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A better book on Provencal Home Cooking
on April 14, 2004
The cookbooks of `cuisine Provence' just keep coming. The latest is the new book by Patricia Wells, whose credentials for doing a cookbook on a cuisine of France are impeccable, as she has already written seven (7), including an earlier book on Provence entitled `Patricia Wells at Home in Provence'. I made a point of reviewing the earlier book (as well as four (4) of Wells' other books) when I saw the notice of the new book's being published.
Madame Wells gives no clue in this book to distinguish it from the earlier title. She does indicate that it marks the occasion of her living at the farmhouse, Chanteduc, with her husband for the last twenty years. My biggest question about the current volume is, after all the books which have already been published, what new can be said about the cuisine of this singularly fecund culinary terroir? The answer in this book is `A lot'.
Like Wells' earlier Provence book, this book does not dwell on standards such as Bouillabaisse or Salad Nicoise. It presents recipes of local restaurants and bistros and recipes invented by the author herself. There are still lots of references to friends and acquaintances such as Joel Robuchon who happens to be great French chef, but the emphasis in this book, unlike the earlier title, is much more on the restaurants and food producers and vendors of her neighborhood in Provence than it is about Madame Wells and her contacts to the greats of French cuisine. This concentration on contacts in Provence sometimes seems a bit absurd to 99% of Madame Wells' potential audience. What reader / cook in Duluth will have any interest whatsoever in the telephone and fax numbers of `Restaurant Le Mimosa' just outside of Montpellier in Provence? Only that reader who will happen to be traveling to Provence within the next year, I gather. This doesn't mean there are no such contacts of value to the general reader. There are names, addresses, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses (of course) to many local vintners, truffle merchants, and olive oil producers. I'm certain that if someone were absolutely determined to obtain a bottle of primo olive oil from Provence, they could use this information to track down a source. Note that the references to these merchants is certainly not an afterthought. The subtitle of the book states that it is a book of both recipes and a guide to markets, shops, and restaurants. I will chalk this up as a plus, as 175 good recipes for a list price of less than $30 is a bargain. Throw in first rate intelligence on Provencal merchants and I think the interested buyer will be getting their money's worth.
In addition to addresses and other contacts to Provencal restaurants, the book contains a three-page presentation of major market days in Provence, by day and by department. The end of the book also has three solid pages of sources gathered from the body of the book.
Regarding the recipes, I will not verify that she did not duplicate any recipes from the earlier book other than recipes for aioli, vinaigrettes, stocks, and pistu. Actually, I did check and find that Mme. Wells does not even duplicate her aioli or pistu recipes. That doesn't mean aioli and pistu are not used in the book. They are so ubiquitous that they even appear together in the `Spaghetti a l'Aioli au Pistou' dish. There are chicken stock recipes in both books and they are very similar, yet the one in the current volume is `homemade' and somewhat simpler than the earlier recipe.
The older and newer books are almost exactly the same length. The older book has eleven very traditional chapters. The newer book has thirteen chapters. It has the same eleven titles as the older book plus chapters on `Potatoes' and `Eggs and Cheese'.
I compared the recipes in the `Breads' chapter and found no overlap. Both books contained recipes for Fougasse (French focaccia-like flatbread), but the older book's treatment was a general treatment of this type of bread while the newer book deals only with a single recipe incorporating black olives. Treatment of bread in the older book more thorough in general.
I compared the salad recipes in the two books and found one overlapping title for a `winter salad', yet the two recipes were for two different winter salads.
I compared the potato recipes from the index of the older book to the potato recipes in the new book and again found no overlap. I did, however, find support for Madame Wells' statement in her introduction that her cooking has gotten simpler over the years. As interesting and diverse as the potato recipes are, they are all utterly simple, but not without a clever technique to two. The placing of a bay leaf in a thin slit in new potatoes is certainly new to me.
This book includes wine recommendations for every dish where a recommendation seems appropriate. As with all of her earlier books, the wine recommendations can be pretty arcane and may only be for very general guidance. No apology is made for the obscure references. If wine is not your thing, just ignore them. If you are as fond of wine as are the fictional Drs. Crane, then enjoy yourself.
If you are a fan of Provencal cooking, then you want both books. If you feel the need for at least one book on Provencal cooking and don't want to spring for Richard Olney's oversize tome, then get this newer volume. It's index and table of contents are superior to the earlier book and I do believe the recipes are simpler. If you are traveling to Provence, this book is a terrific find.
Highly recommended. Many simple recipes (not necessarily fast) and lots of panache.