In the middle of the ripe olive trees, Nadia Sammut scans the sky. She is not looking to bask but to preserve her fennel. Because this self-proclaimed “nurturing” star chef cooks in the sun’s rays. Its establishment La Fenière, located at the gates of Lourmarin, in Vaucluse, is the first Michelin-starred establishment in France to be equipped with solar ovens and dryers. A whole cooking table which allows him to deploy classic preparations: roasted or candied vegetables and fruits, breads, brioches… but also to roast the buckwheat seeds which crisp up in his last dessert. “During the summer, I cooked outdoors, in the vegetable garden kitchen. With three hundred days of sunshine per year in Provence, it would be heresy not to use it. It’s a new technique, and, like everything, it takes time to master it! »
Practical and economical
No need to be an engineer in renewable energies, solar cooking is as simple as cabbage and works according to the principle of solar concentration that we all experienced as children with a magnifying glass and a piece of wood. In this case, the magnifying glass is a mosaic of mirrors which reflect and concentrate the rays, and the piece of wood, a cooking cylinder which will store the heat. You put your preparations in it like in a classic oven, taking care to follow the trajectory of the star. No wonder the chef, also crowned with a green Michelin star, adds sunshine to her bow.
At a time when energy prices are skyrocketing, here is a free and abundant source – even infinite on the scale of our time on Earth – which goes well with its free, “living, natural, plant-based” cuisine. . Raised among the kitchens and recipes of her mother, Reine, Nadia took over the place in 2018. Victim of various intolerances, she knows the prohibitions that prevent freely shared meals. Once a chef, she embarked on ongoing research and development to make alternatives to lactose and gluten desirable. She has a real passion for chickpeas, which she makes into milk, muesli, flour, and even ice cream and custard. His buckwheat or lemon curd tartlets would make melted butter die for him and earned him his first star.
Instead of breaking the molecules, a gentle heat coats the product and it remains soft
Bringing the sun into her dishes looks just like this radiant woman with extraordinary energy. Nadia considers this toy as a tool in its own right and strongly encourages her team to “turn” the oven in the morning, that is to say to make it follow the path of the Sun and stay at the right inclination. In turn, these “nourishers” mention a mysterious “taste of the sun”, an indescribable fondant which would have captured a gentle and powerful heat over a long period of time. “The taste of sunshine is cooking that gently penetrates the fibers. Instead of breaking the molecules, a gentle heat coats the product and, as there is no exudation of water, it remains very soft. » She remembers artichokes with candied lemons “with an unparalleled taste”, octopus “melting to the core”, brioches “perfectly soft”… and also some well-burnt failures. The establishment’s pastry chef, Clémence, uses the oven to preserve peaches, plums, pears… and cook her meringues which take advantage of the low temperature to develop. “Paradoxically, even at 200°C, it’s very, very mild,” she explains.
Delighted with her summer experiment, Nadia wants to go further. From her bed of fuchsia cosmos, she points to a hill behind her estate. “My next restaurant will be planted among the trees, in total autonomy, with 100% natural cooking: in the ground or in the sun. I want to continue exploring this path. » The cook is inexhaustible about its added value. “Cooking in the sun should be taught in schools. It’s the most basic natural energy that comes back into the kitchen. » This is why this very young godmother of the Paul-Bocuse Institute succeeded in convincing the management team to equip themselves in order to initiate the younger generation.
Weather as a new guide
The only drawback is the color of the sky. When it is gray and cloudy, the oven rises painfully to 60°C, which slows down cooking considerably. An imponderable which does not however slow down the chefs, more and more numerous, fond of alternatives to gas and electricity. At the Lyonnaise buvette Une Place au Soleil, cooking in the sun’s rays was seen as an adjustment to reality. “It’s a bit like a street show, we adapt to the weather,” explains his chef, Franck Niedda. Too bad if my stuffed peppers are not ready in time, I will serve them the next day. » Franck had a blast with the entire range from Solar Brother*, the Var company which assembles and distributes ovens: a solar barbecue, a dryer, a box made of mirrors and cork in the style of a traditional oven and the SunChef Pro capable of reaching over 250°C and processing up to 50 portions.
“On days without sun, I do differently! » he says mischievously, reminding us that “ceviche-style citrus cooking requires no energy”! Adaptation and anticipation are the key words of this new way of fricasser. Franck saw a gaggle of wary people parade on his terrace. “There is a form of disbelief, but as soon as the ovens were demonstrated, people stayed to taste! » A hit, he swears, for his caramelized fruit clafoutis. “We mustn’t lie to ourselves, the solar oven is not for everyone,” says Linda Louis, the only author to date to have devoted a book of recipes to cooking without gas or electricity**.
This cooking method is not suitable for people in a hurry, it is aimed at those who work at home and like to anticipate their meals. This oven needs to follow the path of the Sun, so it must be reoriented every hour. For cooks, on the other hand, it can be a revolutionary tool. » She remains convinced that, sooner or later, we will return to the basics of fire and the sun “because there will not be gas or electricity infinitely”. For the “epicurious”, the collapsologists, the fans of autonomy, this object is a must-have in the garden. The icing on the lemon curd tartlet is that the solar oven can save money.
Sunny cooking and dining
Direction Marseille, where an azure sky dominates the Château-Gombert technology park, in the north of the city. Here, for two years, a container transformed into a tavern, Le Présage, has been producing daily specials, grilled vegetable sandwiches and succulent desserts. Here, the sun is also reflected in the jars of candied lemons, giant capers or lacto-fermented watermelons. The famous “coup de feu” plate is heated directly by the rays reflected by a 10 square meter dish, and this system allows cooking indoors because the rays are directed through the partition of the container. The team estimates the savings in gas and electricity made each year at 1,000 euros.
For La Fenière, the economy is marginal, since the gourmet restaurant’s ovens are still running for the most delicate preparations. “Of course, there are economic and ecological arguments for adopting solar energy, but also taste arguments,” assures Nadia, who remembers the delighted look of the participants in her sunny cooking classes. When we commit, it’s visceral, it’s not mental. » Unexpected collateral effect: the equipment intrigues, unites, triggers endless discussions on energy costs, where we don’t necessarily enjoy ourselves… The kitchen is sunny with friendship, singing voices and hearts who make it. All these followers have in common that they are generous in their cooking, conscious in their commitments and terribly alive. It seems like solar cookers are spinning potatoes.
* For 300 euros, the foldable model allows you to cook in a vacuum glass tube which rises to 200° C.
** “Cooking without gas or electricity WITHOUT GAS OR ELECTRICITY” (ed. La Plage).