My recent culinary exploration of Provence: who on earth needs 11,000 recipes?
The news that the BBC is culling 11,000 of its recipes from their website comes at a fitting time. Last week, myself and thirteen friends rented a Provencal bastide in the Bouches-du-Rhone. I spent most of the week cooking, and yet I went with just three cookbooks.
The trip has now become an annual celebration for our closest group of friends. What began years ago in Devon, has since hopped across to my second home of Provence. A little under a week since we’ve returned, and the already grey misery of London makes that corner of France difficult to remember.
When it is bright, you can look for miles and miles across rolling mountaintops. Whether the magnificent Luberon or the more modest Sainte-Baume massif, you could stare silently for hours — until someone brings you a carafe of rosé and interrupts you for a game of petanque, that is. Trees and herbs and plants cascade around the hillsides. As soon as those hills even out, vines and olive trees stand in every possible gap. The English countryside has its own beauty of course. But for me there is no greater sight than vines of grenache and syrah crisscrossing in misshapen grids as far as the eye can see. The fields and fields of vines punctuated by the small villages, the largest of which would hold the local wine co-operative. There, those grenache and syrah grapes will be taken to make the infamous Provencal rose — without a doubt the greatest rosé in the world. The entire countryside — and indeed Elizabeth David called it a country in itself — is an ode, not just to the kitchen and cooking, but to all of life’s greatest pleasures: love, relaxation, and wine.
Provence is an extension of the dinner table. Walking along you smell the herbs which you want to throw into your beef stew. You see an unopened bottle of wine you want to share with your friends. You see a blanket of olive trees which will form the oil, which is the very essence of the cooking here.
And so we arrive at the cooking itself.
French Provincial Cooking, Summer Cooking and Mediterranean Food were the three cookbooks I took with me.
French Provincial Cooking is something of a bible, my own version of the BBC Food website. When for example, I forgot the precise differences between the tapenade and the anchoïade, I turned here. Both of these marvelous pungent sauces or dips, are delicious on toast as an hors-deauve. The tapenade named after the Provencal word for capers, tapeno is exactly what you would imagine from a sort of mayonnaise of olive oil and capers. The anchoïade, my personal favourite, is much punchier. Those who do not like the mouthful of anchovies and raw garlic best turn away now.
It is also from French Provincial Cooking, where I learnt the beef stew which we cooked on the first day. Somewhere between a bouef bourguignon and Provencal daube, I borrowed olives from Provence and the volume of wine from the former. It was a dish served at quarter to ten on the first night of heavy drinking and was very well received indeed.
For the most part though, dishes were simple and honest. A variety of fish lightly toasted on the outside grill. Chicken roasted with tomatoes, herbs and balsamic vinegar. A baba ganoush from Elizabeth’s Mediterranean Food, where the precise name for it isn’t mentioned — perhaps out of fear of overwhelming the audience in 1950.
A lunch of a potato salad, tomatoes a la Provencale (sliced in half then layered with a garlic, salt and anchovy paste). Salads, a variety of anchovies, baguettes (sliced and rubbed with garlic around the outside), grilled prawns and langoustines. Slowly roasted, buttery and garlicky chickens sliced and served lukewarm. All washed down with more rosé.
Another dinner of roast leg of lamb served with my ratatouille was another highlight. My ratatouille actually varies from Elizabeth’s who, I am surprised to find, cooks the whole dish in one pan. Having attempted her own version once, it comes out as a watery mush that is far beneath her. Instead, I like to cook each element in a separate pan until it has taken colour, then brought together at the end until flavours have combined. Then, remove the vegetables which should still be solid. Add a glass of champagne to the tomato sauce and heavily reduce. It is divine either hot or cold.
The highlight dish for me was one of grilled, sliced sweet peppers — topped with a balsamic glaze. They were the centrepiece of the entire meal that even without meaning to, and a testament to the flavours of Provence.
The outpour of emotion yesterday that the BBC is culling 11,000 recipes seems rather misplaced. We do not need dozens of versions of the same recipe, for the most part we only need one.
Elizabeth David, food and Provence are all synonymous with each other. That the greatest culinary highlight was a single ingredient, simply grilled with a simple finish, is what food is about. It’s what Elizabeth David’s food writing is about. And it’s what Provence is about.
Food is the vehicle for life itself. And as with anything, complication only obfuscates. There was a murmuring of mockery at my constant campaign for honest food. But for me this is what Provence is about. Keeping ingredients simple. Allowing food to taste of where it comes from. Powerful yet not overwhelming bases. But most importantly, a chance to bring people together. Whether in preparation or in eating, the food of Provence has a magical ability to bring the closest of friends even closer together. And while the grey storm clouds of London have muddied my view, the memory and perfume of the Provencal countryside will long remain.