Lest you think I subsisted on a diet of animal fats and fermented grapes the entire two weeks we were in France, in Provence I did eat fresh vegetables, fruits … and, (yes) a lot of fermented grapes.
Waverly Root, writing in The Food of France (thanks again, Bill), divides France into three domains according to their favored cooking fats: the land of Butter (which includes Paris and Burgundy), the land of Lard and Goose Fat (a region I haven’t yet had the pleasure of
pigging out in visiting), and the land of Oil (which includes Provence).
Foods cooked with olive oil are, of course, much lighter and fresher than those cooked in butter and animal fat. And dining at home, as we did in Elizabeth and Gwendal’s stone cottage in Céreste for four blissful days, makes for lighter fare. While M. did do some cooking in hot butter (to the consternation of Elizabeth — she hates the smell), for the most part we ate in the Provençal way: foods fresh from the market, minimally treated.
(I mentioned this before, but dining at home on vacation is such a luxury. Thrilling trips to the market, glasses of wine in the kitchen while we cook, long and lingering conversations over fromage that turn into long and lingering conversations over tea, while that sweet boy sleeps over our heads…. There is nothing to distract from the food and the feeling of togetherness.)
My birthday lunch, pictured above, was as exhilarating as the postcard view from Elizabeth and Gwendal’s patio. Thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, all the sweeter because they’re the last of the year, figs that dripped down our chins, charcuterie, glorious, unpausterized* cheeses (one of my favorites was brebis crémeux, a wrinkly-skinned creamy sheep cheese wrapped in dried leaves), and fresh bread that cracked when we broke it. (When I asked for a bread knife, Gwendal explained that in some French households it’s considered uncouth to slice bread. One should break it, as Jesus did. Works for me!)
* The government can stay in my Medicare — but get it out of my cheese! It’s crazy that people have to sell completely safe raw milk cheeses as "fish bait" in this country. We’re really missing out.
That night, M. made an autumnal dinner of boudin noir (blood sausage) sauteed with apples and onions and, for the main course, côte de boeuf (a cut rarely seen stateside, though if you’re interested, Minetta Tavern does it very well). We followed the meal with fromage and salad and the most amazing birthday cake I’ve had since M. made me a Baked Alaska. It deserves its own post.
About that boudin noir. Years ago, M. made scallops with champagne custard and pork tenderloin with apples in Elizabeth and Gwendal’s Paris apartment. The recipes were so unforgettable, they wound up in Elizabeth’s book. She took one bite of the boudin noir and exclaimed, “Every time you visit you get your own chapter!” (She’s now at work on the sequel.) So, dear friends, you’ll just have to wait for the recipe. :)
(Hmmm. Blood sausage and steak. Okay so maybe not super-light but hey, it was my birthday!)
The next evening, he used the massive beef bone to make beef and spelt soup, topped at the table with sauteed radicchio (a deft move that I will most certainly be copying with my winter soups — who doesn’t like adding their own toppings?).
The night was a bit cool and damp, half the party was sick with a cold and the other was weary from a long, uphill hike.
In other words, the soup was perfect, and we scraped the pot.
The following evening, the last with my parents, M. and Elizabeth made soup au pistou, a vegetarian specialty of the region, particularly Nice. Waverly Root calls it “one of the finest soups I know” — and I must agree.
At the market, Elizabeth acquired a very fragrant living basilic plant, a local variety of sweet basil. The entire bush went into the pistou, a Provençal take on Genovese pesto that traditionally features garlic, Gruyère, and olive oil. (A secondary reason for making the soup was so that M. could teach Elizabeth how to use her new food processor.)
The soup itself is made from white beans, tomatoes, some variety of vegetables, and at the cook’s discretion, pasta, such as macaroni. It’s similar to a minestrone, and like minestrone, anything goes. As Root put it: “My cook … who makes the best pistou I have ever tasted, says it does not mater what vegetables you put in pistou, as long as there are plenty of them.”
The pistou is added to the soup just before it is served, thus preserving its terrifically pungent flavors. Tasted together, it’s a revelation, and an approach we can easily apply at home. I’m thinking something as simple as just adding a heaping spoonful of pesto to the next can of white bean soup I heat up (shhh, don’t tell the French).
There were also big hunks of Provençal charcuterie on the side, and fromage and salad to follow the meal. (I’m really not making a particularly convincing case for “we ate light,” am I?)
And finally, our last night in Céreste. Elizabeth and M. once again pulled out the food processor. This time he showed her how to make pastry dough for a chard and lardon quiche. It took about twice as long in the oven than expected but came out so beautiful, so puffed and moist and delectable, that we didn’t mind.
All the more time for those long and lingering conversations.