Twenty years ago, the Southwest, and especially the Tarn, was not noted for its fare; historically it has been too poor a region. One New York friend had even questioned our move on the grounds that we were going to the only region in France where one could not eat properly. But this wasn’t entirely true then, and it certainly isn’t now. Local products are exceptionally good and various, whether meat, produce, fowl or game, vegetables and fruit, so the results can only be good. I was fortunate enough to meet and work with some of the best cooks of the commune. They included Madame Orliac from Vales. She and her husband were responsible for the best annual local fête and she ran the cantine when our son, Peter, attended the local school. To this day Peter swears that no school food has ever been as good. Madame Orliac had a heart to match her vast knowledge and competence. Unfortunately, she passed away before this blog came to be.
Madame Roque from Vales runs a chamber d’hôte/camping at the bottom of the village, and cooks for her clients. The last “fête de cochon” in the commune took place on her farm, see inset in the chapter on meats.
Madame Jouard lives out in the country and has the reputation for being a diverse and refined cook. Her meals and recipes would do any restaurant of quality proud.
Madame Robert lives in the village of Puycelsi and is the guardian of more summer homes than one can imagine. She has worked in various restaurants, which have opened and folded in Puycelsi.
Madame Golsse, a baker’s daughter from Puycelsi with the face of an angel, shared her handwritten cookbook with me, and as the local curate, a frequent guest at her table assured me, “hers was simple fare but the best”. Unfortunately, she has also passed on; her half-Canadian grandson has returned to the village to open a pottery studio and jobs on the side at the auberge.
These women taught me much about cooking, how to create something delectable with very little and hence much about life as well.
Either as a group or individually we searched out “old” recipes and dug up antique cooking methods, from as far back as we could find them. Handwritten cookbooks from the beginning of the century, old menus from special occasions, celebrated in restaurants in Albi or Puycelsi, as well as letters and photographs all helped to complete the picture.
And we conducted dozens of interviews. This created many puzzles and I had to separate what was from what couldn’t have been. For example, what could “add spices” possibly mean? Since saffron had been a major cash crop during the 17th century why were there no local recipes that called for its use? What spices did itinerant traders sell off their horse carts? Dates feature in many medicinal brews of the 18th and 19th century, but why were they not mentioned in local recipes? Modernity had also crept in, for example many current recipes use cheeses that were almost certainly not used in this area a hundred years ago.
Once we had collected all the information, I set about re-creating and quantifying recipes; testing and re-testing until I heard “Yes, that’s what tasted like !” from one of the women or locals. In this task I was helped enormously by Richard Sanders, a true gourmand.
He and his wife ate in every Michelin star restaurant in France, and he kept copious notes about each experience. They count amongst the oldest foreign residents of the village. Their lovely house overlooks the valley and many a recipe problem was ironed out over a martini. Dick taught me that precision, so often ignored, when recipes are put on paper, is “only right.” Yet again, it is sadly only his wife who will be able to see the fruits of our labor.
The happy surprise was that the recipes satisfied most demands for a healthy diet and were also tasty. A lifetime of little meat, low consumption of dairy products, goose or duck fat instead of oil, red wine in moderation, the habitual rest following the mid-day meal, and eating lighter at night than at noon have made their mark on medical research. The longevity had the cardiologists baffled, and around the turn of this century many studies were launched to ascertain the beneficial properties of southwest as well as Mediterranean cooking.
During the course of the 1800’s, there were several butchers, bakers, dry grocers and cafés in the village. At the turn of the last century, about 2000 people lived on the hilltop, with only cistern water and open drainage. And practically every household kept a pig out side of their house.
Puycelsi as a village and as a commune has undergone rapid changes, urbanization and gentrification, and so has its cuisine. Many traditional recipes and stories about its kitchen, hearth and practices will probably vanish with this generation. This became another reason for collecting the recipes – I wanted to document and help pass on a tradition.
Today, three different frozen food companies service the village, private potagers are not so common anymore, and encounters in the local supermarket show up purchases that would never have been made 15 years ago.
Of course, local markets survive – Sunday at St. Antonin Noble Val, Monday at Caussade, Friday at Gaillac and Saturday at Rabastens – and some vendors sell home-grown produce and local specialties such as unusual mushrooms (name them), potatoes, etc. The majority, though, buy such things as string beans from Kenya and re-sell them as their own at fixed prices.
While the recipes were mijoting my husband and I created the L’Ancienne Auberge. It was not easy for two foreigners, one Australian, one German, both with years in the States to start a restaurant and hotel in this village. It has become haven of happiness and good for food for many. About 80% of our clients are French, and the rest is spread over 57 nationalities. Recipes from this cookbook regularly find their way into my menus which change daily as I work only with fresh and especially regional products.
The final acknowledgement and words of thanks have to go to our children, Caroline, Kate and Peter. Their lives were much affected by our choices of lifestyles, but they have fared well and are source of great joy.