Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Fête to Remember

Chateau de Goult. Ancient and modern.
Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton recently spent 8 or so pages in The New York Times Magazine on cooking a meal for 15 friends on one day, from shopping to clean up. 

Well biiiiiig deal.

Two summers ago, one of my childhood pals, whom I'll call S., threw a once-in-a-lifetime birthday celebration. She had scouted locations in the south of France, deciding on the quirky, charming Château de Goult, in Provence east of Avignon, the core of which is an 11th-century chateau. It was recently refurbished with ultra modern bathroom fixtures, and some rooms have been added here and there over the centuries, plus a short lap pool and a big sun deck adjacent to the ancient watchtower. It accommodated about 30 of us, and 10 more stayed in a nearby hotel, making 40 total.

The rosé with a custom label by S's aunt. 
My husband, A., is an excellent cook, and had been pegged by S. two years prior to be one of the main chefs for the week in France for at least a couple meals; she'd planned to recruit other friends to cook as well. A. had just cooked a dinner for another friend's wedding reception of about 30 guests, and is no stranger to elaborate meals for up to a dozen. Still, not much prepares one for cooking for 40 people in one day, three times in one week, in a—literally—foreign kitchen. 

The first step is the shopping, which in a network of small towns, can be catch as catch can. After arriving on a Saturday (the turnaround day for rentals), we set out on Sunday after a leisurely breakfast, around 11am, to the local supermarket. It was jam-packed with everyone else trying to shop for the weekend. We discovered the store closed at noon on Sundays, which was why the checkout lines reached halfway back into the store's aisles. We could hardly negotiate the cart for all the crowds. The closest I'd seen to this was the Atlantic Mall Pathmark in Brooklyn, which I'm convinced is the retail manifestation of purgatory. 

So A. hurried to the meat section to see what could be the centerpiece of dinner, and joyfully discovered four leg of lamb roasts which he would garnish with garlic and branches of rosemary plucked from local bushes. The produce section yielded celeriac, which he made into a remoulade. S.'s older son would turn eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and squash into ratatouille in the second kitchen in the guest wing. And I, being the Starch Queen at home, would make vats of couscous. S. had a small team making plum tarts. The menu, in French:
  • Celeri Remoulade
  • Gigot
  • Ratatouille
  • Couscous
  • Tarte aux Reines-claudes

Things went fairly smoothly. There was much running back and forth between the kitchens in search of particular pans or utensils. One of the hardest tasks was actually serving, and then clearing, dishes for 40 people at once. The kids were recruited for waitstaff duty, and others did dish duty. 

S. is a true artist, a retired ballerina who now has a jewelry designing business. Her taste is elegant and impeccable. Her eye for detail is combined with a tireless work ethic and faith in others to be likewise inspired. So she took it upon herself to seat dinner, for 40, in five different locations for the six nights. Simple, eh?

Dinner 1: a Pangea of tables. 
The first night's meal was in a huge dining hall. Several tables were pushed together, like Pangea before it broke into separate continents. Many speeches were made, and the first dozens of bottles of rosé drunk that had been specially labeled by a local vintner with artwork by S.'s aunt, an artist. Amazingly, our concern was not whether there'd be enough wine, but whether we could drink it fast enough.

Dinner 2: fit for royalty.
The second night's feast was consumed in the living room area, located in the most ancient part of the chateau, built with old fieldstones to create a distinctive pale stonework surface. It's the section of the chateau that most feels suited for a king, with a circular dining alcove, a long Henry VIII table, wrought-iron chandeliers, and windowed alcoves with tables. With the help of the resident superintendent, S. had placed votive candles everywhere, illuminating the space and making it feel truly wondrous and ceremonial.

We learned of a Carrefour, a much larger supermarket, a bit farther afoot, closer in size to a suburban American store, which meant more plentiful choices. A. decided to make one of our staple meals from home; this menu in English:

  • Roasted chicken
  • Leeks & potatoes
  • Salad
  • Cookies

Now, roast chicken is pretty simple, but... for 40 people? How many chickens do you buy for 40? It turned out to be 10, which is a lot to fit into two ovens, even if fairly capacious. It's also a lot of pans, so A. bought disposable foil ones, a stroke of brilliance. The ovens turned out to be convection, which crisped up the skin beautifully on the chickens. The spatchcocked birds roast atop piles of potato chunks and leek slices, which also brown to a light crisp.

Dinner 3, in the vaulted cellar.
Another couple fixed the next night's meal of Seafood Pasta, with clams and mussels, and Pêche aux Chevre Chaud, roasted peaches with goat cheese. The setting was even more dramatic than the previous nights', and S had kept it a secret until she led us there just before mealtime: a dazzling underground barrel vaulted cellar in the same bleached stonework, lit dramatically with spotlights and candles. One long table ran the length of the room, which despite its dirt floor, was absolutely spotless. After dinner, people danced in a clearing at the end of the vault to music on a boombox. Another indelible setting.

The following evening was BBQ night—mixed meats and sausages on the grill, with seating around the large picnic tables and around the emerald-hued lap pool. One of the main past times for the kids and young at heart was attempting to walk across a line pulled above the pool between tree limbs without falling in. At least one guest soaked his street clothes this way. The lead-up to dinner was a surprise ballet performed on the lawn by the four ex-professional dancers, including S., who had performed together at Stuttgart Ballet. The dance was called the Tutu Basket Ballet, named because a local shop specialized in wicker handbags decorated with ruffles, which each ballerina bought or gave to one another. Despite the laughs, the dancers showed they still had it in 'em.
Cheese and sausages.

Thursday night was a bit of a break—hunks of cheese and sausage, with salad and bread. We sat outside at a long table that stretched out next to the grassy rotunda in the cool, clear, Mistral air.  

A. was inspired by S.'s French-born father to make Beef Bourgignon for our final collective meal. We shopped on Thursday, which was wise since it took him every minute on Friday to prep and cook this classic dish that he'd never made before. It used bushels of mushrooms, onions, carrots, beef, and potatoes, and many bottles of (don't tell) rosé. (Perhaps more accurately called Boeuf Rosé. Actually, he may have used a little red as well.) We ate poolside on broad picnic tables, and though it may be best suited as a winter dish, the stew was perfect and a great way to cap off an extraordinary week. 

Another remarkable feat of inspiration: a cousin of S.'s was heading back to Denmark right after dinner, wisely beating the horrific, seemingly continent-wide Saturday traffic by half a day. Even so, this amateur pastry chef was inspired to bake a lovely jelly roll—thin sheets of sponge cake rolled with jam—on the spur of the moment. Barely wiping the crumbs off his face, he and his family bid adieu to jump in the car and drive north all night.

The boeuf under construction.
I've focused on the meals here, but S. had also arranged several pre-dinner champagne toasts with foie gras and hors d'oeuvres on the sun deck. Not to mention the day jaunts and a cycling expedition to the great Mont Ventoux.

I wish everyone could have a friend like S., who has great creative vision and the ability and will to realize her dreams.  

Cooking dinner for 40 three times in six days, in Provence. Take that, Bittman and Sifton.

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