From the Hearth in Périgord

Photo by Laurel

Photo by Laurel

When I first approach the five-hundred-year-old farm, I am not sure I’ve come to the right place. The address Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch had given me a month earlier when I called her for an interview was simply “La Borderie,” the name of her French home and cooking school sewn into the fringes of a diminutive village in the rolling hills of the Dordogne, a region of southwestern France also known as Périgord and noted for its rustic regional specialties, such as duck, black truffles, and foie gras, and a culinary pedigree steeped, quite literally, in goose fat.

Only a hand-painted wooden sign nailed to a tree points the way off the main road toward a cluster of unembellished stone and pitch-roofed cottages down a gravel drive, the simplicity of which catches me off guard. Maybe the flamboyance of TV star chefs have tainted my imagination, but I expect more flash from the home of Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch. People in the region refer to her as a local legend: not only had she started the region’s first cooking school, but in 1988 had been hand-plucked from her simple surrounds to spend two years at the presidential palace in Paris as the personal chef to then President of France, François Mitterrand.

“We are not going to talk about that now,” she says when I jump to questions just moments after she opens the weathered door of her moss- and ivy-covered stone cottage.

Danièle is smiling, and her small stature looks miniature framed by the wooden threshold. She extends her right hand and introduces herself, which makes me smile. As if I don’t know exactly who she is.

“Please,” she says, sweeping her arm toward her home’s interior. I duck an inch to avoid banging my head on the top of the short doorway, and step in.

There is something delicate about Danièle, but she’s far from frail. Her silver hair is smoothed into a bun pinned at the back of her head, revealing clear ivory skin that belies her age, which I don’t dare ask. In a black collarless Chinese-style jacket worn over loose pants, she glides with fluid precision around the main room of the house, which is divided in two by a giant fireplace, the kitchen and a seating area on one side, the dining table and sliding door to an unruly garden on the other.

My eyes dart from Danièle, who has invited me to sit down in a squishy chair near her kitchen counter on which she’s flattening out a white cloth with both hands, to the various objects around the room that seem to materialize each time I blink, like vignettes in a viewfinder.

Dainty, scallop-edged lace curtains cover petite square windows, and straw hats and baskets hang from sturdy wood beams that stretch across the ceiling. On the kitchen half of the room, a lamp with a tulip-shaped glass shade casts a glow over two scrapbooks sitting upon a rickety side table near my chair. Intrigued, I finger the cover of one of them and flip through the pages stuffed with photos, name tags, ribbons, menus, and other markers of time’s passage. I stop at a photo of Danièle standing next to the former French president. From behind her kitchen counter on which she’s now set out a white platter, she sees me reading the accompanying yellowed newspaper article.

“I suppose I will always be remembered as that, more than anything else I have done, ” she says.

The concession in her voice stops me from shelling her with questions and I close the scrapbook. I watch her flit between the tile-top counters in her kitchen where she’s finessing a paring knife, rhythmically slicing sanglier (wild boar) into even pieces on the white fabric, and the fireplace where she rhapsodizes about the joy of preparing a meal.

“Cooking is so much more than just eating,” she says as she works. “It is talking and being social, and making people as happy as you can with the food you prepare. You are putting on a spectacle.”

Danièle speaks English, but peppers her sentences with words in her native French. For emphasis, she also talks with her hands and with whatever is in them. The house, she tells me as she waves a fireplace poker like a wand, is where her father was born, where her four children were raised, and where she welcomes them and her six grandchildren each summer.

Thirty years ago, Danièle began Foie Gras Weekends at the house, a three-day course teaching the regional Périgourdine cuisine, and four years after that, founded the École d’Art et Tradition Culinaire du Périgord, the region’s first cooking school located in another small cottage next to her house, where she has built a demonstration kitchen and teaches her students. These endeavors earned her a formidable reputation in the region and several awards, including, in 1980, the Chevalier du Mérite Agricole from the French government, an award rarely bestowed upon a woman.

I’m here in the Dordogne researching the food, cooking traditions, and local personalities of the region for a culinary travel book, and it would be careless not to include Danièle in my work. But truthfully, I would have probably come even without this objective. I’ve been a lifelong Francophile, drawn for unexplained reasons to a culture, a language, and a country that I have no ancestral ties to yet where I feel most at home. I took French in high school, and was a French major in college. I remember being asked by one of my teachers what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, “an ambassador to France.”  After becoming a journalist, it was my goal to write about travel, in particular travel in France, a country I had loved, unconditionally, since I first taped a picture of the Eiffel Tower to my bedroom wall as a child.

“You know,” Danièle says, stirring the coals with her poker, I live almost like my grandmother did.”

The house indeed appears time-capsuled, and Danièle confirms that not much has changed over the generations, except for the addition of refrigeration and plumbing. The room is full but tidy and counts as the kitchen, dining, and living room. A sliding door leads to that wild garden full of uncut grass, fig trees, and a vegetable patch. But the home’s pièce de résistance is the enormous fireplace, which opens on two sides, at least five feet wide, to the kitchen and the dining area. It is the home’s obvious epicenter and Danièle tells me she designed it herself with entertaining in mind. An array of archaic-looking tools lean against the grey stone façade, and various pots sit ready. Danièle picks up a black cast iron pan called a royale and sets it down in the embers. It is over century old, she says.

“The trick is, you never wash them,” she says, wiping the inside with a cloth. When I ask her what she cooks in the royale, she says, “Everything—a whole turkey, a lièvre [wild hare], a cake.”

Danièle then dips a paintbrush in a nearby can of goose fat and coats the inside of the royale. Within minutes, that signature scent of the Dordogne’s favorite cooking elixir suffuses the room, and the grand mistress of Périgourdine cuisine snuggles six meaty duck legs into place on top of the heating grease, and caps them with a lid. The fireplace is large enough to stand upright in. I ask her if she ever hangs geese or lamb from the brawny char-blacked hooks dangling from the dark void of the chimney.

“No, that’s cooking for tourists,” she laughs.

Watching Danièle cook, I imagine the generations of instruction, decisions, arguments, and revelations that have transpired on this very hearth. I imagine her with gathered family and friends, celebrating birthdays, graduations, and holidays in the light and warmth radiating from this fireplace that is both the heart and hearth of her home.

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, I wasn’t accustomed to fireplaces at all, let alone meals prepared over burning wood in the center of the living room.  Meals were merely sustenance for my mom, a single, independent woman of the ‘70s who felt cooking was not about entertaining or even pleasing, but efficiency and convenience. Vegetables from a can, pasta from a box, and fried chicken from the freezer that could be heated in the oven or microwave were easy, cheap, almost always served on paper plates, and eaten quickly. The kitchen wasn’t an enjoyable place for my mom, or the hub of our social life. It was where we ate.

In France, dining is the social glue of life. Days are planned around meals, shops close from noon until mid-afternoon for lunch, and cooking is often the best glimpse into family histories, where recipes are passed on as cherished heirlooms, like old photos and wedding china. I imagined that someday I’d have a home where I would host long family dinners and cook meals from recipes that I’d pass on to my daughter someday. It wasn’t until I got older and learned to cook that I understood the pleasure gleaned from inviting people I care about into my home, and demonstrating my feelings for them with a lovingly prepared meal and a shared memory around the table.

Danièle tells me she welcomes friends, family, journalists, and tourists to her table next to the great fireplace a few times a week. Today, she is expecting a radio show host from Santa Rosa, California, and his wife, and has also invited friends of hers who own a nearby bed-and-breakfast. She busily prepares lunch for them but still makes time to offer me coffee in a porcelain teacup. While I sip, she whisks into the garden to pluck a handful of figs from the tree, which she plans to pair with the sanglier for a savory-sweet amuse-bouche. She invites me to stay but the polite American in me declines; I don’t want to impose, I tell her. I apologize that I’ve come at such a hectic time, and suggest we pick another time for the interview. She looks at me inquisitively.

“You know, if you make an appointment for eleven in the morning here in the Périgord, it is expected you will have something to eat,” Danièle says, pointing at me with the knife she is using to slice the figs.  “I planned for you to stay.”

She explains that this courteous custom stems from times when people would travel four to five days by horse and carriage. Even though I’ve come only two hours by car, and could be in Paris by sundown, I accept her logic as well as her invitation.

With the pleased nod of someone who is used to getting her way, Danièle scoops up a dish of potatoes from her counter top and excuses herself to warm them in the oven located in the demonstration kitchen in a small cottage next door where she leads her cooking classes. While she’s gone, I look around the room more closely, mostly to verify there really is no oven.

As I survey her home, Danièle is revealed in pieces: Antique curios dot the ochre-colored stone walls, as do photos of apron-clad guests standing arm-in-arm with Danièle. Oval frames line bookcases and shelves, many of them displaying the gap-toothed grins of children sitting on her lap or posed in white-collar school uniforms. On a wooden buffet underneath the lace-covered windows, dozens of jars of homemade confiture stack like building blocks next to glass domes preserving frosted cakes and flaky fruit pies, each with a few missing wedges. Her life might be simple, but it is certainly not empty.

I again fumble through the pages of one of her scrapbooks. Danièle’s gastronomic life has taken her around the world as a lecturer, teacher, and chef, and to places as diverse and far-flung as China, Mexico, New York, Montreal, Moscow, and Sydney. She even spent fourteen months in Antarctica, where she cooked at a French research lab, rang in the millennium, and celebrated her 60th birthday. When she returns from next door, I ask her about that.

“I was looking for a change; an adventure,” she says, signaling me to follow her.

She pulls out delicate, cut-crystal apéritif glasses from a cabinet near the dining table and hands them to me two at a time. I set them down on the faded blue tablecloth next to ceramic plates that, despite the summer season, are embellished with an autumn leaf motif. From a wooden chest of deep drawers she grabs water goblets and wine glasses, and we place them in their proper positions on the table. She counts out cutlery from yet another drawer and places it, piece by piece, upon each blue cloth napkin.

“This is the French way,” she says. “The tines go down so that guests can see the family crest on the back of the silverware.”

There is no crest on the back of any of her stainless steel forks, and I ask her if she always goes to such lengths when setting the table, using three different sets of glasses, cloth napkins, and tine-down fork placement for a mid-week lunch.

“But, of course. It is the very least I can do for my guests.”

Part of what lures me to France every year — and has since my first visit as a young adult—is the country’s collective love affair with food, the perfected art of the long and lingering meal, an experience that can be as aesthetic and sensually stimulating as a visit to the Louvre.

As Danièle slowly circles the table, setting each fork in its precise place, she comments on a brightly-colored portrait of a woman I am admiring. She tells me Monique Peytral, the local artist who painted the facsimile of the Lascaux Cave, the Dordogne’s most famous and visited site, painted it. The original Lascaux Cave, featuring 17,000-year-old drawings by Cro-Magnon Man, an early European culture of modern Homo sapiens, was closed to the public in 1963. Monique Peytral worked on an exact replica from 1972 to 1983 when Lascaux II, as the new site is called, opened.

“She is a very good friend of mine and was just here for dinner the other night,” says Danièle.

It seems fitting that this painting watches over the table, and I love the idea of these two artists and cherishers of local history sitting down together to share and admire another’s craft.

Over on the fire, the duck legs sizzle in the royale, and Danièle turns them in their bubbling bed. She begins bringing out platters of pâté and figs stuffed with sanglier just as her guests knock on the door. Danièle makes a round of introductions, kissing cheeks and squeezing hands. She pours a traditional and homemade vin de noix (walnut wine) into the apéritif glasses we’d set out earlier, and raises hers into the air, “Bienvenue, old friends and new.”

There are six of us in all around Danièle’s table; a coterie of curious French and English speakers, some here for the first time, others returning to the table of a woman whose generosity and passion for her region’s culinary history is cooked into every bite.

After the amuse-bouche of sweet figs and salty sanglier, there is an appetizer of foie gras with fig jam.  The confit de canard (duck legs) that had been simmering in the royale are next: The skin is crisped and browned to a caramel color, and juice streams from the inside when I pierce the duck leg with my knife. This dish is served everywhere in the Dordogne. It’s the epitome of Périgourdine comfort food and is prepared in the traditional way by frying in its own fat, something Danièle remembers her grandmother teaching her how to do.  The duck is served alongside the golden, crisped potatoes—pommes de terre turned heavenly spuds when cooked in, well, what else but goose fat.

As is often the case in France, the meal includes a cheese course, then dessert followed by coffee, and stretches through several bottles of wine and well into twilight. We share stories about our hometowns and favorite restaurants; recap books we’ve read and which movies and music made us laugh and cry; brag about where we’ve traveled and where we’re going; reminisce about our loved ones and children back home; and of course wax lyrical about the Dordogne and Danièle.

We have come to this remote corner of France, some of us from great distances, for the food and a glimpse into local culinary tradition; but we will leave with something more. The essential ingredient baked into this meal, and what will later make it so memorable for me, is that intangible human communion we seek when we travel; a bond forged, I believe, when like-minded strangers and friends come together, often over a meal, and across boundaries actual or implicit, to nourish the basic human desire to connect.

After the last visitor leaves, I linger intentionally, and offer to help clean up. Danièle declines my offer and makes one of her own: “Now that you’ve spent time in my home and we’ve gotten to know one another a little, I am ready to answer your questions.”

Danièle is likely to be remembered as the ex-cook of an ex-president of France, but by now I’ve almost forgotten about that part of her life. She is a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, an explorer, a friend, a historian, and adventurer, and a gracious, albeit fork-wielding, hostess.

But mostly, she is an artist who recreates her greatest opus over and over again—the gift of bringing people together and making them feel at home, even when they are miles from their own. I did have a few more questions for her, about her family, her cooking school, her friends, her beloved Périgord and its cuisine, and her thoughts about being considered a gastronomic rock star. But I tell her that the questions can wait until another day, and that I’d really just like to enjoy her company a little longer.

She nods, satisfied, and we sit together for one more glass by the open fire.

 

Haute Cuisine, a film about Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch’s life, was released by Transmission Films in September 2013. View the trailer here.

Support Vela on Kickstarter!

About Kimberley Lovato

Kimberley Lovato is an award-winning travel writer and author of the culinary travel book Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, which features a foreword by Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch and includes an original recipe. Read her full bio here.

Comments

  1. Nancy Cassidy says:

    Beautifully written and completely describes our own experience with Danielle. Grace, ease, history and deliciousness all wrapped up.

  2. Mark Andrews says:

    You capture the essence of culinary tradition and a wonderfully elegant and talented women beautifully. Thank you for sharing.

Thoughts?