EDITOR’S NOTE Attention, Francophiles and lovers of meat: Each day this week, Washington food blogger Cathy Barrow is posting from Kate Hill’s Kitchen at Camont in Gascony, France, where a select and fortunate group of women will meet farmers and butchers, observe daily life, collaborate at workshops, cook lots of great meals and eat very, very well. As the days unfold, she’ll introduce you to the other women on the trip.
Cathy writes Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen, sharing recipes, food preservation techniques and stories. She is the co-founder of Charcutepalooza, the year-long program that challenges 400 bloggers to learn to make charcuterie. She has been featured in The Washington Post Food section, on Food52.com and on National Public Radio.
There is no need for an alarm clock at Camont, the French farmhouse where eight women have gathered for Grrls Meat Camp. Henri IV is happy to wake us up around 4 a.m., but once he’s released from his coop in the orchard, he quiets down. A little.
Kate Hill, 59, is an American living in Nerac, a small village in the heart of southwest France, She has a dog named Bacon. She has gathered us together for her first-ever Grrls Meat Camp. While our experiences range widely — butcher, home cook, farmer, student, journalist — our commitment to Old World crafts and our passion about the quality and source of the foods we eat, are shared and strong.
The TGV train arrived in Agen just four hours after departing Paris’s Gare Montparnasse. I traveled with Kari Underly, 44, a third-generation butcher from Chicago who heads up Range, Inc. She arrived in Paris after a whirlwind week of touring in the States, including an appearance on “The Today Show” to promote her new book, “The Art of Beef Cutting” (Wiley). Kari is thinking about the education of butchery in a big way, and hopes to add charcuterie skills to her already extraordinary bag of tricks.
As we made our way to the platform, we recognized another Grrl: Sarah King, 27, who, with her husband, Bubba, raises heritage pigs and is figuring out how to reform the food distribution system for The Collective in Portland, Ore.
After a short, 15-minute ride in a seemingly ancient Renault, we arrived at Camont, the 18th-century stone farmstead on two-plus acres that Kate calls home.
Camont is surrounded by orchards, fields and grazing lands, an old farm that was split up into manageable parcels. The original farmhouse is in ruins, but she has appropriated and modernized the ancient pigionniere. It features a warm, generous sitting room and a kitchen with a long table set in front of an enormous fireplace in addition as well as two bedrooms with full baths..
Kate made her living for many years as a boat captain, piloting the Julia Hoyt, a 19th-century iron and wooden barge, up and down the rivers of France. A few years ago, she tied the boat to the dock at Camont, and began arranging butchery and charcuterie workshops, coordinating with the local farmers, butchers and charcutieres she had come to know.
On the property are two retro trailer/campers (accommodations for some of us), a newly constructed “summer house” that serves as Kate’s office and another small boat. We were encouraged to get right to the kitchen.
The other Grrls greeted us in the parking area.
Melora Koepke, 35, spent time at Camont earlier this summer researching a story on Gascon’s night markets. She is thrilled to return for this collaboration.
Barbara Gibbs Ostmann, 62, and Kate met a few years back on a Julia Hoyt barge trip. Barb was food editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 20 years, after which she taught journalism at the Univerity of Missouri in Columbia. She may be best known for the reference book she co-authored with Jane Baker, “The Recipe Writer’s Handbook” (Wiley). She travels whenever possible and nearly bursts with infectious curiosity.
Rachel Gordon, 30, and Beth Gilliam, 29, are students at the Seattle Culinary Academy, a leader in sustainable culinary education. They are rounding out their studies with this week at Camont, fully funded by a scholarship program arranged by chef Sarah Wong.
The only male in attendance, Irish native Dylan Joyce-Ahearne, 18, has been living at Camont for most of the summer. He’s here due to a program that places interested students on European farms, trading hard work and onsite education for room and board. He will enter Dublin’s Trinity College later this year to study English and French literature.
The air was clear and cool. There was a breeze from the canal just steps from the back door, and the patio was decorated with candles, chandeliers and pink chair cushions. Crisp rose began to flow.
This was an easy group in the kitchen, chopping, sauteing, setting the table, pouring the wine. The space is rustic but super-functional, with two four-burner gas ranges and a large work island. The pantry is in the former piggery, a few steps from the back door. As in most French kitchens, far less is refrigerated than in America.
Kate brought out beautiful, fat duck breasts to teach us how to trim and stuff them. She slipped a carbon-steel knife into the center of each breast, wiggling it back and forth, then turned the breast around and did the same thing from the other end. We were able to fit about six pitted Pruneaux d’Agen into the two pockets.
We tossed quartered potatoes with plenty of duck fat, salt and pepper for roasting in the oven.
Using quick fingertips, Kate blended flour with butter, rendered duck fat and an egg to form a tender tart crust. The local butter and creme fraiche are like nothing I’ve ever tasted: sweet, pure, clean, smelling slightly of fresh grass.) She filled the rustic pastry with pears; servings were topped with generous dollops of creme fraiche.
Our first course, cantaloupe with capers and anchovies, was surprisingly bright, briny and appetizing —a fitting introduction to Gascon gastronomy.
Once the beehive clay barbecue was fiercely hot, we grilled the duck breasts and gathered under the grape arbor to toast the week ahead.