When you first crack open French Country Cooking: Meals and Moments from a Village in the Vineyards, the new cookbook from Mimi Thorisson, you are not greeted with a sumptuous spread of pâté en croûte or cassoulet (but yes, those come later).
Instead, in the first few pages your eyes fall on Mimi, apron-clad and mid-cooking in her home kitchen, and the rolling hills of Médoc, the southern French region where she, her husband Oddur, and their family reside. You’ll also encounter this quote:
Bâtir salon avant cuisine De la maison c’est la ruine. (To build the living room before the kitchen Of the house would be ruin.)—Proverb collected by the Count of Neufchâteau
Which seems like the most appropriate way to introduce French Country Cooking—the book is as much about the home at the center of it as the recipes ensconced within. No 1 rue de Loudenne, Mimi and Oddur’s home in the Médoc village of St. Yzans, is a veritable trove of history and really, at the center of their lives. Here are a few things we uncovered about the house, Mimi and Oddur's creative process, and unexpected tidbits while reading through French Country Cooking.
1. The house was at one point a winemaking château and later, a hotel restaurant run by a woman named Plantia Pautard. Plantia's cooking—from her tarte tatin to her French onion soup—in the region was quite famous (as was her personal life, Mimi details in the book). “Plantia was a big inspiration in the making of this book,” Mimi says. “She has an interesting story and I love to feel her presence whether she is just hanging [as a portrait] on the wall or takes the form of a black cat in our garden.”
2. Originally, the cover was supposed to sport a lovely photo of crème caramel. But, last minute, Mimi and Oddur decided to play around with other ideas, and while they were shooting, an errant fox terrier puppy "got himself in the picture." It was a happy accident ("The idea to be on the cover was his, not ours!" Mimi says) but one they loved and swapped in instead of an image of food. "Our house is always filled with dogs," Mimi explains. "So they pop up naturally in everything we do."
3. Last summer, the Thorissons hosted a pop-up restaurant in their house—and this informed many of the recipes included in French Country Cooking. Mimi explains how she and her family set about readying their home for diners, assembling their team of cooks and servers, and even getting repairmen to work on the house during near-sacred August. It all came together somehow, and lasted through August and September, attracting friends, readers of Mimi's blog, people in the region, and even visitors from Paris.
4. In the midst of looking for a place for their pack of hunting dogs to roam, the Thorisson children happened upon a secret garden near their house. They found the man who owned it, who wouldn't sell it to them, but who allowed them to "put some order to the place," as Mimi says in the book.
In the end, an invisible contract was written and signed: We would take care of the place and manage it, and he could still enjoy it from time to time.
5. Mimi and Oddur are partners in crime, to say the least, and this is apparent in several accounts of the book. One of my favorites, though, is mentioned in the playful headnote for her Braised Leeks Vinaigrette, where she affectionately calls Oddur a "vegetable elf" because of how he arranges fresh vegetables in the kitchen pantry akin to still life painting:
In the middle there is a copper pot filled with onions, and to the left of it a stack of potatoes. On the right side we always have a bundle of carrots and one row of fresh leeks. In front of the carrots we usually have a mix of what’s in season, say zucchini and eggplant. All this is my husband’s doing; I don’t really arrange vegetables as if they were a still life, but he does. He is from Iceland, where people have a history of believing in elves, but he’s also a realist, so he knows that things don’t really happen by themselves. So he is happy to play the vegetable elf. When he senses that some vegetables are peaking and need to be cooked, he will simply take them out and place them in the middle of the kitchen.
6. Barbecuing in Médoc is a little different than what you might be used to: People who live in the vineyard-covered region cook over pruned grapevine branches. In January, Mimi says in the book, they try to acquire as many bundles of them as they can to use a few months later over the huge fireplace in their kitchen. She grills meat over them and the smoke from the branches infuses it.
When I host cooking workshops in my house, I always make sure to do a Médoc-style barbecue at least once, and everybody loves it. My favorite part is when they discuss how they could recreate this sort of cooking at home with a backyard grill and local wine branches.
7. The cake recipe in the book that Mimi's made the most this year? A humble walnut cake, made with rum, and vanilla, and sea salt, that's shown up at the workshops they've hosted, every night of their pop-up, and in their lives in general. It's one she describes in the book as "not just a quick crush, but love that lasts."
8. Mimi reveals in her headnote for cassoulet that she didn't start making the iconic French dish until her mid-thirties! Of her version of the dish, she says:
My mother’s family comes from the heartland of the southwest, near Toulouse, the birthplace of cassoulet...I actually didn’t start making cassoulet until I was in my midthirties; it just took me some time to get there. This dish requires a bit of patience and a number of good ingredients, but it doesn’t require any special techniques or tricks. You may be thinking “I’ll probably never make this,” but I encourage you to do so some day.
9. Mimi wanted the recipes in French Country Cooking to reflect a wide swath of French cooking—it's not just dishes from Medoc. They come from a very personal place, and she says, at the risk of sounding selfish, she cooks to please herself. She mentions that she’s often disappointed at not being able to find the types of dishes she seeks in restaurants or even cookbooks, old-fashioned recipes that are accessible and easy to cook, that focus on seasonal, quality ingredients. And that’s one of the reasons she wrote the book as she did, with dishes modeled after the pop-up they hosted at their home last summer, meals they wish they could find more easily, like a white asparagus soufflé.
10. Oddur, Mimi's husband and the photographer for her books and blog, is revealed as the unofficial sommelier at No 1 rue de Loudenne. He interjects in Mimi's writing to add small musings and suggestions on Bordeaux (yes the Grand Crus are worth the extra euros), Champagne ("We always serve it"), rosé (only in the summer, best from Provence) and everything in between. Of their relationship with wine, he says:
Mimi and I love wine. We will have cocktails out of politeness or Cognac with company. But wine is what we love, and we always serve it with food.
- 5 1/2 tablespoons (80 grams) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
- 1 cup (150 grams) walnuts, plus 5 walnut halves for decorating the cake
- 2/3 cup (130 grams) granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons dark rum
- 1 tablespoon honey, plus more for drizzling
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 pinch fine sea salt
- 1/3 cup (40 grams) all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- confectioners' sugar
- whipped cream, for serving