Explore Farms and Fine Dining in France
Every year, Chef-Instructor Kathryn Gordon travels with a group to the Loire Valley for a cooking intensive — and sends ICE alumni to work there, too.
The annual Loire Valley Cooking course is always an interesting chance to eat, cook together and get to know fellow ICE alumni. The trip incorporates a balance of activities for every interest — savory people, baking people and those who just like learning more about food and wine. Every activity-packed day includes at least one hands-on cooking class and culinary-related sightseeing adventure to see and learn about food at its source.
Over 20 years ago, I met the owners of Le Moulin Brégeon, a former wheat mill and monastery converted into a country luxe hotel in rural France. Since then, I’ve run a hands-on cooking and baking program using the hotel as a base for our culinary-themed excursions and to host a variety of classes with different chefs. This September will mark our 20th course.
Each year, I try to incorporate some new activities so I can keep learning about the sources of food, artisan food production and techniques, and to include new classes for anyone who has participated before and wants to come again. We’ve had several return visitors, and certainly the cooking program is never the same!
For someone who’s worked, cooked and toured with various chefs around the western Loire Valley over a 20-year period, what are some of my favorite activities? I always love showing the students our lodgings at Le Moulin Brégeon (the Mill, located in Linières-Bouton. The region is a wild boar forest where the French kings used to hunt with a year round population of about 100 people, including a duck farm producing foie gras. It’s a very lovely area and an incredible place to stay. Each room in the Mill has its own unique antique furnishings and you sleep in hand-ironed French linens, with French-style duvets and bolster pillows. Our dining table is lit with antique candelabra and bowls of garden flowers. (It’s luxurious, to say the least.)
A few years ago, I wrote the cookbook for “Le Moulin Brégeon: Le Petit Moulin of the Loire Valley.” The recipes highlight the types of meals we produce in our classes: seasonal meals featuring organic garden produce (you’ll select your own lettuce for the salad and French cheese course) and local meats from neighboring farms — but theirs is a cuisine that is not heavy or sauce-based. The two French chefs we work with at the Mill are from, respectively, Brittany and the Dordogne. Chef Bernard Lévénez and Chef Pascal Mérillou believe in producing as much as they can on site and supporting local farmers, and our cooking program reflects the same philosophy.
I always enjoy our artisan bread class at La Maison du Pain in Angers, with Master Boulanger Philippe Soulard. Catherine and Philippe Soulard live above the bakery with their family and make bread using a levain, which is to say they use their own culture of yeast rather than using any commercial yeast. Who wouldn’t be happy, shaping baguettes with Philippe and sampling some 14 types of bread with rye and wheat starters, whole grains and flour from a stone-ground, water-driven mill we visit during the course!
Besides breads, classes will include charcuterie and meat fabrication, and you’ll also bake recipes from my first two cookbooks, “Les Petits Macaróns” and “Les Petits Sweets,” alongside myself. I typically also teach a savory tart class. There are a lot of different types of doughs out there, and the more you know and understand how they each work — the better for your baking repertoire.
We are very busy with action-packed days — and I always joke that the program is not a vacation! We visit the fleur de sel marshes on the coast, learn about the region’s famous sparkling wines (there are 10,000 kilometers of caves from the Loire’s soft limestone, tufa, also used to build the region’s 1,000 châteaux), mushrooms (also grown in caves), walnut oil presses, chèvre farms to see the goats being milked and even a local escargot farm (where the owner Arnaud plants radish greens and other greens the snails prefer). We pick blueberries (or other fruits, depending on the month) and make jam with Chef Bernard, who makes the confiture for the Mill and guest breakfasts.
What’s a typical class like?
If we have a pig fabrication class, we might cook typical rustic French pork dishes such as neck chops sautéed in butter with salt and pepper, French-style barbecue grilled sausages, Noirmoutier potatoes cooked in pork fat, pâté de tête with Orleans vinegar and pâté en croute with cornichons and grainy mustard — and that’s just for dinner. For dessert, I might give a review “quiz” on gluten, the Maillard reaction and emulsions as we enjoy the items we baked together like a raspberry-style fraisier cake (from raspberries we hand-picked), Breton butter sablé cookies and financiers made with the local hazelnut flour.
Besides the opportunity to participate in the course, I recruit ICE alumni from Culinary Arts, Pastry & Baking Arts and Health-Supportive Culinary Arts to work for full room and board at the Mill for a unique resume opportunity. (There’s also a need for FOH help, so I would definitely “take” an interested Hospitality graduate.) This year, seven ICE alumni will be at Le Moulin Brégeon for the guest season, which generally runs from April to October. If you’re interested in working in France, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each year I come back from the Loire Valley Cooking course in France having learned something new and inspired by the experience. The area is beautiful, our hosts are charming and everyone we meet is eager to teach and share their knowledge. We’re booking now for 2023!
See what's cooking @loirevalleycooking, and view the full itinerary of the next Loire Valley Cooking course here. The trip is open to all ICE alumni as well as those from the general public or friends and family members who appreciate food, cooking and wine.