stay at La Varenne as a major investment and plan to open restaurants, catering establishments, or cooking classes back in their hometowns. Many are here for sheer pleasure pursuing a favorite hobby while accompanying husbands or wives on business trips, or taking a holiday or semester abroad away from an unrelated college curriculum or business.Then there are others, it seems, who come purely for the name and the prestige of having studied French cuisine in Paris.

La Varenne director Anne Willan, who founded the school four years ago this November, contends that the congenial atmosphere, 1,500 original recipes, and a battery of distinguished chefs have clearly set La Varenne apart from its renown competitor, Le Cordon Bleu. Willan, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu herself, states, "We offer more in the way of translation. We're more accessible, more friendly."

Kay Pitcher, who attended classes at Le Cordon Bleu in London three years ago , agrees. "At Le Cordon Bleu they're so strict and formal; they make people cry ," she said. "If cooking isn't enjoyable, what's the point of it?"

La Varenne will gladly answer all inquiries by mail. The address is 34 Rue St. Dominique, 75007, Paris, France.

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