It’s about 6 on a coolish, golden summer evening in July when I alight from the bus about two blocks past the Gothic cathedral in the Norman town of Louviers in France. I walk back toward the cathedral and spot the house, across the street, that I recognize from the books and website of my friend Susan Hermann Loomis. There’s the street sign: I am indeed on Rue Tatin.
I hear people inside the garden wall and knock on the wooden door. Fiona Loomis lets me in. I’ve never met this beautiful creature who, at 10, is taller than me but whom I feel as if I’ve gotten to know over the years through Susan’s books. Then Susan is there, red-haired and tall, in a colorful sundress, her freckled arms oblivious to the early evening chill; and after hugs and kisses I am standing in her kitchen, a glass of amber Muscat de Beaumes de Venise in hand, trying to take in this magnificent space as I chat with guests who are wrapping melon in air-dried ham and peeling roasted peppers that Susan will dress with her homemade lemon oil.
Lately, Julia Child has been getting a lot of attention because of the movie “Julie & Julia.” We see Meryl Streep embodying the young Julia as she falls in love with French food and with France; we see her toil hour after hour in her Parisian kitchen to master the art of French cooking and make it doable for the American public. But Julia is not the only tall American to live in France and work tirelessly to share her passion for the country, its food and its culture.
Susan began her French journey in the early 1980s, working as an apprentice in the La Varenne Cooking School and living in a tiny maid’s room. She received her “grand diplôme,” had a little café in an American bookstore, and worked as Patricia Wells’ assistant among other things before moving back to the States to pursue her food writing career. She published “Great American Seafood Cookbook,” “Farmhouse Cookbook” and “Clambakes and Fish Fries.” Then in 1993 she came back to France with her family to begin work on “French Farmhouse Cookbook,” just as I was leaving to go and live in California. (Susan still has many of my old kitchen implements that I did not take with me, including an electric mini-chop with a bossy sign on it that says, “HERBS ONLY! NO SPICES!!”)
France has a way of capturing anybody who is the least bit susceptible. I came to Paris in 1981 for an “open-ended year” and stayed for 12. Susan came back to work on her book and stayed forever. On a reconnaissance trip before her move she went to see her friend Edith in Louviers, and when she got back to Paris, she announced: “I just bought a house!”
It was not just any house: This was an ancient, classic timbered Norman house that in the 15th century had been the monastery connected to the cathedral. It needed a complete overhaul, but Susan’s then-husband Michael would be up to the task. Thus began the adventure of raising a family and pursuing a career in food writing and teaching in France that readers of Susan’s books “On Rue Tatin,” “Cooking on Rue Tatin” and “Tarte Tatin,” visitors to her website, guests at her French country luncheons and students at On Rue Tatin Cooking School know well.
When I walk into Susan’s garden, I feel instantly at home, as I’m sure all of the many people who have crossed Susan’s threshold do. It is a welcoming place. On this summer night, Susan has invited some new American friends who also live in Normandy. “I meet few Americans out here, but they all came out of the woodwork during the presidential election.” She’d met these two couples in June, when Barack Obama came to speak at the D-Day celebrations at Omaha Beach.
I cannot stop admiring the kitchen, which is both grand and homey. Wherever my eye falls, it wants to stay. I stand at the large marble and butcher block island where everybody gathers, my back to an impressive stone fireplace and an Aga cooker, and study the magnificent custom-made green stove on the other side of the room. A capacious, green square scalloped-edged ceramic gratin dish filled with a grated zucchini flan cools to one side, and an enormous pot of freshly made apricot jam sits on a back burner. Two ice cream makers whir on the wide marble counter, the Nutella ice cream in them Fiona’s creation. The creamy tiled back wall rises up and up graciously, punctuated by a thick wooden shelf that encloses the stove hood and spans the wall. Shiny copper saucepans of all sizes hang from the hood, and on top of the shelf sits beautiful crockery —teapots and platters, stacks of ceramic plates, painted bowls—the spoils of years of collecting in French brocantes.
Susan enlists Emery, a New York-born jazz violinist, to light a fire in the small outdoor grill for the sausages that she’ll grill for the kids and lamb shoulder blade for the adults. An expatriates’ conversation about the shortcomings of French charcoal briquettes, which are pretty to look at but burn too fast and hot, ensues. We help ourselves to white Burgundy and carry out aperitifs—the melon with ham and the roasted peppers, eggplant caviar thickened with cashew butter, a large basket of the sweetest teardrop-shaped cherry tomatoes that a farmer friend had brought over that morning.
We tuck in. Since I never sat at Julia Child’s table, I can’t tell you whether or not she was a great cook. (There are those who would quibble on that question, though they never ate her food either.) But I can tell you that Susan Hermann Loomis is a great cook, one who is not only creative and skilled in the kitchen, but who also cares deeply about where her ingredients come from, a tireless booster of local agriculture. Like Julia, Susan makes great cooking look easy, doable. But I know how much work goes into what she does. When does she sleep?
Grilled lamb, the rich and delicate zucchini flan and a potato salad that Juliette, another guest, has brought, follow the aperitifs, accompanied by a young Chinon and an older Gigondas. Then salad from the garden and several affinages of a nutty tome – 6 months, 1 year, 18 months. We finally succumb to the cold air and go into the 12th-Century dining room for dessert – that Nutella ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, and just-picked raspberries that wouldn’t wait another minute, a gift from another farmer.
This is a home that is hard to leave but the dinner party finally does break up. When Susan blows out the candle sconces in the dining room and shows me to my room at the top of the house, it is well after 2 a.m. Only a few hours, I think, as I fall into a contented sleep on antique linen sheets, until I get to taste the apricot jam in that big pot on the stove.
For more about Susan Hermann Loomis’s French country lunches and On Rue Tatin cooking school, visit http://www.onruetatin.com.