THE TOURISTS HAVE slowed to a trickle in Provence now; it is no longer the streets that are overflowing, but the market stalls, with their torrents of fruits and vegetables. Autumn in southern France is a quiet time.
If we were to visit my friend Jeanette at her parents' home near Marseille, we would find the bounty of Provence in their kitchen. A pot of soupe au pistou would be bubbling on the stove and a crock of ratatouille would be waiting to be spread on thick slabs of bread or to be heated and served with a roast. There would be jars of brandied fruits -- cherries, peaches, pears -- quince preserves and wonderful currant jellies which Madame makes every fall.
Jeanette's mother would very likely send one of her boys off to buy bread, a wedge of cheese and perhaps a ga teau from the patisserie. She never bakes her own bread because the baker has hot, fresh loaves for her to buy just before every meal. (It seems that everyone in the village eats on the same schedule to accommodate the bread.) Ten minutes before dinner, greens are picked from the garden and washed. They will be dressed with a splash of olive oil and a sprinkle of vinegar.
The cooking of southern France, and Provence in particular, is often described in a single word: sunny. The sun-drenched fields of this area produce not only fruits and vegetables but vibrant herbs like thyme, basil, lavender, sage, fennel and rosemary. Ancient olive groves line the hillsides, their gnarled trunks looking squeezed out of the earth by brute force. The Mediterranean reflects the azure of the sky and yields a treasure in seafood.
Ingredients are used to the best advantage and are rarely hidden under a mask of sauce. Seasoning is used generously--never a hint of garlic, never just a pinch of basil. It's a peasant cuisine, honest, simple, straightforward.
In every cuisine there are key ingredients that separate it from others, identify the origin of the food. In Provence, these are garlic, basil, tomatoes, olives, olive oil, anchovies and sweet and hot peppers. Anise and fennel are frequently used, though not as often. Many of the seasonings are also key ingredients in the Italian cuisine. But there are enough differences to separate them effectively.
The kitchens in southern France are not so different from ours these days, though smaller refrigerators are used even in large houses. These make daily shopping a necessity and really fresh vegetables a matter of course. Although housewives today take the same pride in their electric food processors as in well-seasoned pans and copper pots, in older farm kitchens you can still find enormous marble mortars and pestles used to crush the garlic into aioli and pistou. You would also find wire mesh racks for drying figs, orange peel and mushrooms. And certainly there would be garlic in thick braids hanging on the wall.
The women of Provence, like Jeanette and her mother, cook without recipes. Rather, without written recipes, for they take pride in recipes handed down, mother to daughter, for many generations.
Soupe au pistou is one of those recipes. It's a rich, thick soup that they make only in the autumn when all of the ingredients are fresh. The technique for making this soup is the same as any other vegetable soup. The onions and leeks are saute'ed in olive oil to increase their flavor before the water and other vegetables are added. Fresh white beans and lima beans are cooked with potatoes, carrots, green beans, turnips and zucchini until all are tender. If fresh white beans are not available, and they are not likely to be, dry ones may be soaked overnight instead. Fresh lima beans may be replaced by frozen ones.
The most important element in this soup is the addition of the pistou at the table. The pistou is a sauce made of fresh basil, garlic (lots of garlic) parmesan cheese, tomato and olive oil. It adds the sunshine of Provence to this mild-mannered soup.
The addition of a sauce to soup seems a bit unusual, but it has the advantage of adding the garlic without cooking it, preserving that fresh spicy taste. It may also be added in amounts that suit each diner rather than the cook, so that each one has his own personal interpretation of the soup. Parmesan is passed as well, adding one more variation.
This idea of adding a garlic sauce to a soup, unique to the cuisine of Provence, appears in two other dishes, bouillabaisse, a fish stew, and bourride, a creamy fish soup.
Ratatouille is a versatile vegetable stew that combines tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, zucchini, eggplant, sweet peppers, onion and basil, which are all in season at the same time. The vegetables are saute'ed separately in olive oil, then stewed in a tomato sauce until quite tender. The dish may be prepared several days in advance and improves with age. It is often served as an appetizer, spread on rounds of french bread. Try combining it with diced leftover lamb. I even fill crepes with this combination, then top them with mornay sauce and shredded cheese. The ratatouille may be reheated and served as a vegetable or as a sauce for pasta..
Herbes de Provence is a combination of dried thyme, basil, savory, fennel and lavender flowers. The mixture is used on grilled and roasted meats. You can buy it in kitchenware stores, where it is quite expensive, or you can make your own by buying one ounce of each herb and mixing them in a small crock or jar. Health food stores and co-ops often sell bulk herbs at very low prices. If you can't find lavender, use two ounces of fennel.
I like to marinate whole chickens in olive oil, herbes de provence and lemon juice for several hours before roasting them, or split chickens before grilling. The flavor of the herbs is stronger if they are pounded in a mortar and pestle before adding to the marinade. I've used this marinade for lamb and pork as well as chicken.
In France, salads are served after the main course. Perhaps because of this placement on the menu, they are kept severely simple. Fresh greens are tossed well with good olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper and then tossed with a little vinegar. Nothing spectacular, no cheese or diced ham, no sweet red dressings, but it's a follow-up to the main course that is very refreshing.
The desserts of Provence are very plain. Stewed and poached fruits, puddings and simple pies called tourtes are among the most popular. For this typical autumn menu I would choose pears poached in red wine. They may be prepared several days in advance and kept chilled.
The most difficult part of this dessert is finding sweet ripe pears that are still firm. Soft pears, however good they taste, will disintegrate as they poach. Look for firm bosc or anjou pears. Remember that the term poaching means to cook at a gentle simmer; hard boiling will overcook the pears.
The poaching liquid used for the pears may be used for peaches as well. Both pears and peaches must be peeled carefully so that the fruit remains smooth.
For that is the nature of food in Provence: simple, but far from careless. Here are the recipes for a Provencal autumn dinner that illustrates that principle deliciously: SOUPE AU PISTOU (8 servings) For the soup: 1 pound white beans (or 1 cup dried navy beans, cooked) 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 bunch leeks, sliced thin, white part only 2 large onions, diced 3 quarts boiling water 1 pound lima beans 2 medium carrots, sliced 1/4-inch thick 1 large turnip, peeled and diced 3 large potatoes, peeled and diced 2 bay leaves 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 6 small zucchini, sliced 1/4-inch thick 1 pound green beans, cut in 1-inch pieces 1 cup elbow macaroni Salt For the pistou: 6 large cloves garlic, mashed 1 cup packed fresh basil 1 cup parmesan cheese 1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped 3/4 cup olive oil Salt and pepper
If you are using dried navy beans, soak them overnight. Put them in a pot with 1 quart boiling water and boil for 1 hour. Drain. Heat the olive oil in a stockpot or dutch oven. Saute' the leeks and onion until they are soft and translucent. Add the boiling water, the white beans or navy beans, lima beans, carrots, turnip, potato, bay leaves, thyme and pepper. Simmer for 40 minutes. Add zucchini, green beans and elbow macaroni. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes. Test the vegetables for tenderness. Season with salt and additional pepper as necessary. Serve very hot with parmesan and pistou in crocks on the table.
To prepare pistou, place garlic in a food processor or use mortar and pestle. Add basil and process until smooth. Add parmesan and tomato and work to smooth paste. Add the oil slowly until it is worked into the paste. Keep in the refrigerator until serving time. This should be made fresh each time you serve the soup, if possible. RATATOUILLE (8 servings) 1/2 to 1 cup olive oil 3 large onions, cut in large dice 6 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (peeling and seeding optional) 1 pound small zucchini, sliced 1 large eggplant (about 1 pound), cut in 1-inch dice 1 pound green or red peppers, diced 6 cloves garlic (or less), mashed Salt and pepper
When all of the vegetables are diced, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 4-quart dutch oven. Add onions and saute' until golden. Add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl. Add another splash of oil to the pan and saute' the zucchini for about 4 minutes. Remove to the bowl with tomatoes. Repeat with the eggplant and peppers. Return all ingredients to the dutch oven, add the garlic and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until all of the vegetables are quite tender. Use as much olive oil as necessary. Season with salt and pepper. CHICKEN PROVENCALE ON A BED OF FENNEL (4 servings) 4-pound roasting chicken 4 tablespoons fruity olive oil 2 tablespoons herbes de Provence, crushed lightly in a mortar Juice of 1 lemon 1 fennel bulb Salt and pepper
Several hours before you plan to roast the chicken, make a marinade with the olive oil, herbs and lemon juice. Rub this into the cavity of the chicken and all over the skin. Let it rest at room temperature unless the room is very warm. Use kitchen string to tie the legs together.
Trim the long thin stems and leaves from the fennel. These may be saved and used to stuff a grilled or baked fish. Cut the bulb in quarters and slice to make thin crescents. Place these in the bottom of a roasting pan. Place the chicken on the bed of fennel. Place in a 425-degree oven and roast for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and roast for another hour. After the first 30 minutes of cooking, baste the chicken with fat from the bottom of the pan and turn the chicken breast side down. Continue the roasting for another 30 minutes and then turn the chicken breast side up. Test the chicken for doneness, using an instant reading thermometer. The internal temperature should be 165 degrees. Serve the chicken with the fennel and the hot ratatouille. POACHED PEARS (4 servings) 4 firm, ripe pears 1 lemon 1 quart water in a glass bowl 1 orange 2 cups red wine 1 cup sugar
Use a potato peeler to remove the peel from the lemon. Squeeze the juice into the water. This will be used to keep the pears from browning. Use the peeler to remove the skin from the pears. Drop into the bowl of water as you finish. Leave the stems on the pears. Cut them in half just up to the stem. Pry apart gently and core each half, using a spoon. Use the peeler to remove the orange peel. Squeeze the orange. Place the wine, sugar, orange and lemon peel in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Add the pears carefully and simmer them for 35 minutes. Test with a skewer to see if the pears are tender. If necessary cook longer, adding more wine as necessary. Chill. Serve in a champagne glass with some of the syrup used to cook them.