Jean Francois had a mother who cooked french food like a goddess so his standards were very high so I just had to start cooking well very early in our relationship to hang onto this man.
Luckily I come from a family of eaters and lovers of good food and my appetite was excellent and the job was easier than I imagined. Apart from the first disastrous meal of parmesan ice cream to charm him on our first date many years ago, I have since learnt simplicity and that wholesome and good products are the key to good cooking and have applied this to the kitchen and the garden where I now live on a daily basis.
To say the least, we are a both a little obsessed by food and not just healthy food but good food. We just wanted to grow lots of vegetables and fruits that we just couldn't find anywhere else and live a simpler life than we had in the city. We used to come every year to the Gave d'Oloron to swim in its waters and fish salmon (I was just the assistant with the book lazing on the bank) and when we started asking ourselves questions about what where to go and live a new life, we soon obliterated Ireland`s chance with its short or non-existant summer. California was a possibility but then again, its just so far away and anyway we like Europe!
So all things considered, we decided on the Bearn as there was sun, rain, salmon, green prairies, mountains, sea and the richest soil.
Mailhos was the first house we visited and the house we bought - built in 1796 for some local bourgeois family, the land consists of 20 hectares of good soil, lush forest and the mountains beyond.
We left Paris the following spring with 3 suitcases, a fishing rod and a bewildered cat and within the space of a few days had dug up the front lawn to plant a vegetable garden.
In the last four years, we have planted 75 fruit trees, all local varieties, a 1000m2 of vegetable garden, rasberries, strawberries, blueberries, goji, gooseberries - any plants I can get my hands on, installed 50 bee-hives and are the proud parents of 18 chickens who provide us with the cutest and richest of eggs. The garden grows over 100 varieties of vegetables, using just the compost and plant teas that we produce ourselves. I have won, over two consecutive years, the 3rd and 2nd prize for the best vegetable garden of France run by the Société National d'Horticulture. My participation in such prizes is of course due to Jean Francois's extraordinary energy for pushing me into situations I am not naturally inclined to get into. Such situations include garden competitions, local associations and bourgeois social events.
What really motivates me to make this garden as rich and productive as possible is the desire to eat good food. I really don't believe that going to a three star Michelin restaurant is what you would call eating good food. At a restaurant, you admire the creativity of a chef and eat designs but its not about freshness, goodness and real taste.
In Autumn when I find a young fresh porcini mushroom just poking its young head through the damp forest covering, eaten raw in thin slivers, with just a few drops of a good olive oil, its taste is beyond compare. A Black Zebra tomato, picked early on an august morning, eaten raw with just a sprinkling of fleur de sel is the ultimate in goodness.
When I cook, the product has to take centre stage, whether its a confit de canard (duck confit) or a black radish, it needs to be respected as a work or art rather than turned into one. My recipes, I hope, show what I'm trying to say without being priggish. We can all grow a pot of basil or tomato plant on a windowsill, find good local vegetables at a CSA (AMAP), find a fine passionate wine producer who will deliver a few cases to a group of friends directly, order a meat parcel from a local producer. I could go on and on but I think someone out there might just understand what I'm trying to say and appreciate what I'm trying to do.... !