I cannot pinpoint the moment of my transformation from ordinary cookbook owner to devoted disciple. But it happened soon after a friend told me about a cookbook called "Lulu's Provencal Table." That $23 book, a few years old and now sadly out of print, turned out to be just the beginning. Soon I was so caught up in Lulu Peyraud's rustic French recipes that I decided I had to go to Provence and meet my newfound idol.
I am not usually a celebrity-chasing, autograph-seeking fan. But the book, written by Lulu's American neighbor, the renowned food writer Richard Olney, enchanted me because it is so much more than a compilation of recipes. Sprinkled with Madame Peyraud's photographs, it is part guidebook, part testimonial to the Provencal way of eating and life that can replenish the soul.
I was taken by Madame Peyraud's tendency to describe recipes intuitively and by her overall lack of pretension in the kitchen. Together with Jason, my friend and cooking companion, we staged frequent "Lulu dinners," meals often preceded by serious discussions.
The centerpiece of Madame Peyraud's gastronomic life is bouillabaisse, the fabled fish soup from Marseille, once considered simple sustenance for poor fishermen. Now it is Madame Peyraud's signature dish and, having entertained countless guests with it in the last 50 years, she is known across the seas for her rendition. Even Alice Waters, the chef and owner of Chez Panisse in California, has made the pilgrimage to Madame Peyraud's large, stately house in the middle of Domaine Tempier, the vineyard her family has owned for generations.
"A bouillabaisse day at the Domaine Tempier is a finely orchestrated celebration," Olney writes in a 10-page chapter devoted to the subject. "Behind the scenes, the day begins with Lulu's visit to Bandol to meet the fishing boats."
Long before we bought our tickets to France, Jason and I tried to have our own finely orchestrated celebration, beginning with a 2 a.m. shopping excursion through the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan. The meal was a success, although I did have trouble with the rouille, a saffron-garlic mayonnaise served alongside, which failed to emulsify.
We decided we wanted the real thing -- Madame Peyraud's own. So we pasted together a storyboard of our bouillabaisse, even asking for an audience with our mentor and enclosed a self-addressed postcard with boxes where she could check "oui" or "non."
The postcard came back to us quickly. Good news: Madame Peyraud had checked off the box marked "oui" and suggested a dejeuner at our convenience.
Exiting the highway from Toulon to Marseille, we could spot the wide-spreading maritime pines tucked among the hills, proudly announcing the domaine's presence. We parked near the cherry trees at the end of a long narrow drive and walked toward the ancient house and vineyard where Madame Peyraud, her husband, Lucien, and their son Jean-Marie, make the Bandol wines that have been called one of Provence's "most privileged" appellations.
Frederique Naudin, the Peyrauds' granddaughter, met us at the heavy wooden front door and led us inside, past a salon and sitting room and on toward the tiny kitchen in back. At its threshold stood a petite woman wearing a light blue frock, gold lame slippers, round white earrings and a smile as warm as her country French kitchen.
"Bonjour, Sarah," Lulu said, her arm on mine. "Le grand jour est arrive!" Indeed, the great day had arrived.
Lulu's kitchen is like an ancient and intimate sanctuary. An open brick fireplace for cooking runs the length of one wall. On the mantel and in cubbyholes below are the rustic tools that form the basis of her technique. There are mortars and pestles, metal racks for grilling fish and meat, long-handled forks and spatulas, all as chipped and charred from use as I had imagined.
In the center of the room is her altar, a long wooden table on which lay the ingredients for our dejeuner: a plate of crushed and whole garlic cloves, several whole peeled tomatoes, a dish of quartered potatoes, a bouquet of fennel, a bowl of mussels and, finally, a dried-cork platter draped with a towel. With an easy flourish, Lulu unveiled an artful array of whole and filleted fish -- John Dory, rascasses, monkfish, octopus, conger eel. Resting on top, a slotted spoon cradled a monkfish liver. The display could mean only one thing: bouillabaisse.
Sure enough, outside in the open patio, the huge copper cauldron stood on a metal tripod above a bed of twigs. Richard Olney, who was also invited to the lunch, lit the fire. Lulu, 79, filled the vessel with a fragrant seafood broth she had prepared the day before.
Then she turned to the all-important rouille. Using her most sacred utensil, the marble mortar and wooden pestle, she mashed garlic, salt and cayenne pepper to a fine paste. Then she added the precious monkfish liver, which she had gently poached minutes before and without which Lulu says there is no rouille. She ground in the remaining ingredients -- egg yolks, a saffron-bread mixture and olive oil -- turning the pestle until the emulsion thickened.
I was marveling at the assured and seemingly effortless way Lulu carried out this process, which had caused me such consternation months before, when suddenly she paused.
"Il est trompe," she whispered, beckoning Olney to her side. A flurry of French ensued. Olney assumed control of the mortar and pestle but to no avail, as he declared the fallen rouille beyond repair. Lulu remained unflustered. She merely scraped the concoction into a mini-Cuisinart, turned it on and drizzled in olive oil. Like magic, the delicate emulsion was resurrected.
Lulu returned to the patio to nurse the bouillabaisse broth and add the seafood at appropriate intervals. She encouraged us to take photographs, and we did, although I had the disconcerting sense that I was trying to capture a mirage. (In a self-fulfilling prophecy, I later dropped and broke my camera.)
The brew percolated for several more minutes, and Lulu tenderly removed the fish to the platter. While she decanted the steaming broth into two large serving dishes, Olney announced: "A table!" And "to the table" we went.
The next few hours passed in a rapturous blur. Lulu stood beside a rolling cart and ceremoniously distributed the delicacies of the sea on each guest's plate. The broth was served in separate bowls. The rouille (now returned to the grand marble mortar) was passed around to be slathered on toasted rounds of baguette and set afloat in the bowls of soup. Lulu's bouillabaisse, which had turned a luscious sunset red, was simple paradise. From my first bite of tender octopus to the last sip of broth (I had three bowls of it), the flavors grew ever richer, ever subtler.
The cheese course that followed included a couple of fresh rounds of chevre, just the right touch as we finished off the remaining 1992 Domaine Tempier red. For dessert, we ate cantaloupe grown on the premises, along with maple syrup, a gift I had imported from New Hampshire after racking my brain for something to take to the chef who appeared to have it all. Lulu honored me by ladling syrup into the well of her melon. She said that her husband, who was ailing, would covet it as well.
We retired to the salon for coffee and a shot of marc, a fiery brandy that is distilled from the grape pressings after making wine. The room grew dark and quiet during a sudden rainstorm, and, at Lulu's urging, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
When I awoke, Lulu had gone upstairs to look after Lucien, and Frederique had started in on the dishes. If there can be a more blissful way to pass five hours, I cannot imagine it. With a sigh, we said our goodbyes. It was time to go home. BOUILLABAISSE (8 servings)
Here is the fabled recipe, adapted from "Lulu's Provencal Table" by Richard Olney (HarperCollins, 1994). A note on the fish: Oily fish do not mix well in a bouillabaisse. Any fish called rockfish, rock cod, redfish, ocean perch, sea perch, red snapper, sea trout, ocean catfish, scrod, tom cod, croaker or drum is good bouillabaisse fish; grouper, porgy, tautog, cunner, spot, black bass, striped bass, sheepshead, halibut, hake, haddock, sea robin, sculpin, skate wings and stargazers are also acceptable. Monkfish liver, which is essential to the rouille, may have to be ordered from the fishmonger in advance.
2 pounds monkfish, filleted, trimmed of flabby membranes and belly flaps and cut into 8 sections
4 pounds white-fleshed saltwater fish fillets (see recipe introduction), cut into serving portions
FOR THE MARINADE:
1 bouquet (bunch) fresh wild fennel or several sections fennel stalk or a large pinch of powdered (ground) fennel seeds
About 1/8 teaspoon powdered (ground) saffron
4 to 5 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
About 4 tablespoons olive oil
FOR THE FISH SOUP:
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced or coarsely chopped
1 head garlic, cloves separated and crushed with heel of hand or beneath a large knife blade
2 tomatoes, quartered
2 to 3 pounds reserved fish heads and carcasses (gills removed), rinsed and chopped or broken into small pieces
1 thick slice conger eel (about 1/2 pound), if available, cut into small pieces
8 small, lively blue crabs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bouquet (bunch) fennel, or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 leek, trimmed of tough green parts, partially slit, rinsed and finely sliced
1 celery stalk, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and finely sliced
FOR THE ROUILLE:
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, without crusts
1/4 teaspoon powdered (ground) saffron dissolved in 2 or 3 tablespoons hot fish soup
2 dried cayenne chili peppers, or a large pinch powdered (ground) cayenne
Large pinch coarse salt
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 monkfish liver (see recipe introduction), poached for 1 minute in a ladle of fish soup, until firmed up but still pink
1 egg yolk
About 2 cups olive oil, at room temperature
TO FINISH THE FISH SOUP:
1/4 teaspoon saffron
About 2 pounds potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 large sweet white onion, sliced paper-thin
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
4 to 5 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
1 bouquet (bunch) fennel (use the fennel from the marinade), or a large pinch fennel seeds tied in a piece of cheesecloth
1 1/2 pounds mussels, soaked in water with a handful of coarse sea salt, scraped, bearded and rinsed
24 thin slices of crusty baguette, preferably sourdough, partially dried out in a slow oven or in the sun, stroked on each side with peeled garlic cloves
For the fish marinade: Spread the pieces of fish out on a platter, distribute the fennel branches among them, sprinkle with saffron, add the fragmented crushed garlic and dribble olive oil all over. Rub the surfaces of the fish gently until evenly yellowed with saffron and coated with oil. Marinate for a couple of hours, turning the fish over two or three times, while preparing the fish soup and the rouille.
Begin the fish soup: In a large heavy pot, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat, add the onion and the crushed, unpeeled garlic cloves and stir regularly until the onion is softened but not colored. Add the tomatoes, the broken-up fish heads and carcasses and the cut-up conger eel, raise the heat to medium and stir regularly, mashing with a wooden spoon or pestle until the contents of the pot are reduced to a coarse debris. Add the live crabs and stir until they turn red. Add about 3 cups water, or enough to cover the contents generously, stir to loosen any debris stuck to the pot, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and skim the foam from the surface. Add salt, pepper, fennel, leek, celery and carrots. Adjust the heat to maintain a light boil, with the lid ajar, for 45 minutes. After 5 or 10 minutes, remove the crabs one or two at a time, to a marble mortar. Pound them with a wooden spoon or pestle, breaking up the shells thoroughly, and spoon them back into the soup. Rinse out the mortar with a ladle of soup and pour it back into the pot.
Remove the bouquet of fennel and reserve. Then strain the contents of the pot, 1 cup at a time, through a fine sieve, pressing with the wooden pestle to extract all the liquid. Discard the debris and rinse the sieve as necessary. Strain the liquid two more times, shaking the sieve gently the final time to separate the broth from any pureed solids or fish bones that may have passed through the first two times. Set broth aside.
For the rouille: In a bowl, mash the bread crumbs and the dissolved saffron with a fork, adding a bit more fish soup, if necessary, to form a loose paste. In a mortar, pound the cayenne peppers to a powder with a wooden pestle. Add, one at a time, the coarse salt and the garlic, the monkfish liver, the egg yolk and the saffron-bread paste, turning the pestle briskly after each addition until the mixture is smooth and homogeneous. Turning the pestle constantly, pour the oil in a thin trickle down the side of the mortar, mounting the mixture like a mayonnaise. Set aside.
To finish: Reheat the fish soup, dissolve the saffron in a ladle of boiling soup and stir it in. Add the potatoes, onion, tomatoes, garlic and reserved fennel and return to a boil. Five minutes later, add the mussels, then the marinated pieces of monkfish. After another 5 minutes, add the remaining fish and boil for 10 minutes longer.
With a slotted spoon, lift the pieces of fish onto a large heated platter, the mussels and potatoes onto another platter, and ladle part of the broth into a heated soup tureen, leaving the remainder over heat for the second servings.
"At table," smear the garlic-rubbed slices of bread thickly with rouille, place a couple of crusts in each soup plate and pour over a ladle of soup. Serve potatoes, mussels and fish on a separate plate.
Sarah Jay is a freelance writer based in New York.
CAPTION: The author, above left, talks with Lulu Peyraud's granddaughter, Frederique Naudin, while Lulu herself tends to a cauldron of her famed bouillabaisse outside Domaine Tempier, her Provencal home.