Can a house change one’s life? I wouldn’t have believed it. But almost from the day Patricia and Walter Wells first saw Chanteduc – their 18th Century farmhouse in northern Provence – their future was altered forever. Ever since the wooded ten acres on top of a stony hill in Vaison–la–Romaine became theirs in 1984, Patricia says that she and her husband Walter have looked differently at the world.
Chanteduc – a tumble-down mas whose name poetically translates as ‘song of the owl’ – turned what was to have been a Paris interlude into a permanent sejour in France. And what was to have been a weekend house became a home, a lifestyle, an obsession, an extension of their very personalities.
Almost before they’d unpacked their bags in Provence, they had more French friends than they had made in all their time in Paris. Within a year, they could no longer even remember life before Provence. For them, it symbolised all the essential elements of happiness they sought in life – friends, family, food and feasts. It opened their eyes, their ears, their sensibilities to the rituals of French daily life in the countryside. Before, they had only read about this life , and finally they were witnesses, participants; they were making it happen. Was it just the sun, or did this place have a magic way of magnifying ordinary pleasures?
Before long, they could not go to town for a morsel of goat cheese or a sack of nails without the errand turning into a social event. Conversation is central to a Provencal’s life: so there was always talk of the sun (or lack of it); talk of the raging local wind known as the mistral, talk of the tourists (or lack of them); talk of the latest scandal or outrage in faraway Paris.
Weather – be it sunshine, rain, or drought – became a preoccupation, for whatever happened in the sky affected their day, their garden, their crops, and the moods of the farmers and merchants around them. When the half–dozen gnarled old cherry trees in the orchard began to bear fruit, they dropped everything to pick the shiny, purple-red fruits and set about putting that bounty to work, making clafoutis, ice creams, confitures, and homemade liqueurs. The unfurling of every leaf – lettuce, grapes, figs, and irises – became the object of their weekly attention. They eagerly turned their attention to a fledgling vegetable garden, only to find that about all this parched, chalky soil could promise were vegetables that tasted of struggle. The growth of nearly every olive in their small grove of trees was followed throughout the season, though more than once they arrived at harvest time to find the trees picked nearly bare by passersby. Thankfully, the village farmers’ market is overflowing with baskets of ripe, uncured olives at Christmas time, so their home-cured olives were generally of mixed origins!
They learned about spotting the property’s edible wild mushrooms, but only after years of listening to the neighbours boast of discoveries on their land. An invitation to join them for a hunt, with the promise of a multi-mushroom feast to follow, was the key to uncovering the secret gardens hidden amid the pines. They also learned about unearthing the rare black truffles that hid beneath the soil of their vines, not far from the rows of scrub oak that enclosed their vineyards, but knew secretly that, most years, the poachers’ bounty far exceeded their meagre findings.
And sometimes they came closer to certain flora and fauna than one would desire. They’ve fled wild boar at the compost pile, chased wild pheasant and quail in the vegetable garden, and know more about the night habits of the loir – a squirrel-like rodent that loves the proximity of humans and their central heating system – than could fill a book.
Patricia and her husband Walter spent most of their adult lives working in cities like Washington, DC, New York, and Paris, and now, as country folk, they found that their lives were curiously affected by the phases of the moon, the colour of the sky, the moistness of the earth, the presence (or lack of) bees, salamanders, rabbits, or butterflies. Soon, like all the locals, they followed the rhythms of the moon, learning that if they planted parsley just after the new moon, the herb would flourish, and if they picked flowers with the full moon, they would last longer.
I first met Patricia Wells in Italy in 1980 when we were both in Bologna to take a cooking course from the doyenne of Italian cooking Marcella Hazan – she had to leave before the end of the week and I remember hoping that our paths would cross again – she is now a renowned international food writer who has sold over 750,000 copies of her books worldwide. She is the author of the best-selling Bistro, Trattoria and The Paris Cookbook. Patricia is a restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune and the first female restaurant critic for the French newsweekly L’Express. In 1989, the French government honoured Patricia Wells for her contributions to French culture, awarding her the coveted Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
The new edition of Patricia Wells at home in Provence is one of my favourites, packed with really tempting recipes – delicious comfort food to transport us to Provence.
Patricia Wells at home in Provence, published by Kyle Cathie, May 2005, £14.99 stg.
Buy this Book at Amazon
Here are some recipes from the book.
Patricia uses the Charlotte potato in France, just be sure that the potatoes are nice and firm-fleshed and make sure the cheese is a good Gruyere.
1 plump fresh garlic clove, peeled and halved.
1kg (2lb) firm-fleshed potatoes, peeled and sliced very thinly.
125g (4oz) freshly grated Gruyere cheese
500ml (16fl.oz) whole milk
125ml (4 fl.oz) crème fraiche or double cream
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
One 2- litre (3½ pint) ovenproof dish
Preheat the oven to 190c/375F/gas mark 5
Rub the inside of the baking dish with garlic.
In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, three-quarters of the cheese, the milk, crème fraiche, salt and pepper. Mix well. Spoon the mixture into the baking dish, pouring the liquid over the potatoes. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
Place in the centre of the oven and bake until the potatoes are cooked through and the top is crisp and golden, about 1¼ hours.
French Country Guinea Fowl and Cabbage
1 guinea fowl (about 1kg/2lb) or substitute chicken
2 shallots, peeled and halved
1 thin slice of smoked ham, finely chopped
Bouquet garni: a generous bunch of flat-leaf parsley, celery leaves, fresh bay leaves and sprigs of thyme, tied in a bundle with string
90g (3oz) unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
500ml (16 fl.oz) chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 large green cabbage, quartered lengthwise
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Season the exterior and cavity of the bird with salt and pepper. Place the shallots, ham and bouquet garni inside the cavity and sew up the opening. Set aside.
In a large covered casserole, melt 15g (½ oz) butter with the oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the guinea fowl and brown it carefully on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer the bird to a platter and discard the fat in the pan. Season the exterior generously with salt and pepper. Still over moderate heat, add another 15g (½ oz) butter to the casserole, scraping up the browned bits that cling to the bottom of the pan. Add the onion and carrot and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Return the bird to the pan, add the stock, cover and simmer over a low heat until the chicken is cooked, about 50 minutes.
In a large pan, bring 6 litres (10 pints) of water to a rolling boil. Add 3 tablespoons of salt and the cabbage, and blanch, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a large frying pan, melt the remaining butter over moderate heat. Add the vinegar, cabbage, seasoning, and cook, trying to keep the pieces of cabbage intact and well coated with sauce. Cover and cook over low heat until soft, about 20 minutes. Season to taste.
Meanwhile, carve the guinea fowl and arrange the pieces on a warmed serving platter. Spoon the stuffing, sauce and warmed cabbage over the sliced poultry and serve at once.
Eli’s Apple Crisp
Prepare this with a good tangy cooking apple, and if possible, combine several varieties such as Granny Smith, McIntosh, and Fuji – for a more complex depth of flavour and texture. This is a quick easy appealing and inexpensive dessert, and you don’t have to make pastry!
Unsalted butter for preparing the baking dish
45g (1½ oz) unsalted butter
1kg (2lb) cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut lengthwise into 8 even wedges
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
75g (2½ oz) sugar
250ml (8 fl.ozs ) crème fraîche or double cream
1 x 27cm (10½ inch) baking dish
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6
Generously butter the bottom and sides of the baking dish, set aside.
In a large frying pan, combine the butter, apples, lemon juice and ¼ teasp. cinnamon and cook until just soft, about 7 minutes. Stir in ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Transfer the apples to the baking dish, evening them into a single layer with a spatula.
In a large bowl, combine the eggs and sugar and whisk until well blended. Add the cream, the remaining vanilla extract and cinnamon. Whisk to blend and pour over the apples in the baking dish.
Place the baking dish in the centre of the oven and bake until the top is a deep golden brown, 30-45 minutes. Do not underbake, or the results will be soggy, rather than crisp.
Serve cut into wedges, accompanied by a dollop of crème fraîche. The dessert is best served the day it is made, as the delicate flavours will fade.
Fresh Lemon Verbena Ice-Cream
Throughout the spring and summer, Patricia uses lemon verbena leaves liberally, preparing refreshing and lightly sedative herbal teas, or infusions, as well as this popular summer ice cream. It is also delicious prepared with fresh mint, or with less traditional ‘sweet’ herbs, such as thyme or rosemary.
500ml (16 fl.oz) double cream
250ml (8fl.oz) whole milk
125g (4oz) sugar
60 fresh lemon verbena leaves
In a large saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar and verbena leaves and place over moderate heat just until tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Remove from the heat, cover and let steep for 1 hour.
Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding the verbena. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Transfer to an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Serve with Provencal Almond cookies or other crisp biscuits.
Schaum Torte : Meringues for the month of May
Patricia Wells has fond memories of Schaum Torte in her childhood home of Wisconsin where it is a Memorial Day speciality created to greet the season’s first crop of strawberries.
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
½ teaspoon cream of tartar, (optional)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
200g (7oz) castor sugar
1 kg (2lb) fresh strawberries (or mixed berries)
1 tablesp. sugar
175ml (6fl.oz) double cream
Preheat the oven to 110C/230F/gas mark ¼. Line a baking sheet with foil or a non-stick liner.
In a heavy-duty mixer fitted with a whisk, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, if using, and vanilla extract at medium-low speed until small bubbles appear and the surface is frothy, about 45 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and gradually add half of the caster sugar, whisking until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes more. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Sprinkle the rest of the castor sugar over the mixture and, with a large spatula, quickly and gently fold it in, working the egg whites as little as possible.
Using a large serving spoon, ladle six large round dollops of meringue on the prepared baking sheet. Work as quickly as possible so as not to deflate the whites. Place the baking sheet in the centre of the oven and bake until crisp and dry but not yet beginning to colour, about 2 hours.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven and, with a spatula carefully transfer the meringues to a wire rack to cool. If they stick to the foil, they haven’t sufficiently dried out: If this happens, return them to the oven to dry thoroughly. (The meringues can be prepared several days in advance; if so. Store fully cooled meringues in a dry, airtight container.)
About 2 hours before serving the meringues, rinse and stem the strawberries. Cut lengthwise into thin slices. Toss with the sugar and set aside at room temperature.
In a heavy duty mixer fitted with a whisk, beat the cream until it forms soft peaks.
Using a sharp, serrated knife, slice the top quarter from each meringue. (The meringues may chip or break off, but try to avoid transforming them to bits). Place each meringue on a dessert plate. Spoon the strawberries into the shell, allowing the fruit to overflow on to the plate. Top the berries with the whipped cream. Place the meringue caps on top of the cream and serve immediately.
Makes 45-50 biscuits approx.
8 ozs (225g) soft butter
4 ozs (110g) castor sugar
10 ozs (275g) self raising flour
Grated rind of one lemon or orange
Cream the butter, add in the castor sugar, sifted flour and grated lemon or orange rind and mix just until it all comes together. Alternatively, place all four ingredients in the bowl of a food mixer and mix slowly until all the ingredients come together. At this stage the dough can either be used right away or put in the deep freeze or kept in the fridge for up to a week.
When required, bring up to room temperature and form into small balls the size of a walnut. Flatten them out onto a baking sheet using the back of a fork dipped in cold water. Allow plenty of room for expansion.
Bake in a preheated oven - 180C/350F/regulo 4 for 10 minutes approx. Sprinkle with Vanilla sugar. When cold, store in air tight containers.
Variations: Freshly ground cinnamon, ginger or chocolate chips can be a delicious addition to these biscuits.
Euro-toques Small Food Initiative – Producer Showcase Events
Monday 23rd May 2005 – Castle Leslie, Glaslough, Co Monaghan
Chefs/Restaurateurs – book today €20 – Spit Roast Pig BBQ, Gastro-Goody Bag.
Chat with chefs and producers, sample best of local fare and enjoy a glass of wine in the sun or mingle in the marquee. Producers secure your place at the showcase. Contact Abigail or Ruth at Euro-Toques, 11 Bridge Court, City Gate, St Augustine St. Dublin 8. Tel 01-6753837, email: Abigail@goodfood.ie Funded through EU Interreg 111A programme, Ireland/Northern Ireland.
BIM have just launched the 2005 edition of the 2005 Seafood Circle Pub Lunch Guide.
The aim of the programme which was initiated in 2001 by BIM in association with the Licensed Vintners Association and the Vintners Federation of Ireland, is to support and encourage pubs to improve the quality, range and understanding of seafood dishes on their lunchtime menus. The Guide is available in members’ premises, on www.seafoodcirclepubs.com or by order on 01-2144250
Cork Farmers Market in conjunction with Munster Agricultural Society, will open at Cork Showgrounds on Saturday 14th May and will run every Saturday from 10-2
- Featuring an array of organic and fresh produce to tempt the palate of Corkonians. Only 10 minutes walk from city centre. All stalls will be indoor and parking is free.
Garryvoe Hotel – Wonderful new reception area, bar & lounge just opened – a really stylish addition to East Cork – wishing them continued success.
Congratulations to Hurleys Super-Valu in Midleton – Winners of the Super-Valu store of the year 2005.