On a recent autumn evening, Kate Hill’s home beckoned with a strong fragrance of wood smoke.
But that wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. Nestled near a small village in France, the 18th century farmhouse, called Camont, regularly boasts inviting aromas. After all, it’s where Hill, a writer and cookbook author, teaches Gascony’s rustic cuisine to students from around the world. On this particular night, a full moon shone beneath a veil of clouds, bathing the stone walls and quince trees in a milky glow.
The next day, when preparations began for Hill’s “French Thanksgiving,” the grounds revealed themselves more fully: the poplar trees snaking along the canal and the potager where Hill grows peppers and lettuces, tomatoes and pumpkins; ivy crawling up the home’s stone walls, clinging to its timeworn facade; hedges flowering with cranberry hydrangeas.
While Hill’s own joie de vivre is evident at first glance, her story takes a bit more explaining: How did this Hawaii-born 68-year-old find a home, and a livelihood, in this quiet corner of southwestern France?
It turns out Hill’s journey to Camont was a long and winding one.
Decades before settling near the village of Sainte-Colombe-en-Bruilhois, which is located between Bordeaux and Toulouse, Hill grew up in Hawaii, where her father was a Navy officer at Pearl Harbor. The family moved between postings there and Southern California, which instilled in her an early love of travel, and a longing to explore.
Coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s also ingrained in Hill feminist ideals, she says, and conviction in herself. It was her mother who influenced her most; she juggled a career and raised three children after Hill’s father passed away at 42.
In her 20s, Hill graduated from Honolulu’s Leeward Community College with a degree in children’s theater, and was a puppeteer for some years, both in Hawaii and throughout the western United States. Later, she spent time traveling in Africa before settling in San Francisco, where she ran a fine art gallery in the early ’80s.
In 1986, lured by the nomadic notion of life on the water, she traveled to Holland and bought an 85-foot Dutch canal barge. She named it the Julia Hoyt, after the late American stage and silent film actress. “My life changed as I slowed down to 5 miles an hour,” she says.
On this vessel, she learned how to captain and crew while navigating foreign terrain. It was typical in Holland for couples to run barges together, according to Hill. When she and her partner parted ways, she says, it was “natural” to take over.
As the barge inched south through France’s lacework of water, people there seemed surprised to see a woman driving, she recalls. It was also during this time that Hill started a gastronomic touring company called European Culinary Adventures. Hill says she never wanted to run her own restaurant, but still loved food: Cooking was a skill she picked up early in life thanks to her Italian grandmother, with whom she’d make biscotti, homemade pasta and pizzelle cookies.
“I was searching for the next good meal, the next adventure around the bend, the next interesting character to share a story with,” Hill says. “Home was wherever the heart was.”
When the Julia Hoyt arrived in the Garonne River Valley in 1988, Hill took note of the region’s age-old spirit and culinary character. What she observed was a fertile farmland tilled and tended by people with a hard-working, down-to-earth sensibility, she says. It was during this visit that a friend told her of a house for sale on the Canal de Garonne.
“I fell in love immediately,” she remembers of the property, which she learned was part of a historic farm called Camont. “In French, we say a coup de foudre — a lightning bolt.”
Hill bought the property, which sits on a little over an acre, in 1989. She began her cooking classes five years later, around the time she wrote her first book, “A Culinary Journey in Gascony.”
During the years spent renovating the property, Hill used Camont as her port; she lived on the Julia Hoyt until she moved into the house in 2011. Today, the barge still floats on the backwater behind her home.
Although no long-term plans were made to stay, 30 years later, life here still has plenty to offer, according to Hill. “People seem to be more friendly, more open and generous with their time and information,” she says. Over the years, the butchers and bakers, fishmongers and cheesemakers became Hill’s teachers and mentors on Gascon cuisine.
There were neighboring farmers who shared their family recipes for boudin noir with apples and butter, and others who showed Hill how to make pâté and saucisson with a winter pig. One local taught Hill some of Gascony’s centuries-old dishes, like stuffed and poached chicken in a pot, known as poule-au-pot.
Over time, Hill’s French family formed, and these friendships proved as rich as the region’s treasured flavors, like foie gras and Armagnac, she says: “It’s this community that makes my kitchen a one-of-a-kind experience in France.”
For years, Hill has been sharing this close-knit community with others. Culinary students at Camont are educated with hands-on experience in classes ranging from a one-day intensive to a French butchery and charcuterie camp. Every class teaches recipes and techniques, as well as tales of the terroir from the farmers who work the land and the producers who make the food.
“The food producers are our contemporary heroes as they battle the elements and long days to bring our food to the table,” Hill says. “Every day they contribute to the process of learning here, weaving me into their artisan lives.”
Like Hill, celebrated U.S. photographer Jamie Beck visited France, fell in love and stayed. She is a friend and student of Hill’s, too. “[Hill] is always working with her hands, serving with her hands,” she says, “and I think it is for that very reason you feel her soul in every bite.”
For Hill’s recent “French Thanksgiving,” flowers, rosemary sprigs and fig leaves from the garden were set out on her pine dining table, which had been made especially for the occasion. (A fellow expat built it using wood from the nearby Landes forest.)
When the guests arrived, the kitchen within Camont’s 300-year-old pigeonniere, or dovecot, was already warm from the stove. Standing at her wood block table, Hill placed candied walnuts on a pear tart.
Her instruments surrounded her: rustic earthenware, worn cutting boards, stainless whisks and well-loved Spanish knives. Throughout the room, a dozen or so friends conversed over aperitifs of white wine with cherry blossom liqueur.
After bites of pâté and a round of introductions, a late lunch was served. The showpiece, and one of Hill’s favorite Gascon dishes, was a stuffed savoy cabbage called la poule verte. It was a slow and savored meal with friends new and old.
Thanksgiving in France may be an unlikely holiday, but Hill keeps the tradition alive at Camont. Around her table, a community gathers to celebrate the things that matter in life: food, family, friendship — and stories shared with every bite.