A tantalizing aroma filled the century-old farmhouse where Georgeanne Brennan lives, cooks and writes. It’s on the outskirts of Winters, hidden in a secluded “kitchen orchard” of diverse fruit trees, sprawling vegetable garden and field of multihued irises. Out back, a 300-year-old black walnut tree dominates everything.
Inside, a visitor followed his nose to the cluttered kitchen, all natural light, yellow walls and cooking utensils. Something good had just come out of Brennan’s French oven, a chard-sausage-raisin pie with pine nuts.
“The chard is from my garden,” Brennan said, gently placing the pie on the 80-year-old butcher block that serves as the kitchen island. The recipe came from her new cookbook, “La Vie Rustic: Cooking and Living in the French Style.” It’s one of more than 30 cookbooks with her name on their covers, and that’s not counting the 15-title series she wrote for cookware giant Williams-Sonoma (by its request) or the many she has co-authored.
“La Vie Rustic” is the Sacramento Bee Book Club’s choice for May.
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The cookbook contains more than 100 recipes in five sections along with anecdotal and instructive sidebars, instructions for starting a kitchen garden and fabulous color photos. Brennan explores the kitchen garden (charred artichokes with herb dipping sauce), the orchard (mulberry and pistachio tart), the barnyard (shredded duck confit and cornichon buns), the forest and fields (crème brûlée with black truffles) and the oceans and rivers (sea bass with lemon verbena buerre blanc).
In love with Provence
Brennan has had an ongoing love affair with the region in southeastern France ever since she went there a college study-abroad program in 1963. She returned in 1969 with her first husband, who had a degree in animal husbandry from UC Davis. They ended up buying a house “in the hinterlands” (which she owns to this day), raising goats and making cheese. They returned to California and worked as high school teachers (she has a master’s degree in history), spending summers in France.
“I have made lasting friendships in Provence; it’s really a second life,” Brennan said, cutting wedges from the pie. “I used to run a culinary vacation program there. People would stay for a week at a time. We would visit the markets and cook. But when my first grandchild arrived, I wanted to stay close to home. Now I’m here most of the time and travel to France two or three times a year (with her second husband of 31 years, agronomist Jim Schrupp).
“I’ve been very fortunate to spend decades immersed in cooking and learning the historic lineage between food today and food (of centuries past),” she said. “I’ve also found that what I thought I knew 20 years ago, I didn’t. There’s always something to learn.”
The rhythm of rural France
“When I first went to France, the countryside was littered with abandoned farms because people had left for the cities,” she said. “Now (family farming) has come back, and people are raising their own pigs and chickens and everyone has a garden. They take those combinations (of foods from different sources) and put together in dish after dish throughout the seasons. Most important for me is seeing that connection between (history and the food).”
One of her passions is promoting that Gallic sensibility.
“Life is lived at a slower pace and in a different rhythm in Provence,” she said. “Here, our primary driving life force is our work, and we eat to be trendy or for convenience. In Provence, the driving force is about the experience of sitting down, having a meal, talking with your friends and family, and enjoying the environment. It’s more experiential than work-driven, more about being as opposed to doing.”
How does a busy Sacramentan adapt that philosophy in the kitchen? “One or two simple things can bring an element of that slower pace – cooking a pot of dried beans or making a batter from scratch. You can plant a garden. Breaking off a piece of basil from a plant on a windowsill can be transformative. Drizzling extra-virgin olive oil over goat cheese and sprinkling on herbs can be like sitting at a table in Provence. It’s about taking the time to do something in the kitchen and thinking about it.
“I like to compare two kinds of cooks – those who were science majors in school and those who were liberal arts majors,” she said. “Liberal arts majors throw in a little of this and that and see how a dish tastes. People who have to absolutely follow the recipe were probably really good in chemistry. Which I wasn’t.”
How a cookbook get published
As a veteran cookbook author, one assumes Brennan has an automatic “in” with cookbook publishers. Maybe not. Take “La Vie Rustic,” for instance, which is all about seasonality and “cooking to the rhythm of nature.” How long was the start-to-finish? “Three to four years, if you include the ‘thinking about it’ process,” she said. “I knew what I wanted it to be about, but how to organize it was the big element.”
First, she wrote a 35-page proposal that included an introduction and sample recipes and sent it to four publishers. One said it was “no longer doing this type of book”; a second said it had “too many French cookbooks”; and a third replied: “Almost.” Lifestyle-books specialist Weldon Owen of San Francisco jumped on it.
The next step was completing the manuscript, which was submitted, copy-edited and returned to her “to address questions like, ‘Do you mean a half-cup or a quarter-cup?’ ”
Next came cooking, styling and photographing the dishes. “I had a particular photographer I wanted (Sara Remington), and I wanted my daughter (Ethel Brennan) to do the prop styling. (Owen) had a food stylist to make the dishes (from the recipes). Some of the photography happened in a studio and some on location. I wound up delivering the ingredients.”
Of course, Brennan tested all the recipes in her home kitchen. “I did them in batches of six or seven, with an assistant or two to prep and wash dishes,” she said. “It’s not the same thing if you say, ‘I’m going to do this one dish today and we’ll have it for dinner.’ ”
What about the recipes themselves? Where did they come from?
“The fun part is making up the recipe titles,” Brennan said. “If I can see the title, I can envision what the finished dish will be like. Then I deconstruct (the dish), going backwards to figure out what the ingredients will be to make it. Along the way I discover things that don’t work or ingredients I want to add.”
As refined a palate as Brennan has, she still likes cold leftover pizza and often has avocado toast for breakfast (“We had it growing up in Laguna Beach”). “And I love bacon, but you can’t eat it every day.”
As for advice to aspiring chefs and home cooks, it’s as simple and profound as the cooking style in “La Vie Rustic”: “Do a lot of listening and watching. There will be people around you at every level who know a lot, and you can learn from them.”
P.S.: The chard-sausage-raisin pie was delicious.
Sacramento Bee Book Club
Cookbook author and educator Georgeanne Brennan will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 18, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento. She will be in conversation with Bee senior writer Allen Pierleoni.
Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $10 for students and $25 for general admission. Buy tickets online. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on-site selling “La Vie Rustic: Cooking and Living in the French Style” for 30 percent off the list price (Weldon Owen, $35, 292 pages).
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.
“La Vie Rustic” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through May 18 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.
Information: 916-321-1128; www.sacbee.com/events