One of the rare pleasures I indulge in is cooking with other chefs. We work 80-hour weeks in summer, but in winter, things start winding down. The weather is a bit cooler, and we swap recipes and play around in the lab (cucina).
In our group is Geoffroy, a Michelin-trained French chef who is a dive master of 10 years and usually brings some great fish he spear-caught himself. Yup. Hardcore. Another is Frederic, who is Mr. Sommelier, and is the person to know for organic and natural wines. And a gourmand himself. And finally there’s Saskia, the one who links us all together, a Belgian chef of Korean descent based French Riviera for over 20 years.
The latest impromptu workshop we had was making kimchi! This is a big deal in the south of France. It’s not like California where you can buy raw sauerkraut or authentic Korean kimchi. Not only is it delicious, kimchi and other fermented vegetables (sauerkraut) are a powerhouse of natural probiotics and minerals that are essential to digestive health.
I’ve been meaning to make my own, but the process really intimidated me. I didn’t know how much cabbage water should be covering the mixture, and whether I needed to boil the jars like in canning. And how could you tell if the mixture was fermenting or just spoiling?
So on a brisk fall day, me and my friend Laurent, amateur sommelier and self-professed kimchi freak, made the trek to the quant village of Tourettes sur Loup, about half an hour by car in the hills above the Côte d’Azur. It’s a small town above the voracious Loup river, where chef Saskia has lived for two decades. The region is renowned for mushroom foraging and locally grown produce and livestock.
When we arrived at her studio, the petite culinary powerhouse welcome us with a bise, kissing us on both cheeks. She was overjoyed to impart her savoir-faire of Korean cuisine. She had already started the first step of kimchi making the day before, covering Napa cabbage leaves with gros sel, a moist rock salt from the Guerande region in France.
The texture and shape of Napa cabbage is different from its Western cousin. The oblong crucifer is made up of tightly nested stalks, the bottoms which are white and firm like endive but more mild, and light green crinkly leaves toward the top.
The grey sea salt used is not only rich in iodine and magnesium, but also draws out the moisture from the cabbage. This helps kimchi last longer during preservation and also intensifies the flavor.
Saskia squeezed the excess liquid out, then added the fermented chili paste, fresh grated ginger and garlic and massaged the stalks to drive in the flavor. A splash of fish sauce and a spoonful of cane sugar heightens and rounds out the clean, earthy flavor. Her hands were stained crimson red with the vibrant paste, infusing the tiny apartment with an exotic aroma that took us away to a faraway land.
During this age-old process, we lunched on a Korean bibimbap with a subtle Japanese twist. Saskia topped toothsome white rice topped with a sweet and savory omelette, snipped seaweed strips, sesame oil and crunchy homemade pickles. We paired the dish with an organic pinot noir.
Laurent informed us that only one wine actually pairs well with the acerbic flavor of kimchi – blanc de blanc champagne, which incidentally is also the most expensive.
The conversation veered toward some philsophic dabbling, and difference between genders. Saskia shared the story of experiencing profound hunger as a child. She was adopted at 4 by a Belgian family. This year, she plans to return to her homeland after more than 40 years.
The permanence of the cuisine of her homeland has always stayed with her, and she intuitively knew how to recreate the classic Korean flavors from her infancy.
Saskia packed the deliciously saucy leaves into Bonne Maman jam jars, and handed us each a bocale. Laurent was disappointed that we had to wait a whole week before it was ready.
We went home with our little package of history. I put mine out on the counter in a cool place, and waited patiently for the kimchee degustation next week! Let you know how it goes… In the meantime, try out this simple recipe and discover a whole new world with this historic dish.
1 head Napa cabbage
1/2 cup gros sel (or kosher/rock salt)
1/4 cup fermented red pepper paste
2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
2-inch piece fresh ginger, grated finely
1 Tbsp Fish sauced
Glass jars with lids
Wash and separate the cabbage leaves; place in a large nonreactive bowl. Cover with salt and toss lightly, refrigerate or leave in a cool place for a minimum of 4 hours. Squeeze out the excess liquid and discard. Add pepper paste, garlic cloves, ginger and fish sauce. Massage with your hands liberally to work the flavor into the leaves. Pack tightly into cleaned and empty glass jars, and screw on the lid. Place in a cool place and let ferment minimum one week. Enjoy!