Lucy Vanel is an American writer and photographer who lives in Lyon, and writes beautifully about food on her blog Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook. She has a particular talent for capturing minute moments, holding them up in her hand for us to see before they vanish, and I always leave her blog feeling like the strings of my heart have been tugged a little. In Lyon she organizes herb workshops and personalized classes and tours, and she is currently working on renovating and equipping a teaching kitchen in Lyon’s first arrondissement, set to open in early 2012.
Here she tells us about the transformative experience of cooking on a wood stove, eating soggy things on a boat, and what to do when you accidentally break off green tomatoes from your plant.
Are you taking a vacation this summer, and will you have a chance to cook?
We take a vacation every summer. Three years ago, we bought a little tiny house in the Alps. During the month of August, we always spend at least two uninterrupted weeks there. When we first began to fix up the old house, I found a Mother Jones article on restoring wood stoves and decided to restore the old Godin in the kitchen. While at first it was just for fun, we realized It was a really great cooking stove in addition to heating the entire house. My vacation cooking is all about that stove.
I was browsing through an old French cookbook, and realized that it was really a chapter and verse maintenance guide for my old stove. These stoves were used in many households of rural France until relatively recently. Contemporary updated recipes give exact temperatures, times, etc. but the old ones give descriptives that fall right in line with wood stove cooking. Cooking this way has helped me come to a closer understanding of the techniques that I learned to execute with my modern equipment. Things are more instinctive with this kind of stove. You know when it is logical and necessary to use a bain marie, for instance, and come to a better understanding of what kind of heat is best for braising. The big cast iron cooktop’s natural heat zones gives just as much control as any contemporary piece of equipment.
In what way do you feel your vacation cooking style differs from your everyday cooking style?
Vacations in the mountains entail fires that are lit in the morning and burn all day, which is not the case at home in the city. When we leave to go walking and foraging, we close down the vents to keep the fire going while we’re gone, and then stoke it up good and hot when we get back. Often I’ll leave a pot simmering, things pulled to the edge of the stove to cook slowly, or put a loaf of bread or a cake in and leave it to cook from the residual heat, so that when we get back we’ve got warm bread or a cake waiting. When we’re on vacation, I can easily cook dishes that take several days to do, because the steps involved in these kinds of dishes roll out naturally. There is always something cooking when we’re in the mountains.