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The Accidental Chef Travels: A culinary journey through Southwest France
"Here's to those who show up", cookbook author and artisan chef Kate Hill announces as we raise our glass of Baron D'Ardeuil Buzet (a Merlot blend) to toast the fruits of our afternoon labor. Yet, labor might be considered a misnomer, since by no means did I consider those precious hours tasting Floc de Gascogne, a local specialty made from Armagnac, while touching and tasting my way around Kate's extensive gardens replete with fresh lovage, chervil, butter lettuces and soft, green almonds remotely arduous.
Perhaps, I was feeding off the relaxed, peaceful vibe of her uber-content dog, Bacon, who spent most of the afternoon lying on his side in front of the grand hearth fireplace merely inches away from four, bakery fresh baguettes. Like Bacon, in order to fully grasp the atmosphere of life at Kate's farmhouse kitchen, one must exercise both patience and restraint to properly reap the grand reward found at the end of the day.
Relais de Camont is Kate Hill's culinary haven. Situated in a small hamlet in the heart of Gascony, the 18th century Camont illustrates the gastronomic concept of farm to table in its purest sense. A raspberry custard tart is made with eggs from her chickens while a cold, radish soup laced with herbs and shallots hails straight from her vegetable garden or potager. Visiting Camont is to experience the "cooking life" of Gascony, where the traditions of classical French farm cuisine meld with all that's fresh and local.
Kate's cooking clientele include home cooks looking for a sound introduction to the regional and seasonal flavors of the area, which include Agen prunes, Magret duck and plenty of foie gras. Education is not left out as Kate's classes often incorporate basic cooking techniques such as emulsifying a vinaigrette or the art of making French cassoulet. For these clients, a day class or one of Kate's "French Kitchen Adventure" weekends might be in order, which begin with a local farmers market visit and includes hands-on cooking and multiple meals along with accommodations.
For the more advanced cook or professional, Kate opens her kitchen for longer, more intensive stays that are tailored individually. During my visit, a fellow food writer was spending five weeks under the tutelage of a local farm butcher in order to hone her butchery skills while an American chef was there to learn the art of French charcuterie.
Kate's Camont is what you make it, and everything that's made here is fresh and luscious. For us, after watching a brief cooking demonstration which included such wonderful tidbits as the importance of freshly grinding your spices to understanding the difference between French and U.S. bay leaf, we sat back with wine in hand and watched the day's meal unfold.
Guests can participate as much or as little as they want, and for us on that day, it was all about the show. Local Magret duck breast was delicately seasoned with dried spices and then roasted in an outdoor Portuguese bee oven (which lent a wonderful smokiness to the meat). A can of duck confit (salt-cured duck leg that is preserved in its own fat) made its way into the fry pan, lifting its aroma high into the rafters of Kate's two-story kitchen. Chanterelles were pickled, fresh greens were washed, and croutons, made from leftover baguette, were cubed and fried in duck fat. The end result? A Salade Gasconne served buffet style where the assembly was left entirely up to us.
As we dined outside under a canopy of hanging vines sharing stories of our lives at home, I could feel myself connecting or should I say reconnecting with cooking and eating as it's designed to be. Off in the distance, one of Kate's roosters let out its signature crow while nearby, a handful of bumblebee's busily buzzed about in a lavender plant, and in that moment, I couldn't help but think how glad I was to be the one who showed up.