"It wasn't a wacky meal by any means," says Wells defensively. But at the time, some 10 years ago, she didn't realise how folk in Provence might respond to a mixture of dishes from different regions of France. Much as we might feel in the UK if offered a meal of Italian pasta followed by Indian curry and Black Forest gateau, probably.
Patricia Wells knows differently now, having become France's most distinguished food ambassador. The French government even made her a Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contribution to French culture - for French culture, mes amis, read French food. This is no mean achievement. If you also consider that when her husband Walter took up a two-year post in Paris with the International Herald Tribune in 1980, she spoke not a word of French, then it's quite incredible.
While the language barrier didn't prevent her from writing about French restaurants for the American Tribune, she was more than surprised to be invited to become the first female and only foreign restaurant critic on the French weekly L'Express. She wrote her reviews in English and they were translated. "At that time I could hardly write a note for the concierge," says Wells.
Her career took off. "We always say that we went to France for his job, and stayed for mine." They soon decided to extend their two-year spell and Patricia Wells, seeing a gap in the market, wrote Foodlover's Guide to Paris, published in 1984. It was swiftly acclaimed and Foodlover's Guide to France was published three years later. Next came the book of recipes gathered on her travels, Bistro Cooking, which captured the spirit of everyday food in France. More recently, in partnership with Joel Robuchon, possibly the most haute of French haute cuisine chefs, she wrote Cuisine Actuelle (Macmillan, pounds 16.99).
Now, finally, she has turned her attention to Provence, the part of France she loves best. Here, over a dozen years, she and her husband have been patiently restoring, Chanteduc, an 18th-century farmhouse which stands on 10 acres of wooded hill. She has installed a wood-fired bread oven in the kitchen and planted a six-acre vineyard, growing Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache grapes, to produce her own red wine.
Of all the French regions, none has cooking which is simpler or more straightforward than that of Provence. This sunny, former Roman province has a spirit more akin to Italy's than the spirit of France's more northern regions. And Patricia Wells is not the first to be seduced by its unique style of cooking, redolent of the pungent thyme, rosemary and oregano that grows on the hillsides. Provence enjoys the gentle Mediterranean seasons, which provide an abundance of sweet and juicy fruit, especially grapes and richly-scented sun-ripened tomatoes. Above all, the region is filled with olive trees, and the soft, sweet oil of their fruit subtly flavours every dish.
At Patricia Wells' table I meet the neighbours, and the inevitable local plumber, wine-maker, mayor, mason, butcher, banker, cheese-maker and poacher. Far from being comic figures, they are presented as the stars of her evocative new cookery book, Patricia Wells At Home in Provence (published here this month by Kyle Cathie, pounds 19.99). Roland Henny, the butcher, turns out to be the donator of recipes for aubergine gratin, rabbit bouillabaisse and three-beef daube. Vivi the plumber shares his recipe for preparing petits gris snails. Poacher Yves Reynaud is at her door at nine in the morning with truffles (snaffled from beneath her scrub oaks, she wonders?). Chantal Combe, the winemaker's wife, gives her a recipe for Bachelor's Confiture (stoned fruit matured in vodka), and her husband Daniel shares the secrets of his perfect chickpea salad. The village cheesemaker, Lou Canestou, tells Wells how she can make roast cheese chips with leftover goat's cheese, and the mason, Jean- Claude Tricart, teaches her how to cure her own olives (although some- times local passers-by have been known to strip the Wells' olive trees while they are away in Paris. Never mind, she can buy more in the market in Vaison-la-Romaine).
Here is a taste of her stimulating book. This week we give a flavour of Provence based on those recipes which Patricia Wells learnt from the locals. Next week, we look at her wider repertoire, with recipes based on Provencal ingredients but embracing lessons she learnt as food writer and critic both in Paris, regional France and beyond.
PURE TOMATO CONFIT: OVEN-ROASTED TOMATOES
Fresh tomatoes are baked for hours in a very slow oven until much of their moisture evaporates, creating a tomato confit with a dense, haunting, rich - and pleasantly tangy - flavour.
Makes about 550g (1lb) tomato confit
1kg/2lb fresh plum tomatoes, skinned, cored, deseeded and quartered lengthwise
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
pinch of icing sugar
2 sprigs fresh thyme, stemmed
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, slivered
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to the lowest possible setting, about 230F/110C/Gas 14.
Arrange the tomato quarters on a baking sheet. Sprinkle each side lightly with salt, pepper and icing sugar. Scatter the thyme leaves over the tomatoes and place a garlic sliver on top of each quarter. Drizzle with olive oil. Place in the oven and cook until the tomatoes are very soft, about one hour. Turn the tomatoes, baste with the juices, and cook until meltingly tender. Reduce to about half their size, about two hours in total. Check the tomatoes from time to time. They should remain moist and soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly.
Transfer the tomatoes to a jar, cover with the cooking juices and oil, cover securely, and refrigerate, up to one week.
These anchovy-garlic crisps, designed to perk up your appetite, can be made in a matter of minutes.
Makes about 20
12 anchovy fillets in salt, or 12 canned anchovy fillets in olive oil, drained
125ml/4fl oz whole milk
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled, degermed and finely chopped
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 slices wholewheat bread, crust removed, cut into strips abut 2.5cm/1in wide
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5. Rinse the anchovies, remove any visible bones. Pat dry and chop finely. Place in a small bowl with the milk and set aside for 15 minutes. Drain, discard the milk.
In a small frying pan, combine the anchovies, garlic and oil. Cook over moderate heat just until mixture is well blended and the garlic and anchovies melt into the oil, two to three minutes.
With a pastry brush, brush the strips of bread all over with the anchovy mixture. Place on a non-stick baking sheet and toast in the oven until well browned, turning the bread from time to time, about five minutes.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven and transfer the strips of bread to a rack to cool. The crisps are good warm or at room temperature.
DANIEL'S CHICKPEA SALAD
Serve this salad as part of a large summer buffet, or as a winter side dish to accompany roast poultry.
250g/8oz dried chickpeas
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 plump fresh garlic cloves, finely chopped
bouquet garni: several sprigs of fresh summer savory, thyme, rosemary and a fresh bayleaf, tied in a bundle with cotton twine
2 teaspoons fine sea salt, or to taste
For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon best quality red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon best quality sherry vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh or dried savory leaves
Rinse and drain the chickpeas. Place in a large bowl, add boiling water to cover and set aside for one hour. Drain and rinse beans, discarding water. Set aside.
In a large heavy-bottomed pan, combine the olive oil, garlic and the bouquet garni, and stir to coat with the oil. Cook over moderate heat until the garlic is fragrant and soft, about two minutes. Do not let it brown.
Add the chickpeas, stir to coat with oil and cook for one minute more (do not add salt yet, or beans will not cook through). Add 2 litres (3.5 pints) of cold water and stir. Cover, bring to a simmer over moderate heat, and simmer for one hour. Season with salt. Continue cooking at a gentle simmer until the beans are tender, about one hour more. Stir from time to time to make sure they are not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add additional water if necessary.
While the beans cook, prepare the vinaigrette: in a small bowl, combine the vinegars, season with salt and whisk to blend. Add the oil and whisk once more. Season with savory leaves and freshly ground black pepper. Set aside.
When chickpeas are tender, remove from heat and drain off any remaining liquid in the pan. Discard bouquet garni. Transfer beans to a large bowl and, while still warm, add the vinaigrette and toss to blend. Taste for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.
WITH GARLIC & PRESERVED LEMONS
6 plump whole heads of fresh garlic
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
I whole fresh rabbit (about 1.5kg/3lb), cut into serving pieces (or use chicken instead)
bouquet garni: 2 fresh bayleaves and a large bunch of thyme, fastened with twine
12 slices of preserved lemons, plus 4 tablespoons liquid from the jar
250ml/8fl oz dry white wine
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Trim and discard the top third of each head of garlic. Set aside.
In a large covered casserole, heat the olive oil over a moderately high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the rabbit. Reduce the heat immediately to low to keep the rabbit meat from drying out, cover and cook lightly until the rabbit is tender but still moist, shaking the pan from time to time, about five minutes per side. This may have to be done in batches.
As each batch is cooked, transfer to a platter and season lightly with salt and pepper. The cooking time will vary according to the size of the meat pieces.
In the fat that remains in the cas- serole, brown the trimmed heads of garlic, cut-side down, until they are toasty brown, two to three minutes.
Return the rabbit to the casserole, along with the bouquet garni, preserved lemons and their liquid, and the wine. Cover and reduce heat to very low, allowing the liquid to simmer very gently. Stir from time to time. Braise until the rabbit is cooked through, but still soft and moist, about one hour. The sauce should be thick and glossy. Taste for seasoning.
To serve, arrange portions of rabbit and garlic on warmed, individual dinner plates, spooning the sauce over it all.
GIGOT PROVENCAL: OVEN-ROASTED LEG OF LAMB
6 plump fresh whole heads of garlic
2 large bouquets garnis: each made up of several sprigs of parsley, several sprigs of thyme, summer savory, rosemary and several fresh bayleaves, fastened with twine
about 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 leg of lamb, with bone (about 2.5kg/5lb), carefully trimmed of fat and tied
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 425F/200C/Gas 7.
Trim and discard the top third of each head of garlic. Place cut-side up on the baking dish and drizzle with oil. Arrange the bouquets garnis around the garlic. Place a small metal roasting rack on top of the baking dish. Rub the lamb all over with olive oil. Season the lamb generously with salt and pepper. Place the lamb on top of the rack. Place the baking dish in the oven and roast, allowing 10 to 12 minutes per 500g (1lb) for medium rare and 15 minutes for medium. Turn the lamb several times during cooking.
Remove the lamb from the oven and once again season generously. On a large carving board, place a salad plate upside-down on a dinner plate. Trans-fer the lamb, the exposed bone in the air, or at an angle on the upside-down plate. Tent with foil and leave for at least 25 minutes and up to one hour in a warm place. Discard bouquets garnis.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Place the roasting pan dish over moderate heat, scraping up any bits that cling to the bottom. Cook for two to three minutes, scraping and stirring until the liquid is almost caramelized. Do not let it burn. Spoon off and discard any excess fat. Add several tablespoons of cold water to deglaze. Bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until thickened, about five minutes.
Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve and pour into a sauce boat. Carve the lamb into very thin slices. Arrange on a large warm serving platter, surrounded by the garlic.
WINEMAKER'S GRAPE CAKE
Come September, I prepare this cake often, taking advantage of whatever clusters of grapes I can find on our vines after harvesting. I love the crunch the seeded grapes impart. The equal parts of butter and olive oil produces an unusually light and moist cake.
butter and flour for preparing cake tin
2 large eggs, at room temperature
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
60g/2oz unsalted butter, melted
5 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
200g/7oz plain flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of sea salt
grated zest of 1 lemon
grated zest of 1 orange
300g/10oz small fresh purple seeded grapes
icing sugar, for decoration
Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.
Butter and flour a 23cm (9in) springform cake tin.
Beat the eggs and sugar with an electric whisk until thick and lemon- coloured, about three minutes. Add the oil, butter, milk and vanilla extract.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add the lemon and orange zest and toss to coat the citrus zest with flour. Spoon the mixture into the bowl of batter and stir with a wooden spoon until thoroughly blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix once more. Set aside for 10 minutes.
Stir about three-quarters of the grapes into the batter to blend. Spoon the batter into the prepared cake tin, smoothing out the top with a spatula.
Place the tin in the centre of the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then sprinkle the top of the cake with remaining grapes. Bake until the top is a deep golden brown and the cake feels quite firm when pressed with a fingertip, about 40 minutes more. Cool on a baking rack for 10 minutes. Remove the side of the tin, leaving the cake on the base. Sprinkle with icing sugar just before serving at room temperature, in thin wedges.