Wednesday, 28 May 2014

In Pursuit of a Provençal Summer... in Ohio

Tess finishes off a large pan of haricots verts with freshly ground black pepper and a blend of rosemary, lemon, and garlic salt
Over the course of two Slow Food Columbus encounters, I have since felt privileged to have met Tess Geer, owner of Gourmet Salt Blends, and--most recently--Ohio's first EatWith host. The EatWith concept is fairly straightforward: folks passionate about food, cooking, and hosting, invite diners from around the world to eat with them. But it's not just anyone who gets to be certified and insured by those running EatWith. After proposing a unique offering as part of their application, potential hosts undergo a series of paperwork, interviews, and trainings. Tess has made it through the process and as my luck would have it, her angle is à la française. A frequent traveler to France (she has a home just outside of Paris) and connoisseur of regional traditions and tastes, Tess invites her guests to dine at her beautiful French-inspired country home. The emphasis, it should be noted, is that she does not only cook for others, but more importantly she eats with them. The result is an unforgettable experience, and one which I learned first hand a few days ago leaves you with a feeling that you just dined at a longtime family friend's home. Indeed, you might very well walk away from an EatWith meal by Tess with a sense that this was an everyday affair and not an EatWith event. In this post, I'd like to highlight the test meal that Tess concocted, an EatWith offering aimed at transporting guests to a summer in Provence.

As Brianne and I made our way to Tess's (and husband Dan's) home, the travel off the highway and across the bridge over the Hoover Dam felt a bit like going through a wormhole of sorts, transporting us away from the otherwise busy, Midwestern charm of Columbus, and entering the arguably quieter suburban life of Westerville. From the buck welcoming us at the start of the path to the large home which seemed to appear out of nowhere, the bright and verdant woods acted like a buffer from the rest of the world around us.

Before I get too lost in the grandeur and splendor of the Geer's property--seriously: 1,2,3--I should probably just get right to it and talk about the wonderful menu we enjoyed. As an important aside, this was Tess's test dinner, which she was prepared to edit before officially posting this $25 offering. Our meal began with an apératif, as most great French meals I've ever experienced have begun. The evening's offering was a play off the Provençal kir royale (as the aforementioned link notes, kir is made with wine, while kir royale is made with champagne). Rather than crème de cassis (i.e., black currant liquuer), Tess opted for kirsch royale, using instead cherry-flavoured liqueur.

As Tess was preparing the main course, we sampled three savoury appetizers. The first was a subtly briny olive tapenade made with Niçoise and Picholine olives, the salt content of which was boosted by capers, anchovy, and roasted garlic shallot pepper salt. In addition, the tapenade has the smallest hint of heat from some garlic, a subdued hit of sweetness from sun dried tomatoes, and herbaceous flavours coming from fresh basil, thyme, and oregano. Melded together with extra virgin olive oil, the concoction of flavours are tempered by a dollop of sweet, creamy goat cheese. As someone who is not the greatest fan of olives (though I have been on the path toward enlightenment), I am wholeheartedly a fan of olives in this form, especially when served on a toasty slice of bread.

Second on the rotation was a luscious, chilled celery soup that despite even my own better judgement did not need an optional swirl of heavy cream. The depth of flavour coming from the celery, russet potato, shallot, garlic, chicken stock, and butter, compounded by roasted garlic, shallot, and cracked black pepper salt, was so refreshing and complex that I'd certainly drink it up by the bowl full. That is, if I made it for myself in my own home. (It's worth noting that in Tess's case, EatWith diners go home with all of her recipes, so I potentially could be making a batch in the near future...). Garnished with a celery leaf and a radish slice (also typically French) for added coulour and texture, this soup is worth the drive up to Westerville alone.

Fortunately for us, the appetizers didn't stop there. On a great serving plate was a mouthwatering roasted vegetable tart. At the base was a shortcut crust (which is out of this world, by the way... flaky, tender, and with just the right amount of butter and salt), atop which sat roasted tomatoes and eggplant, a summery pesto, and crumbled goat cheese. Unfortunately for future EatWith diners, this dish won't appear on the final menu, as the relative heaviness is a bit much for an opening course.

With most everything wiped off the screened-in patio table, we moved outside and onto an even more relaxing atmosphere. The weather couldn't have been any better, nor the company. Also, at the table (going counterclockwise beginning to the left of Brianne, in pink) were Camille, Wyatt, Dan, Charles, Charlie, Jen, Tess, Olivia, Sam, and Andrea.

When I think the south of France, my first thought by way of drink is the chilled rosé. Again, Tess didn't disappoint in her pairing. Coming from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the J.L. Quinson Côtes de Provence Rosé can be found at Trader Joe's (though, I'm pretty sure Tess got all the available ones from her local store, so look elsewhere) and its light, subtle fruit notes embodies the calmness and character of Provence. Of additional note, Tess bakes her own bread (pictured above), the interior of which especially reminds me of those I've enjoyed in France, which should be of little surprise given three proofs in a warming drawer of the butler's pantry aside her kitchen (yes, such things are necessary in life).

Within the first few minutes of our arrival, I had already tried the amazing green beans cooked with lemon zest and one of Tess's garlic blends (which you can buy here). While the others were tasting the appetizers, I was also given a quick taste of the succulent chicken which Tess had first brined in water, salt, and sugar, and then marinated in lemon juice and zest, garlic, a cup of Sauvignon Blanc (my favourite white), herbes de Provence, freshly ground black pepper, and salt. Oh.my.yum was that amazing on its own. But to elevate it even more, Tess had whipped up a lemon truffle aioli that I could all day any day. Altogether, though, this was a meal that deserved the company of every component on the plate.

And as if this wasn't enough, we did conclude with a dessert, lightened by the presence of blueberries, raspberries, and freshly whipped cream. Specifically, we tasted the nearly set attempt of clafoutis which is typically made from cherries. For future EatWith diners, you should know that this dessert will be swapped for another, less finicky one.

Following the delicious meal, Brianne and I made the mini-trek to check out the sunset across the deep, brilliant blue water, before heading indoors for a tour of the Geer's home, the highlight for me of which were the gorgeous wine cellar and library outfitted with reclaimed cherry wood.

With sincere gratitude for her kind invitation to test out the Provençal menu, I'd like to sign off this post in full endorsement of Tess's natural knack for cooking and hosting, two of many ingredients which are necessary to uphold the conviviality and spirit of EatWith. To sign up for one of Tess's upcoming EatWith meals (either the Provençal offering and/or her Bistro menu offering, which we'll be trying this upcoming weekend), or to suggest a date, click here. To find an EatWith host in your neighbourhood or future travel destination, click here. Finally, for these and other photos from my experience, click here.

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