by Marc d’Entremont
“I’m not sure if I really know how to write a song” is not what a guest at a song writing workshop would expect to hear from acclaimed New York writer/performer Dean Friedman. At this moment who cares?
A few miles outside Carcassonne one of Regine Thuillet’s exquisite lunches is laid out on the poolside table at Domaine St. Raymond, home to the French House Party. To start: pate, flaky yet buttery brie tart and a chilled glass of crisp local Domaine Le Fort Gewurztraminer paired perfectly with convivial conversation, a shockingly blue sky and the yellow sunflower fields of the Languedoc to make you believe songs are just in the air for the picking.
Domaine St. Raymond sits among gently rolling hills of golden wheat and sunflowers. A 14th century church, within view in the village of Pexiora, overlooks this agrarian scene. The nearby medieval UNESCO World Heritage city of Carcassonne welcomes throngs of visitors inside its fortified walls. Within this bucolic setting, small groups of intellectually curious travelers gather for all-inclusive four to seven day creative residential workshops in southern France’s Languedoc.
Yet the creative process is nebulous. It has always been a balance of inspiration and technical skill. Moira Martingale provides the atmosphere for discovering this balance at her villa, Domaine St. Raymond. British born Moira, Ph.D. in gothic literature, author, and devotee of French cuisine, created the French House Party.
The early 19th century stone farmhouse – restored into a spacious villa with eight individually decorated en-suite bedrooms – becomes a salon for like-minded guests who delve into residential workshops focused on creative writing, graphic and digital arts, songwriting with Dean Friedman, gastronomy with acclaimed French chefs and, not to be missed, the eternal artistry of chocolate – new for 2017. The French House Party workshops are serious endeavors but without pressure to perform. Although the pool is inviting, it’s the lack of pressure that energizes participation.
Dean Friedman’s four-day summer singer/songwriter workshop at the French House Party provides a stimulating opportunity to discover, or rediscover, internal creative skills. Like all good teachers, Dean wants to draw out these skills from each participant. “I don’t profess to be able to write other people’s songs,” he states simply. Individuality is important.
“The sooner I know what the song is about the clearer the task to get there becomes.” Dean encourages everyone to “get over fear.” He usually has a rough outline for the first stanza, and then starts asking a lot of internal questions that will help define the song’s tone, style, lyrical voice (the voice of the song) and rhyme scheme. “If I’m (asks the lyrical voice) in this scene, what am I seeing, doing, thinking and sensing at this moment?”
Then again, “A song doesn’t have to be about anything,” but needs to create a balance between the obvious and what “makes the listener lean in to hear the difference.” Dean expresses the freedom songwriting provides in that all poetic devices are game – alliteration, puns, internal rhymes. “At the end of the day you have to trust your own ear,” Dean concludes, and summarizes the creative process by quoting Miles Davis, “There are no wrong notes in jazz; it’s what comes next that’s important.”
French House Party residential workshops attract an eclectic and international clientele with many repeat guests. Dean’s workshop balanced theory and time for individual and/or collaborative song writing yet when not engaged in activities, food at the French House Party became a favored topic. Whether it’s the superb cooking of Regine Thuillet or, for those attending the culinary workshops, Michelin starred chefs, the French House Party defines southern French cuisine.
The ambitious seven-day Gourmet Explorer Advanced cookery course I attended brought together an international mix of guests from the United Kingdom, South Africa and the United States along with Michelin star French chefs Robert Abraham and Jean-Marc Boyer. From boning guinea fowl, preparing pate de foie gras, removing freshly steamed crabmeat, spinning threads of sugar, making foams from rice pudding and soup from cherries, the group was immersed in hands-on learning of both classic French and cutting edge culinary techniques. Dishes prepared during the culinary workshops become part of lunch and dinner.
While Jean-Marc Boyer was teaching his recipe for shrimp with vanilla and tarragon to the group at the French House Party, he reached for a bottle of bourbon. Adding a few glugs to the shrimp sautéing in butter, he tipped the pan and let it flame. The bourbon wasn’t on the original recipe, but Jean-Marc Boyer has a reputation for impromptu changes to his own recipes, including his pastries. This creativity has earned his restaurant, Le Puits de Tresor, a Michelin star.
He used prawns in France, but large shrimp is an acceptable substitute. The vanilla oil does have to be made at least half an hour before cooking the shrimp and can be made up to thirty days ahead.
This dish is simple yet elegant. Both the bourbon and the vanilla compliment the rich cream, and yet it’s just enough sauce to lightly coat the shrimp.
Michelin star chef Jean-Marc Boyer’s shrimp with vanilla and tarragon
Ingredients: 4 servings
- 1 pound jumbo shrimp (21/25), shell on or off
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon + 4 teaspoons vanilla oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, finely shredded
- salt & pepper
- 4 tablespoons bourbon, brandy or rum
- 4 ounces heavy cream
- To make 4 ounces vanilla oil: slice a vanilla bean pod lengthwise in half. Using the blade of the knife, scrap the seeds from the pod and place in a small bowl. Slice the pod into 8 pieces and add to the bowl. Add 4 ounces extra virgin olive oil. Stir, cover and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes before using. Note: leftover oil intensifies in flavor but should be used within 30 days.
- Melt butter in a large saute pan and add 1 tablespoon vanilla oil.
- Add shrimp and half the fresh tarragon and saute over medium heat for 1 minute. Salt and pepper to taste. Flip the shrimp and cook 30 seconds more.
Add the bourbon, brandy or rum to the pan and flame – gently tilt the pan towards gas flame or, carefully, light with a match. Cook for an additional 30 seconds after flame has died. Remove the shrimp, with tongs or slotted spoon, to a plate and keep warm.
- Add cream to the pan and bring the sauce to a simmer for one minute.
- Spoon some sauce on each of four plates and top each plate with shrimp.
- Drizzle 1 teaspoon vanilla oil over each plate of shrimp and garnish with remaining tarragon.
In 2016 Moira Martingale welcomed “our very own sauce wizard,” Lyon native Chef Laurent Jeannin to the French House Party’s acclaimed culinary instructor team. In 2017 Chef Jeannin will pair with Chef Jean-Marc Boyer in presenting the Cuisine in Brief and Gourmet Explorer courses.
New for 2017 is the addition of local Master Chocolatier and Pâtissier Gregory Legros. Chef Legros may be local but has worked his chocolate and pastry magic in Michelin star restaurants in Paris, Cannes and luxury 5-star hotels in New Zealand, Vietnam, Oman and the legendary Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados. Returning home to the Languedoc with his family within the past year, Chef Legros is creating what he describes as his “chocolate laboratory” at Patisserie Greg in the nearby village of Saint-Martin-Lalande.
Are you in a quandary for a unique Christmas gift? Chef Legros will teach a 3-day pre-Easter workshop, Just Desserts, at the French House Party March 31 – April 2. Making a reservation for Just Desserts would be perfect for that discerning chocoholic on your holiday list!
Creative writing workshops are conducted by British author and “writers’ writer” Sarah Hymas. Poet, performer and coach, Sarah leads workshops for both beginners and writers already working on a project. For many of the creative courses available at the French House Party, groups can arrange workshops outside of the published schedule. Domaine St. Raymond is also a favored destination for international business retreats.
Morning and afternoon workshop sessions in the stylish, modern comfort of Domaine St. Raymond are not difficult to take, and the French House Party’s all-inclusive tariff allows guests to focus energy on creativity. Multi course lunches and dinners with wine follow a poolside French buffet breakfast of pastries, cheeses, fruits, granola, yogurts and charcuterie mostly prepared by the incomparable Regine Thuillet, an accomplished culinary artist and painter.
Even with the physically more challenging cooking courses held in the spacious, modern, professional kitchen, free-time activities revolve around a swim in the pool, tennis, billiards, table tennis, a book or CD from the library, biking in the French countryside or simply napping.
Workshop time is interspersed with excursions to such local attractions as the markets in Carcassonne, L’Oulico Olive Oil cooperative and winery Domaine Le Fort with tastings at both. Within Carcassonne’s ancient walls, guests at the Gourmet Explorer Advanced workshop were feted during a warm southern French evening with a superb dinner at Restaurant La Marquiere in its courtyard flower garden. The hunting lodge ambiance of Chateau Cavanac provided another memorable dinner under the stars. Participants in Song Writing are guests at Domaine St. Raymond’s public Dean Friedman concert.
Hands-on experiences, classic southern French rural scenery, a luxury villa, ancient medieval Carcassonne close by and sitting down to sumptuous and leisurely repasts create the reality of a genuine country house party. The peace and quiet at Domaine St. Raymond and birds chirping at dawn are gifts of nature.
When you go:
The 2017 schedule of the French House Party runs from March 31 through October 4.
The French House Party, Domaine St. Raymond, is less than 50 miles (77 km) southeast from the Toulouse-Blagnac Airport and the rail station Gare de Toulouse-Matabiau. The Gare de Carcassonne is 16 miles (27 km) west. Transportation is provided for guests arriving by air or train from either Toulouse or Carcassonne to Domaine St. Raymond.
Moira Martingale, French House Party, Domaine St. Raymond, 11150 Pexiora, Languedoc, France.
Tel: +33 4 68 94 98 16
French House Party: http://www.frenchhouseparty.eu/
Course dates: http://www.frenchhouseparty.eu/how-to-book/course-dates/
Disclaimer: the author was a guest of the French House Party for two separate workshops – Song Writing with Dean Friedman and Gourmet Explorer Advanced.