At the recommendation of the French Tourism office, we arranged to participate in a class at Promenades Gourmandes given by the exhuberant Paule Caillat, who has been sharing her insights and recipes with visitors for more than a dozen years.
One lesson with a good teacher won't turn you into another Julia Child or Anthony Bourdain, but it will help to illuminate why French gastronomy is considered the world's most sophisticated and deserving of its place on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.
France has much to teach about food quality, selection, and preparation. If you want to make food that delights the eye and the palate, every detail matters — from the type of salt and butter used to the proper utensils to cook with, to the presentation on the plate.
Meet at the Market
Previous to our meeting, Paule had emailed the day's students (she accommodates a maximum of eight) to determine their food preferences in order to devise a three-course menu plus a cheese tasting. Explaining, "I look for a harmony of flavors when I design a menu," she came up with:
- Cheese soufflé as an appetizer
- Entrée of sea bass and sea bream with butter and herb sauce
- Braised fennel as the vegetable side dish
- Fresh fig tart topped with grapes, nuts, and drizzled with honey (a recipe that will work with any fruit in season)
Shop for Ingredients
Unlike in a mega supermarket, here each item is bought from a specialist — fish and cheese mongers, the vegetable seller, the charcuterie, the boulangerie. Their free-range fowl, fresh-caught fish, warm and crisp baguettes, fruits and vegetables arranged like works of art add to the pleasure of the market stroll. (Paule is so discerning that she won't purchase her bread and pastry from the same shop.)
In choosing items, she gives us a quick definition of the concept of terroir and its importance in selecting ingredients. It's about more than what's fresh and in season. The region where the food comes from, the farmer or maker, the climate and soil, the weather during its growing period, even the amount of sunshine it received all factor into an item's quality.
After the provisions are acquired in under an hour, she leads her group to the Metro. We take a short ride to her kitchen in the Marais district.
Start Cooking and Learning
The first course needs to be concocted. Pulling 85% high-fat-content unsalted butter and milk from her refrigerator, she says, "To make a successful soufflé, you must start with a thick bechamel sauce (butter + flour + milk)." She begins by making a roux using milk warmed in her microwave. Practical Paule praises the appliance for its efficiency in heating and melting ingredients, although she would never cook a full meal in it.
With the authority of an executive chef, she tasks her minions: We are to clean the chanterelle mushrooms first. They will accompany the soufflé as a side dish. She instructs us to remove grit from the golden specimens selected at the market not by running them under water or by peeling away the dirt; they are to brushed clean, with a small paintbrush.
In addition to the sauce, her soufflé ingredients will include comté, parmesan, and French Gruyère cheese; four egg whites; salt, pepper, nutmeg and a French chili-like spice called Piment d'Espelette. Parmesan cheese and (more!) butter form the mold inside the fluted soufflé pan. She notes: "Soufflés don't wait for you; you wait for the soufflé."
While we, her minions, brush-stroke, she eases the soufflé into the oven and moves onto the dessert, creating a perfectly even brown crust (recipe) for our fruit tart using almond flour.
Then she turns her attention to the main dish, pan-seared fish. "It's the sauce that cooks the fish," she informs us, planning one of butter, shallots, and herbs.
We are tasked with slicing the shallots; she shows us how to first cut the vegetable on the horizontal, then vertically.
The reward for our labor comes with a cheese-tasting break. Paule pulls out a map of France to discuss where each of the cheeses came from, what animal, the terroir. Wine is poured ("Never cook with a wine you would not drink"). I try to pay attention, but the soft brie is so luscious and the baguette so crisp that it is hard to concentrate....
Feast on This
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Tip: Don't eat a heavy breakfast or plan to have a big dinner on the day of the class.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary lesson for the purpose of reviewing those services. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy .