Last summer, when I couldn’t cook, words I read in Su Mei Yu’s book, Cracking the Coconut, took on new meaning. She gives insight into the cooking of Thailand by explaining that “the Thai people are Buddhists who believe that life is marked by suffering, impermanence, and constant change. They seek and grasp at every chance to celebrate pleasure and happiness. Good food and the community spirits of sharing reflect this philosophy.”
The Thai philosophy of food can be summed up in two words, according to Yu: arroy, meaning delicious as well as “touching one’s heart”, and sanuk, meaning fun and spiritual joie de vivre. Sounds like they celebrate Thanksgiving every day.
We were in need of an infusion of joie de vivre, so we went with friends Joe and Suzy to France. As we traveled south into the Dordogne, I knew immediately that we were in the land of arroy and sanuk, as well as joie de vivre. This is a region of rich river valleys blessed with a temperate climate, ample sun and rain, and a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Contented cows and sheep dot deep green pastures, fields of vegetables and fruit and nut orchards thrive, and the wine is legendary. This is a land where almost every village gives it’s name to a kind of cheese, wine, or sausage–all you need to do is pop into the village baker, and you have a feast.
Our first stop was in Villaines les Rochers, a village of willow basket makers. We were the guests of David and Judy, who make their home in one of the cave houses common to the area. These houses are dug into the soft rock in the bluffs above the river to create a unique space that is open to light yet insulated from both the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The sun-facing rock wall has the added advantage of creating a superb microclimate for tomatoes and peppers and plants like grapevines and figs (even better, you can climb up on the roof and pick the figs!). David and Judy tend a garden that produces some of the most beautiful and delicious vegetables I have ever seen or tasted.
One of the great things about being a traveler welcomed into someone’s home is that they know the flavors of their home terroir and want to share the best food possible. Our hosts gathered sun-ripened tomatoes and herbs from the garden, goat cheese from the near-by town of St. Maure, figs from the tree outside their door, mackerel from the Atlantic, and wine from a small neighboring vineyard to make a welcoming meal full of joie de vivre.
As you will see, this is not fussy cooking–not the image of the French chef. This is wonderful food staight from the earth and the sea, shared with good friends, and remembered forever with gratitude.
Appetizer of Goat Cheese and Figs
Cut ripe, fresh figs in half and arrange on a baking pan. Place a 1/4-inch slice of goat cheese (Judy prefers the ash-coated Chevre de St. Maure) on top of each fig. Broil until the figs are softened and the cheese bubbles. Voila!
David’s Tomato Salad
David and Judy grow sweet, richly flavored heirloom tomatoes–Zebra and Corno-de- something, as well as the hybrid “Sungold” cherry tomato. Red, green, and gold create a spectacular mosaic of flavor and color. This is David’s speciality.
Arrange slices of red, green, and yellow tomatoes in a pleasing pattern on a large platter. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper, finely chopped red onion, and fresh basil leaves. Drizzle fruity olive oil over the top. Enjoy!
We bought whole, fresh mackerel at the local grocery store (cleaned as we waited), and David prepared it for the grill, using fresh herbs from the garden.
Rub the mackerel with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and coat with finely chopped sage and rosemary leaves. Tuck a sprig of rosemary and a few sage leaves into the cavity of each fish and set aside in the fridge while you prepare the grill fire. Grill over medium heat until cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Bon apetit!
Serve with a salad of lettuce and gorgeous red radicchio.