The picturesque French town of Pau—nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, between the larger cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse—has long been a travel destination for the noblesse and well-to-do lured here by the mild climate and reputation as a haven for food and wine lovers. This holiday retreat for notables such as Napoleon III, Marie Antoinette and Queen Victoria became a popular resort in the 19th century for wealthy and elite New Yorkers, including Ward McAllister, who fancied himself the patriarch of New York’s upper-crust society.
In his 1890 book Society As I Have Found It—an exploration of the rigors of cultural hierarchies—McAllister describes Pau as having “the best cooks in the world, and where people appeared to live but to eat well and sleep.”
Today’s Pau is still a destination for traveling foodies, though no longer exclusive to royals or the super-rich thanks to people like David Blackburn, an American bon vivant with an intense joie de vivre who wants to show visitors how to eat and sleep very, very well in Pau. David lives here with his French partner, Fernand, in the 8,000-square-foot Villa Hutton, named to honor the New York family who built it in 1860 as their winter home. For the past decade, David and Fernand have been lovingly and painstakingly restoring the villa to its former glory, and furnishing it with French antiques befitting its history. Of course, this immense and luxurious home is the perfect setting for having frequent dinner parties with friends, hosting loved ones visiting from abroad and lodging students who are studying French at the local university. But David also uses this postcard-perfect locale as a classroom for trekkers eager to learn his methods of French home-style cooking and canning. Fantastique!
Since moving to Pau almost 15 years ago, David—who began cooking about 30 years ago, while living in Southern California—has perfected his methods of cooking and canning local produce and meats, and makes the best use of that canned food year-round. “It’s part of getting back to basics and cooking like my grandmother did,” he says. “Either cooking and eating in-season food or putting them up, when possible, for consumption later and knowing what is in the jar.”
During David’s course, participants spend a week at the villa, in the recently renovated three-bedroom basement apartment—the chef’s kitchen back in the days of the Huttons, it’s now a modern and charming petit appartement with marble floors and sunlight streaming through its tall windows. For five days, the participants prepare (and devour) every lunch and dinner together with David in his beloved grand kitchen. As far as planning the meals, David prefers to, well…not. “I don’t plan menus,” he says. “I cook using what I like to refer to as a method approach rather than a recipe approach. I’ll give the participants some comfort food for their first evening and from then on, it’ll be going to the market, picking out what looks good to all of us and then developing their method skill sets for cooking—really trying to get them to try some things they might not have ever eaten. What about duck tongues?”
Pau’s great fortune of location—near both the Mediterranean and Atlantic and surrounded by stunningly verdant farmland—creates a cornucopia of fresh, seasonal and artisanal items available year-round at the local farmers market, Les Halles de Pau. For my lesson, we were going to make bouillabaisse, so we first focused on the market’s variety of fishmongers and picked out a beautiful selection of succulent lobster and mounds of mussels, clams and shrimp. We also bought some long and silky fresh anchovies (which were a surprising hit with my three-year-old), some moist and velvety lettuce for a salad and an array of perfect, just-picked apples, oranges, pears, tomatoes and carrots. I also selected a colorful petite bouquet for two euros (about $2.75) from a tiny elderly lady who’d picked the flowers on her nearby farm.
After shopping, it was time to hit the kitchen to learn David’s simple, French-infused methods for creating savory, seasonal dishes. Soon, our fresh market seafood—combined with the zest of the plump oranges, a pinch of saffron and David’s canned tomatoes and fish stock—was transformed into a massive pot of authentic bouillabaisse. And we discovered just how key those home-canned ingredients were to the overall flavor of the soup. Luckily, the cooking course includes learning David’s canning methods.
“I’m a very seasonal eater, and I can for three reasons: freshness, to save money and to save time,” David explains. “My objective is to make sure guests fully understand both the boiling hot-water-bath method and pressure-canner method.”
Ultimately, what David loves most about teaching the course is surrounding a well-spread dinner table with interesting people who love good food and good wine—a very French ethos. “French home cooking and entertaining is about sharing fresh, mostly simply prepared food and savoring it during several courses and hours—family style—among good company,” he says. Or, as Ward McAllister put it: “The success of the dinner depends as much upon the company as the cook.”
David welcomes guests for cooking courses during the months of July through October. Space is very limited. Before arriving, participants complete a simple questionnaire to help determine their strengths, food preferences and the cooking methods they would like to improve upon. At least two home-canning classes are included. For more information, visit villahutton.com
Bouillabaisse is a traditional French stew made with fresh fish and shellfish, hearty fish stock and tomatoes. Using your own canned fish stock, this recipe is quick and simple, with a total preparation time of about 45 minutes. Bouillabaisse is inherently adaptable to whatever seafood is available. Fish from the Gulf of Mexico or local rivers would make a great Texas version—try grouper, drum or halibut. Even some river-caught catfish would be tasty. And of course Gulf spiny lobster, shrimp, crawfish or clams would work beautifully. Choose a variety of textures to make it interesting!
Courtesy of David Blackburn, Villa Hutton
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 leek, quartered lengthwise and sliced
6 c. home-canned whole tomatoes
Juice and zest of 1 orange
4 c. home-canned fish stock
1 pinch saffron
Sea salt and pepper, to taste
2 lb. assorted white fish, cleaned (filleted if desired) and cut
horizontally into 1½-in. pieces
2 T. chopped parsley
1 lb. large lobster tail, shelled and sliced into 8 pieces
1 lb. shrimp, prawns or crawfish
½ lb. each mussels and clams, cleaned
Heat the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add the leek and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and half of the orange juice and zest and bring to a simmer. Using a wooden spoon, break the tomatoes into chunks. After the tomatoes are broken down, slowly add the fish stock, maintaining the heat of the pot, and then add the saffron. Return to a simmer and adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Adjust the orange flavor with the remaining juice and zest. (The orange flavor should be light and fresh, but not overpowering.)
If you are having guests, turn off the stove and cover the pot, as the final preparation should be done just before serving. To finish, add the fish and parsley and simmer for 8 minutes. Add the lobster and shellfish, then cover and simmer for 6 minutes, or until shellfish have opened. Serve immediately with toasted baguette and rouille on the side to mix with the broth.
HOMEMADE FISH STOCK
Courtesy of David Blackburn, Villa Hutton
Makes approximately 4 cups of stock
1 fresh whole white sea fish (½ lb.),
½ T. extra-virgin olive oil
½ yellow or white onion, peeled and
cut into eighths
¼ fennel bulb, sliced
½ garlic clove, chopped
2 t. canning salt
1 t. black pepper
4 c. water
½ c. dry white wine
¼ bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
¼ c. chopped cilantro
Cut off the tail and head of the fish, then cut the body lengthwise along the spine, exposing the bones. In a medium stockpot, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion, fennel and garlic with the salt and pepper until the onions are translucent—about 5 minutes. Beginning with the liquids, slowly add all of the other ingredients, then add the prepared fish (including the head and tail). Bring to a simmer. Cover and gently simmer for 2 hours. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Strain into another pot using a coarse sieve and discard the solids. Clean the original pot, then, using a fine sieve, strain the liquid back into the cooking pot, again discarding the solids. Stock is good for 4 days when refrigerated, or 1 year when canned.
To can (may be done the following day, if stock is covered and refrigerated overnight): Bring the stock to a simmer for at least 20 minutes. Carefully ladle the stock into jars using the hot-pack method with 1 inch of head space, then process with a pressure canner for 25 minutes at 10 pounds for a weighted gauge or 11 pounds for a dial gauge. After processing, cool, label and store the jars.
For more information on canning, please visit canningusasupplystore.com/recipes
Courtesy of David Blackburn, Villa Hutton
1 large red bell pepper, chopped, or 1 c.
home-canned roasted red bell peppers
1 garlic clove, chopped
¼ c. chopped very stale bread
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 t. sea salt
1 egg yolk
½ c. extra-virgin olive oil
In blender or with an immersion blender, completely mix the red bell pepper, garlic, bread, mustard and salt. Add the egg yolk and mix thoroughly. With the blender running, slowly add the olive oil and blend until thick and smooth.
HOW TO CONFIT AND CAN A DUCK
Courtesy of David Blackburn, Villa Hutton
1 fresh whole duck (the fatter the better!)
¼ c. kosher, canning, pickling or sea salt
2 quart-size jars
Butterfly the duck: lay it breast-side down, remove the backbone and tail and discard, then remove and retain the neck. Remove the bones from the breasts and separate the inner breast from the outer breast. The inner breast, liver and gizzard should not be canned, but gently seared or frozen for future use. Cut the duck into 7 pieces (leaving the skin on): the neck, 2 breasts, 2 wings and 2 legs with attached thighs. If there are intestines, gently remove the fat from around them and reserve it—making sure not to break the gallbladder, which is green and very bitter. If you do not have the intestinal fat, ask your duck source or a butcher for additional duck or chicken fat. Salt both sides of each piece of duck generously. Cover and refrigerate for 2 days.
After 48 hours, remove the duck from the refrigerator, rinse well and pat dry. Cut the fat off of the duck and slice the meat into pieces. Add the fat to a Dutch oven and slowly melt it over low heat. Add the duck pieces and bring to a simmer—be careful because the fat will be very, very hot. At least three-quarters of the duck should be covered with the fat. If not, add more fat or lard. Simmer for about 90 minutes, until a fork can easily be inserted. Remove from the heat. Place a breast, leg and thigh and wing in each jar, leaving 1 inch of headspace (include the neck in one of the jars). Ladle the duck fat over the meat—maintaining the inch of headspace. Process with a pressure canner for 90 minutes, at 10 pounds for a weighted gauge or 11 pounds for a dial gauge. After processing, place the jars, 1 inch apart, on a towel to cool. Label and store the jars. Confit is best if left for at least 90 days, and up to 2 years, before opening.
DUCK CONFIT, TEXAS STYLE
After my last trip to Pau, I returned home with two large containers of home-canned duck confit. I asked my friend, Austin chef Chris Chism, if canned duck inspired him. (I knew hearing the word “confit” would make him salivate—but canned, not fresh, duck confit?)
“I know that the French successfully can a lot of their classic dishes, but I was skeptical,” Chism says. “Then I snuck a tiny taste of the fat from the lid and I knew that this was the real thing.”
To prepare canned duck confit, you could simply spoon off the fat and use it to sauté potatoes or other vegetables, and then heat the meat in the same skillet. But Chism conjured a unique Tex-French meal—creating croquettes by combining the duck meat with local herbs and Beauregard sweet potatoes from Tony Phillips’s 3p Farm in Grand Saline and topping them with a gastrique of peaches from Fairfield. We sipped on a Messina Hof pinot grigio from Fredericksburg while cooking, and paired the rich, succulent croquettes with a Mouton Cadet Bordeaux to honor the duck’s origin.
It was experimental but it turned out to be amazingly delicious. “At first I was disappointed that the flavor (of the duck) was bland: not much in the way of herbal flair I expect from confit,” Chism says. “Then I realized that this provided a blank slate to add the flavors of the peaches, rosemary and sweet potatoes. In the end, it was great fun figuring out how to use it, and it was shockingly good.” —Cari Marshall