Provence on My Mind

A reader of a previous post asked if I would share again the HT column I wrote on a summer trip to Provence, with its accompanying ratouille recipe.  All things equal, I’d rather revisit Provence itself but as that’s not to be this summer, here’s the article instead.  Thanks, Gillian!

This
originally appeared as a column in the Bloomington Herald Times on July 16, 2003

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I have a fantasy that I become fabulously rich,
learn to pronounce that tricky French “rrrr”, and retire to the south of France to write
about food. I am practicing for that
right now, in fact, writing this column in a tiny Provencal village called St.
Didier, not quite an hour from Avignon.

St. Didier is a pretty village, but that’s not
unusual in this part of the world that seems to specialize in pretty
villages. Copy_1_ofdscn6191
In fact, it looks a lot like a
postcard of itself – tree shaded streets, cafes with grizzled French men
drinking beer and smoking poisonous smelling cigarettes under colorful
umbrellas, villagers going about their business with fresh baguettes tucked
under their arms, and newsagents’ shops with racks of postcards on display,
each repeating the scene in a weird endless loop of tourism and real life.

This is not our first vacation to the south of France and the thing that keeps drawing us back
is not its proximity to the glamorous Cote d’Azur and the celebrity-spangled life of the Riviera, but the food,the glorious sun-kissed food.

 

Copy_1_ofdscn5943We are, after all, in an area where people are so
taken with their produce that they erect statuary to celebrate it.
The town of Cavaillon, home home of the succulent and sweet
Cavaillon melon, has a giant concrete melon at the entrance to town. Richerenche, the local truffle capital, has
huge black truffes placed in the
middle of a major roundabout.

St. Didier lacks the food sculpture, but it does
have the real thing — lush vineyards and fruit trees (from my window I see
figs, apricots, cherries, and quince).
Copy_2_ofdscn5992It’s so easy here where the sun and the soil produce a kaleidoscope of
colorful summer produce that flirts and winks at you from the market stands,
begging to be taken home and given a good time.
Provencal markets, with their fruits, vegetables, cheeses, fish, meats,
and flowers are riots of color and noise and the enticing smells of roasting
chickens, exotic spice, and pungent olives.

The rocky soil in Provence is good for grapes and the
vineyards are everywhere, rolling across the landscape in evenly spaced, tidy
lines of green. Cotes du Provence, Cotes
du Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape – the famous names are common here, and appear on
roadside signs everywhere, luring you off the road to taste and to buy.

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One day we go with friends to Vacqueyras and
Beaumes de Venise, both within easy reach of our village. I am not a wine
drinker myself, and all things being equal, would like any extra baggage space
to go for the importation of olive oils, sea salt, and candy. This year I lose, and we buy enough bottles
of wine to require the purchase of an extra suitcase to get us back home.

I regret the olive oil we have no room for. Fruity, bitter, rich deep green – it deserves
a suitcase all its own or, possibly, a steamer trunk. Copy_1_ofdscn1532
Olive trees are starkly beautiful, etched
against the sky in ageless profile, with narrow slivery leaves and, in early
summer, barely visible miniature green fruit. The markets have olives of every sort – from the tiny purple-black
Nicoise to the firm green Picholine – spiced with garlic, fennel, and
herbs. The pungency of olives is a back
drop of most Provencal cooking –the healthiness of the so-called Mediterranean
diet is likely due to the fact that olive oil replaces cholesterol-rich butter
in almost all the cooking.

Monday morning we come home from the market in
nearby Bedoin with a feast – much more than two people can eat in a week, and
we have fewer days than that left in our village cottage. We spread our bounty over the table that sits
under the shade of the cherry tree in the garden just outside our front
door.
Copy_1_ofdscn6106Bowls of olives, plates of cheeses
(all from nearby farms), a crusty loaf of bread, cured meats, sausages,
apricots and cherries.
From one market
stall we have brought a plate of thinly sliced eggplant, fried in olive oil,
and topped with tomato sauce, redolent with fresh rosemary and fat cloves of
garlic, from another a crispy roast chicken.

Another day, early, before it gets too hot to turn
on the stove, I cook one of my favorite dishes, a classic Provencal
ratatouille. The heavy purple eggplants,
the red tomatoes bursting with tangy sweetness, the dewy green zucchini make
the invention of ratatouille in this place seem inevitable.
Of course this splendid dish, scented with
garlic and the herbs of Provence, had  had
to come into being here, of course it appears everywhere, from home
kitchens, to neighborhood bistros to Michelin-starred restaurants.
Ratatouille is Provence in the same way that hot dogs are Coney Island
and it just tastes better here.

We spend only a week in the cottage in St. Didier,
and then take to the road. There are
several restaurants farther afield we want to try and we finish up in Nice for
a couple of days. Nice is not quite Provence, but neither
does it have the glitz of the rest of the coast. Old Nice is almost Italy, tiny  winding streets,
ancient buildings, tantalizing aromas from the street food that is sold everywhere.

That street food is reason enough to be in
Nice. We tear into freshly cooked socca,
the trademark chick pea pancake, scraped off the pan in strips and stuffed into
paper cones. Just chick pea flour, olive
oil, salt and pepper, it is spicy and creamy inside, crispy on the edges.Copy_1_ofdscn6416_1
And we eat messy but delicious pan bagnats,
sandwiches on crusty rolls filled with vegetables and tuna, and soaked with an
olive oil dressing. And a tarte aux
aubergines — a rich and flaky crust, a basil scented custard filling with
fried eggplant slices, roasted red peppers, and gruyere broiled and browned on
the top. We eat all this standing up,
leaning on a wall along the Promenade des Anglais that looks out over the rocky
beach and the glittering water. There is
no shade and the heat shimmers in the air and the food tastes like the very
essence of the sun.

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The last night of the trip is one of the craziest,
and one of the best: dinner at La Zucca Magica – the Magic Pumpkin. It has a set menu, all-vegetarian, no choices
except white, red or rose. There are
pumpkins, pumpkins, everywhere, charming and jolly; everyone in the place seems
to be laughing. And, bonus, the food is
absolutely wonderful, although we are not always sure what we were eating. An odd, fantastic feast to end a perfect
trip.

We
are back home as I finish writing this. What does Provence have to do
with Bloomington?  Most of the year, not as much as I’d like,
alas. But for a small window of time, in July and August, our farmers’
market
takes on the gay and festive colors of the Provencal markets — the
tomatoes,
eggplants, peppers, and summer squash piled high, ripe and tempting.
Pick up some vegetables, aromatic herbs,
fresh goat cheese and crusty bread, take it all home, do a little
cooking early
in the day, and spread it all out on a table under a shady tree. For a
few happy months we here at home can
enjoy our own cuisine of the sun.

Ratatouille

There
are as many recipes for this Provencal
vegetable stew as there are cooks who make it. Most require that the
vegetables be cooked separately, so that they
retain their individual identity; other “quick” versions tell you to
throw
everything in together. Some recipes
dictate that the vegetables be cooked in a heavy pot on top of the
stove,
others suggest roasting or grilling them. And while some include
accents like fennel seed, bay leaf or herbes de Provence, others others
rely on
lighter flavors, like fresh basil and mint. Finally, some cooks freshen
the stew with lemon juice of a splash of
vinegar before serving, some don’t. It is, of course, entirely up to
you. Here’s one way I like to do it.

3 medium eggplants, or 1 large globe eggplant, cut
into 1 inch cubes (leave the skin on if you can)
4 medium zucchini or other summer squash, cut into
1 inch cubes
1 large red onion, cut into large dice
3 bell red bell peppers, seeded and cubed
A basket of sweet cherry tomatoes, or 3-4 medium
tomatoes, cut in half
3-4 cloves of garlic, slivered
3 Tbs chopped fresh herbs (basil, mint, thyme)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt
Pepper

Preheat oven to 400. Keeping each kind of vegetable separate from the
others, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper (this really requires getting your
hands oily, but you want each piece coated lightly.) Place on separate baking sheets.Roast vegetables until soft and beginning to
caramelize, or even char, depending on the vegetable and your preferences. Vegetables will get sweeter as they cook, but
they will burn. Watch closely.

Put
tomatoes on a baking sheet, cut side up, stick
with slivers of garlic, salt pepper and drizzle with oil. Roast until
beginning to char on edges. If you are not using cherry tomatoes, chop
them up after they are cooked. You can
always make a tomato sauce of the fresh tomatoes and garlic on top of
the stove
instead, and add it to the cooked vegetables, but I like the intense
sweetness
that comes from roasting.

As each vegetable comes out of the oven, add to a
large mixing bowl. Toss vegetables
gently with chopped herbs, and salt, pepper and vinegar (just a tablespoon or
so) to taste. Refrigerate, preferably
over night for the flavors to come out, and bring to room temperature before
serving. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serves 6-8, and makes great leftovers.

Socca

Adapted from Mireille
Johnston, The Cuisine of the Sun (A
Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, 1976.)This can be served as a snack, an appetizer, or
even wrapped around the ratatouille as a crepe.

2/3 cup chick pea flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup water
freshly ground pepperBlend flour, oil, salt, and water in a bowl. Stir well and let stand for one hour at room
temperature or in the refrigerator.

Johnston suggests cooking this in the oven in a large round, shallow pan (the batter
should be no more than 1/8 inch thick) at 400 degrees under a moderate broiler
for about 15 minutes til crisp and golden. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cut into wedges.

We had better luck cooking it on top of the stove
as if it were a crepe. It made about 6 medium size soccas. Either way (and we tried both) it tastes
great.

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