As the car climbed up and up a steep, narrow gravel lane, I craned my head eagerly, searching for the marker for La Pitchoune, meaning”little one “. This was Julia Child’s getaway home in the hills above Nice in the south of France. Finally I found it, the iconic house where myself and a small band of women writers and food artisans would be spending the week to write and cook.
Perched atop this steep hill far out in the countryside, I could appreciate why she and her husband Paul chose this place as an escape from their hectic lives. It is absolutely serene. The only sounds are the birds singing, roosters crowing and the clip clop of horses from the farm next door. Then there is the added plus of the brilliant sunshine for which Provence is so well loved.
Once we reached the house we could see that the steep hill from which I approached continued further up behind the house. Above are stone terraces whose gardens burst with all kinds of greenery. Flights of stone steps lead you to gardens where pomegranate and persimmon trees yield their fruit, rosemary flourishes, wild daisies flower and magpies greedily feast on the produce from the kitchen garden.
The house itself is tiny, a cottage really. It is snug and cozy but bright with Provencal colors. Flanked by wide, sunny stone patios with a view of the valley and hills beyond, it is surrounded by olive trees. The current owners preserved the look, feel and many of the furnishings from Julia’s time. Evidence of her and her husband are everywhere. Photos, Paul’s paintings, those of favorite artists and their beloved objects fill the place. Altogether they tell a story of what it must have been like to live here 50-60 years ago when the Childs built this house on property owned by Simone Beck, co-author of her books “Mastering the Art I & II”’ and whose home was and remains within steps of “La Peech”, the affectionate nickname for Julia’s place.
We came here to write about food and to cook, and what a better place. Julia got her inspiration for her recipes from the lush greenery surrounding this house and the sight of the hilltop villages in the distance. We hoped to do the same.
Julia’s kitchen, where she developed and tested her recipes is compact but it was a kitchen for a cook. In the center is a sturdy butcher-block island. Along the wall is the pegboard husband Paul is so famous for creating for her. A perfectionist and an artist at heart, he drew deep black outlines of pots, pans and utensils on that pegboard, marking the place for each of them. The outlines remain and it gave me shivers to peer at them.
I felt Julia looking over my shoulder as we prepared meals in that kitchen and sat eating at her dining table on the rush-seated Provencal style chairs. It was almost as if she was present with us.
Each day, we cooked from Julia’s “Mastering the Art” cookbook, which she worked on at this house. The first day we made roasted chicken thighs bathed in white wine sauce and covered with roasted lemon slices and olives. Then the bakers among us created roasted apple and pear tarts seasoned with thyme and saffron. I would never have thought to season a dessert dish with such flavorings but they worked.
Finally and the dish that I truly savored was one styled on her beef bourguignon recipe for a French style beef stew. This recipe, which runs three pages in length in “Mastering the Art”, thoroughly, covers every aspect of preparation and cooking for this stew. When it was brought to the attention of a publisher who cared about authentic French cooking and who wanted to bring that cooking to Americans, it turned out to be the key that finally unlocked the door to getting her book published after years of failed attempts. It was delicious. Winey, slow cooked beef. It was the showpiece of our cooking experience. It was delicious. The inspiration was working.
Beef Stew (Beef Bourguignon)
Adapted from Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Serves 4-6
3 Lbs beef chuck roast cut into large pieces, browned in the skillet
1 large yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 carrots peeled and finely chopped
Several strips of bacon, sauteed
2 cloves mashed garlic
1 bottle good red wine, preferably burgundy
1tbs tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 pound button mushrooms, quartered and sautéed
2 tbs butter
1/3 cup flour
Preparation: Dry the beef with a paper towel and toss with flour. It will not brown if wet. Sautee the vegetables in the butter in a skillet. Add wine and beef and sauté further. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to boil and cook over high heat for 3-5 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 hours. Serve hot or warm with roasted potatoe slices