The Provence Cookbook by Patricia Wells

The Provence cookbook by Patricia WellsSoon my husband Walter and I will celebrate our 20th year as owners – I should really say caretakers – of our rewarding little farmhouse in northern Provence. The property is known as Chanteduc – the song of the owl – and is made up of a splendid spread of vines, oaks, pines, and olive trees, as well an endless blue-sky view of the Provençal countryside. I cannot imagine a patch of land that could offer more happiness. Much of the reward comes from the precious bounty the earth here provides. It is one of paradox, for I can speak the word “earth” but barely the word “soil.” How can this rocky, seemingly forsaken land give us such richness? Bold and fruity red wine with a touch of wild cherry, plump black olives, precious figs that seem to drip with honey, and all manner of herbs and vegetables, from my prized Russian variety of tomatoes, and on to my cherished caper bush.

But that’s just home ground. This book is more than a scrapbook of our 20 years huddled around the fire in winter and beneath the oak tree in summer. It is the story of farmers and winemakers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and restaurateurs, the men and the women who bake our bread, age our cheese, press our olives, unearth our truffles. It is a window into My Provence, a very specific part of northern Provence, a world filled with lavender fields, fruit orchards, olive groves, and endless stretches of vines. It is home to some of the finest vineyards in the world, those of the Southern Rhône, including the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as well as my favorite Vacqueyras and Gigondas, and the lesser known Tavel and Lirac.

I live more than half of each year here, much of it spent touring markets, shops, restaurants, farms, in search of the freshest and finest of the season, sniffing out a new variety of potato, a just-released variety of strawberry, making friends with almost everyone I meet, snatching recipes and sharing a few of my own. Vendors laugh as I gasp when I see the first-of-season fresh white shell beans -- cocos blancs – a signal that I can add Provençal vegetable soup, or pistou, to my weekly repertoire. And when the fishmonger sees me coming, he is sure to point out the rarity of a special Mediterranean species. Chefs bring me into the kitchen to sniff a freshly unearthed truffle, and my winemakers delight in squeezing a perfectly ripe grape, its juice running free and fragrant.

In ways that only people who share a special passion can, we feed upon one another, understanding that we will all become equally excited and grateful for a perfectly ripe and flawlessly grape harvest, about a particularly successful truffle hunt, a second season’s crop of figs, or the beauty of an olive tree laden with a record bounty of ripe fruit. I know that we all feel equally fortunate to reap such harvests, and share mutual disappointment when the rains, excessive heat or drought, even hail, derail plans for a perfect season.

In this book I have tried to share the fruits of my own labors, both in touring the region as well as in the kitchen. This is a volume of Provençal customs and lore, of personal tips on kitchen organization, talk of cheese as well as wine. Market life plays a huge role in final enjoyment and so I have tried to shed a glimpse of light on that welcome ritual.

Food is nothing if it only looked upon as an ingredient or a crop. It must be appreciated in its natural state, savored and sometimes transformed – with minimal intervention – until it arrives at our table to be shared and appreciated by family and friends. As I have been taught by experience, the ingredient is best enjoyed when the least has been done to it. Over the years my food has become simpler and simpler. I want a pear cake to taste of pears, not of sugar or honey. I like tomatoes to star in a tomato salad and for nothing to overwhelm the sweet flavor of fresh red tuna. Chicken should be meaty and not camouflaged with creams or butters, and nothing can beat the flavor of sweet fresh almonds baked into a crispy giant cookie-cake. Each recipe is here for a reason, has a personal story, and is connected to a human being. Please, come into my kitchen and share with me the sunshine of Provence, the fruits of many labors. Appreciate and enjoy.

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