A fire crackled in the stone hearth of the pretty kitchen, and the luscious aroma of apples and cider told me I couldn’t be anywhere else but Normandy. I was, specifically, on the Rue Tatin, in an ancient market town of half-timbered houses surrounding a beautiful stone church just an hour west of Paris. In fact, I was at On Rue Tatin, for a very intimate three-day cooking holiday in the home of Susan Loomis, a cookbook author who has written a charming memoir (also called On Rue Tatin) about a Seattle girl who leaves home at age 25 and ends up living in France. Susan was supervising my three American classmates and me as we put the finishing touches on a poulet paysanne (chicken cooked with hard cider and apples), a French country dish that, like most of the recipes she demonstrated, was as straightforward as it was delicious. (It wasn’t the last time the four of us gushed in unison about how easy one of Susan’s dishes would be to re-create once we got back home.)
Working around the central island in Susan’s kitchen, we each had specific tasks, from peeling apples to chopping onions. At one point, our endlessly cheery teacher stopped everyone so we could watch her cut up the free-range chicken she’d purchased just a few hours earlier. “The bird tells you where to cut,” she said, using a pair of heavy steel shears to neatly separate it into serving pieces. “I’m very focused on technique,” added this master of French country cooking, who had just spent the morning sharing some of the vast knowledge she’d acquired since setting up residence in France—often something as simple as adding a sprig of rosemary (instead of a pinch of nutmeg) to an apple tart.
Once the apples had been sliced and fitted around the pieces of chicken, we added some demi-sec Normandy cider, bay leaves, thyme, and rosemary before easing the dish into the oven. When the chicken was done, we transferred it to a warm serving platter and sprinkled it with a reserved onion-and-bacon mixture. Then we helped Susan deglaze the pan with crème fraîche for a sauce.
“Why does everything taste so much better in France?” someone asked as we lingered over a lunch of the chicken, as well as a green salad, cheese, and a fruit tart made earlier in the day. Susan pointed out that Normandy in particular is still very dependent on its small farms. “Almost everything we’re eating,” she said, “was grown or made within a seven-mile radius of this table.” And that may have been my favorite thing about On Rue Tatin: Aside from picking up some wonderful new skills and recipes for rustic dishes that I knew I’d make again and again, I felt as if I had experienced a little slice of France, all of it up-close and personal. We stayed at the table well into that afternoon, happily talking about restaurants, recipes, and what to do with the rest of our day. (866-369-8073; onruetatin.com; $1,500 for three days, including five meals)
What I Learned
There is nothing generic about salt. Susan served an assortment of five very different kinds, including a wonderful fleur de sel from neighboring Brittany, just to prove that point.
Debearding mussels kills them almost instantly, which means they have to be cooked right away.
Before You Go
Even though Louviers is accessible by train, arrange for a rental car so that you can get around to all the region’s great restaurants, especially since not every meal is included with the course. (The pickings are slim in Louviers.)
Where to Stay
Le Pré Saint-Germain (011-33-2-32-40-48-48; from $113) has comfortable, contemporary rooms and is within walking distance of the school. Three miles away, Les Saisons (011-33-2-32-40-02-56; restaurant-les-saisons.com; from $200) offers excellent meals and a handful of attractive rooms in cottages overlooking a pretty garden.