Libby is my renaissance friend. She lives in a small medieval village located on top of a hill in the French countryside. Founded in the 12th century, Lauzerte was designated as one of 100 “Most Beautiful Villages in France” in 1990.
Although Libby is talented in painting, writing, decorating, and starting successful businesses, she inspires me most with what comes out of her kitchen. I learn something memorable about food every time I see her. She and her husband left the hectic world of U.S. finance to retire early and bought a farm in France. Before long, they opened a “Luxury Boot Camp” in a ten-bedroom stone mansion, half a block from the central square. It’s a place where you go to exercise [a lot!], receive daily massages and eat three well-proportioned meals a day, including dessert and wine. The result is to lose weight and inches and discover hidden muscles. “Camp” is the kind of place to jump-start the way to a fitter, leaner, healthier you. But it’s not for the faint of heart.
Around Easter time in April 2009, I went to see what boot camp and luxury had in common. Advertising had put them on the map, but I was the solo guest for two weeks. At 6:30AM the day began with a glass of hot lemon water and 30 minutes of abdominal exercises followed by an hour of yoga. Then came breakfast, which was always a bowl of Libby’s homemade granola with sheep’s yogurt and freshly cut up fruit, coffee or tea. After eating, it was out the door to hike the rocky, hilly pilgrimage trails of southern France for the next three to four hours. Lunch was served at 1:00PM, in three courses, with a brief rest afterwards. Back to the exercise room at 3:00 for one hour of weight training and aerobics followed by an hour of Pilates mat exercises.
At 5:00PM came the blessed massage and a post-exercise swoon. Afterwards, a soaking bath with aromatic soaps and oils, a shower, and dressing for dinner almost completed the day. The first week, I made my way to the dining room by holding onto BOTH the wall and the ancient banister, negotiating one step at a time. Pausing halfway down to admire candles on the landing gave ache-y muscles a tiny rest.
Dinner was always a fine reward. A table set with antique linens and good china, a candlelit chandelier and a wood burning fire created warmth and ambience. Locally produced wine accompanied another three-course meal. No bread was ever served. Each meal was based on nourishing food in reasonable portions without the contents of a basket of bread to nosh on between courses. Instead, “carbs” were consumed in small glasses of wine, which was fine by me. Somehow, I kept my part of the conversation going until I could excuse myself and navigate up the stairs for the night. Over the course of fourteen lunches and dinners the three of us covered a lot of conversational territory. Libby and I became friends.
Now I sometimes go back to Lauzerte to help with organizational projects in the big stone house. A couple of years later, after reading THE CHINA STUDY by Campbell & Campbell, Libby embraced vegan cuisine and the menus at Camp changed overnight. She took charge of the kitchen, planning and preparing all meals. It was nearly impossible to find a French vegan chef in the countryside. The food was still amazing and few guests complained. Online reviews rave about the meals and the hard-earned body changes that are typical after a week’s stay.
In early March of this year, I went back to help with a spring cleanout before the guest season began. Eating was informal and mostly unscheduled. We prepared a couple of delicious veggie soups, but a food epiphany was born in the middle of a sandwich. The bread spread Libby made called “Cashew Ricotta” was anything but a nutty cheese. Vegan it is and ricotta only in name. It’s inherent creaminess and spread-ability came from very soft tofu blended with raw cashews, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, and basil. The first taste was transformative. Giving up sea-salted butter on my toast for the week? Not a problem. Liberally spread, Cashew Ricotta on the morning baguette fueled energy for vacuuming cobwebs, dead bugs and dust bunnies, wiping out cupboards and shelves, hauling firewood, and carting wheelbarrow loads to the garbage and recycling bins. I sneaked restorative breaks by dipping into the container of this sensational “sandwich spread” with carrots, cucumbers, bread and occasionally a finger when nothing else was available. An addiction was born.
With a few ingredients and a food processor, Cashew Ricotta can be made in a flash. It’s a satisfyingly delicious alternative to hummus since it is also vegetable protein. As well as on sandwiches and toast, it can be used as a dip for crudités, breadsticks, crackers, as a topping on baked or boiled potatoes, even hardboiled eggs. It’s probably pretty incredible on French fries but I haven’t tried that, yet. Good-bye forever, Hellman’s Mayo and Miracle Whip! This spread could easily be mass marketed, but the best way to enjoy it is to make your own, à la Libby.
CASHEW RICOTTA– Sandwich Spread
- ½ cup RAW cashews [4oz.]
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
- 2 T. olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves [or less, depending on your love of garlic!] [can be roasted too]
- 1 lb. very soft tofu, drained [the softest and creamiest you can find]
- 1 ½ t. dried basil [can use fresh in larger amount, but equally delicious with dried]
- 1 ½ t. salt
In food processor blend cashews, basil, lemon juice, garlic. Then add tofu, oil and salt. [If using fresh basil, add with the second batch of ingredients. Use as much as you want until you like the color.]