What about the vegetables, indeed? In terms of haute cuisine they have but walk-on parts; as side dishes, garnishes, decoration. French chefs have been particularly off-hand in this respect. But not any more. For the first time, one of the most celebrated of all French chefs, Roger Verge, has devoted a whole book to creating fine dishes with vegetables.
His restaurant, Le Moulin de Mougins, in the hills above Cannes, is a beautiful converted 16th-century oil mill and a magnet for the stars who attend Cannes film festivals. And Roger Verge, at 60, with his brisk white moustache, resembles a film star (one of the Gone with the Wind era rather than that of Pulp Fiction).
I was lucky enough to be taken to Le Moulin for lunch soon after he opened in 1969, while I was visiting a TV and video festival in Cannes. At that time I was more interested in paying homage to the house opposite Verge's mill, since this was where Picasso had lived for many years. I was there to meet a Vietnamese painter who was a friend of the great artist.
Le Moulin is a place of extraordinary calm and beauty, and the food was exceptional. But neither of us, the only people lunching in Le Moulin that day, could have imagined the speed with which the restaurant would take off.
Roger Verge rocketed to fame with a first Michelin star the very next year, a second in 1972 and his third in 1974; this he kept for 16 successive years until the inspectors clearly decided that he wasn't spending enough time in the restaurant.
Roger Verge is both a traditionalist and innovator; in other words he likes to have his gateau and eat it. He was a pioneer of the Nouvelle Cuisine, one of the chefs in France who broke away from the rigid grip of traditonal haute cuisine epitomised by Escoffier; at the same time he embraces traditional Provencal values, and his first book, Cuisine of the Sun, indicated how country cooking could be elevated by a skilful hand.
Roger Verge is also one of the French chefs best known outside France. He loves to jet around the world to fulfil his various consultancies, including one in Japan. He has a presence at the Disney-owned Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida, where, with Paul Bocuse, another formidable icon of French cooking, he is consultant to the French Chefs Pavilion at the 'world showcase', which feeds 5,000 a day. He winters in a lakeside house near Orlando, across the water from Bocuse.
Roger Verge must be the most adventurous of all French chefs, and the most open to foreign influences. He spent much of the first 20 years of his professional life working in the Caribbean and Africa, from Algeria and Morocco to Kenya and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He was, he says, prompted more by a passion for adventure and a love of big game hunting, safaris and motor rallies than by any desire to increase his standing as a chef.
It was hardly easy to produce the goods in some of the spots he ended up in.
Far from being able to call up ingredients which are the cornerstones of French haute cuisine (truffles, foie gras, caviare and so on) he often had difficulty in raising a decent chicken.
On one occasion, called upon to prepare a banquet in Uganda for 120 to honour a visiting princess, he'd committed himself to serving volailles de Bresse ordered from France (those aristocrats of the poultry world, pampered beasts with individual identity tags). On the day of the banquet he found they hadn't arrived. He hurried round local villages buying every chicken he could find, big and small, fat and thin, young and old.
Relief was shortlived. When he went to light the ovens he found that all the butane gas cylinders were empty. He rushed out into the fields to gather firewood, but it was soaking with tropical rain. So in desperation he broke up chairs to get oven fires started.
This sort of seat-of-the-pants improvisation is in some contrast to the style of his grandest book, Entertaining in the French Style, a lavish advertisement for the elegant restaurant (his wife, Denise, is largely responsible for the decor). Roger Verge's Vegetables is an infinitely more down-to-earth book, immensely practical, dividing vegetables into categories: green vegetables, vegetables from the earth, vegetables from afar.
And, especially, sun-drenched vegetables, his beloved vegetables of Provence: globe artichokes, fennel, tomatoes, cucumber, pumpkin, courgettes, green peppers and aubergines. Actually, because this English-language edition is produced in the US, we have to put up with the mild irritation of adjusting to American translations: zucchini, bell peppers and eggplants.
Even though the book is an encyclopaedic study of preparing and cooking vegetables, it is not without its lyrical passages. Roger Verge doesn't hesitate to invoke the muse who attends the writing arm of every French chef who seeks to explain the source of his art.
Here he recalls his father, an honest son of the soil, bent double over the vegetable patch: 'As winter came to an end, and as the sun began to warm the soil he had carefully prepared the previous autumn, he would take up his spade and turn over the earth. The narcissi were beginnng to show; the cherry trees were in bud. The birds were wildly chattering in the trees as they waited for his mossy spade to turn up a clod of earth richly larded with worms . . .'
This is by way of a prelude to his own almost private, personal love affair with vegetables. He remembers his mother and aunt (Tante Celestine, a village poultry dealer who, when he was four, used to sit him on a high stool at the stove to watch her cooking); he recalls them rubbing the skins from new potatoes, cleaning opalescent onions, scraping carrots, extracting peas.
'Suffused with the water of spring showers and morning dew,' he writes, 'these vegetables needed no more elaborate treatment. They quickly yielded up their aromas and flavours. The women coated them in fresh butter (with its own hazelnut perfume) to create the finest fricassee in the world - a fricassee that for me still represents all the happiness that life can afford us.'
To share his passion, you only have to tune into some of the recipes on the following pages.
POTATO-CELERIAC PANCAKES WITH CREAM AND CELERY A traditional criquette is a little pancake made of grated potatoes. It is a specialty of the Dauphine region, although a slightly different version is prepared in Lorraine.
Serves 4 2 large potatoes 1 small celeriac (about 31/2oz/100g) salt 2oz/60g butter 1 tablespoon peanut oil 1 medium onion, preferably white the pale heart of a head of celery and a few of its leaves 2 tablespoons creme fraiche or whipped double cream a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg Preparation: 15 minutes; cooking time: 30 minutes.
Peel the potatoes and celeriac and wipe them clean. Grate them finely. Mix and season with salt.
With your hands, divide the grated vegetables into 8 balls, and flatten each into a pancake about 5/8in/11/2cm thick.
Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pancakes and cook until lightly browned on one side, then turn them over.
Press them with your spatula to help them hold together. Cook for a total of 15 to 20 minutes, turning occasionally.
Meanwhile, peel the onion and cut it into thin slices. Salt lightly and place in a strainer to let the salt draw out some of the onion's liquid.
Pluck some of the palest central leaves from the celery heart and set aside.
Thinly slice the stalks and set them aside.
When the pancakes are cooked, arrange them, overlapping, around the edge of an ovenproof platter. Spread some creme fraiche or whipped cream on each pancake, sprinkle with nutmeg and top with thinly-sliced onion.
Put the platter under the grill or in a very hot oven for a couple of minutes. Before serving, put the sliced celery heart and leaves in the centre of the platter.
SALSIFY WITH ORANGE SYRUP Serves 4 9 or 10 medium salsify (13/4lb/800g) 4 tablespoons white vinegar 2 tablespoons flour half medium orange 11/2oz/45g butter 1 teaspoon sugar 8 tablespoons orange juice salt and freshly ground black pepper fresh chervil, to garnish Preparation: 30 minutes; resting time: 20 minutes; cooking time: 15 minutes.
Peel the salsify with a vegetable peeler, trim the ends, and put into a bowl of cold water acidulated with the vinegar. Cut the salsify into 2in/5cm lengths; cut the thicker pieces in half length-wise.
Prepare a blanc. Put the flour in a small strainer, hold it over a saucepan, and slowly pour 4 pints/21/4 litres cold water through it, stirring to disperse flour evenly. Add the salsify and coarse salt to taste; bring to the boil and cook for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let stand for 20 minutes.
With a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from half an orange and cut it into fine julienne. Put the zest into boiling water; when it returns to the boil, drain and cool in cold water.
Drain the salsify in a colander and rinse under warm running water.
Dry in a towel.
Heat the butter in a skillet. When it begins to colour, add the salsify and cook until golden. Sprinkle with the sugar; let this caramelise. Then add the orange juice and reduce it to a thick syrup. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve hot, garnished with the orange zest and chervil leaves.
CABBAGE WITH MUSHROOM STUFFING Deep inside, everyone in France harbours a memory of the stuffed cabbage our grandmothers simmered in their beautiful black cast-iron casseroles, the aroma pervading the entire house. There are so many versions, from the most rustic - where the cabbage is filled with sausage meat, to the most sumptuous - where the leaves are spread with foie gras and truffles. Here is an elegant, original recipe that will warm your chilly winter evenings.
Serve this dish with steamed new potatoes and drink a white wine from the Savoie, such as a Chignin, a Roussette, or a Seyssel.
Serves 4 12oz/340g white mushrooms 21/2oz/75g butter salt and freshly ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds or ground caraway 4 tablespoons heavy cream 2oz/55g strong-flavoured hard cheese (such as tomme de Savoie or cheddar) 1 large, loose-headed white cabbage or Savoy cabbage (31/4lb/11/2 kg) 1 large onion 2 medium tomatoes 1 garlic clove 1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika Preparation: 40 minutes; cooking time: 11/2 to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 300F/150C/Gas 2. Trim the base of each mushroom stem; rinse and dry the mushrooms and cut them into small dice.
In a wide saucepan or a skillet, melt 1/2oz/15g butter. When it sizzles, add mushrooms. Season with salt, cook over high heat until the mushrooms have rendered all their liquid.
If you are using whole caraway seeds, toast them in a dry skillet, then grind them in a mortar or a spice mill.
When all the mushroom liquid has evaporated, add 2 tablespoons heavy cream and half the caraway. Boil for a minute, then add the grated cheese, stirring well with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper, then put the mixture on a plate to cool.
Bring 8 pints/41/2 litres of water to the boil with a handful of salt.
Remove the core and the outer leaves from the cabbage, taking care not to let the head come apart. Wash in cold water, spreading the leaves with your fingers. Boil in the salted water for 2 minutes, then remove the cabbage and cool it in cold water. Drain it in a colander, with the hollowed-out core down, squeezing gently with your hands. (If you can find only a tight-headed cabbage, boil it for longer, until it is possible to spread the leaves for stuffing.) Put the cabbage on a clean towel and gently spread the leaves with your fingers. Sprinkle the leaves with salt, and stuff small portions of the mushroom mixture between them. Close the leaves, restoring the cabbage to its original shape.
Peel the onion and cut into thin slices. Peel the tomatoes by removing the stalks and placing them in boiling water for about 20 seconds. Cool in a bowl of cold water. The skins should slip off easily. Cut in half crosswise and squeeze out seeds and liquid. Chop coarsely. Peel and lightly crush garlic.
Choose a heavy casserole a little wider than the cabbage. Over a low heat, melt the remaining butter and add the sliced onion. Cook, covered, until the onion is soft but not browned, about 5 minutes. Uncover and let the juices evaporate. Add paprika and mix well with a wooden spoon. Add tomatoes, remaining caraway, garlic clove, 2 tablespoons of water, salt and pepper.
Place the stuffed cabbage in the casserole and cover. Bring to the boil; place in the oven to cook for 11/2 hours, checking occasionally to make sure the casserole has not boiled dry. Add a little water and lower oven temperature if necessary. When done, remove the cabbage with a spatula, being careful not to damage it. Put it on a serving platter in a warm place.
Put casserole over medium heat. Reduce juices, then add remaining cream. Let it boil briefly. Pour contents of casserole into the blender and mix at high speed to create a smooth sauce. Add salt and pepper if necessary.
Pour off any water the cabbage may have given off, then top with the sauce.
SHALLOTS IN RED WINE Use an intense wine such as a Cotes-du-Rhone for the sauce, and serve with roast tenderloin of beef or grilled steak.
Serves 4 14oz/420g medium shallots, all the same size 3oz/90g butter 5fl oz/150ml chicken stock 1 teaspoon sugar salt and freshly ground black pepper a sprig of thyme 8fl oz/250ml red wine Preparation: 15 minutes; cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes.
Peel and trim shallots. Heat half the butter in a heavy saucepan and add shallots. Cook until lightly golden, then add the chicken stock, sugar, a pinch of salt, and the sprig of thyme.
Over high heat, reduce cooking liquid completely, then add wine and boil down until only 1 or 2 tablespoons of sauce remain. The shallots should be very tender. Remove the pan from the heat and add the rest of the butter; stir to melt into the sauce and coat the shallots. Check seasoning and serve.
BAY-SCENTED ROASTED POTATOES Serves 4 8 medium potatoes, eg red-skinned 12 large fresh bay leaves salt 6fl oz/175ml chicken stock 4fl oz/125ml olive oil Preparation: 15 minutes; cooking time: 40 to 50 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400F/220C/Gas 6.
Peel, wash, and dry potatoes. Cut slits into each potato every 3/8in/1cm; cut nearly all the way through, but be careful to keep potatoes in one piece. Cut the bay leaves into 1/2in/11/4cm strips.
Oil a baking dish; put potatoes into pan and slip a piece of bay leaf into each slit. Sprinkle with salt (very little if your chicken stock is salted).
Bring stock to the boil and pour it over the potatoes; drizzle with the olive oil.
Bake, uncovered, for about 40 minutes. The potatoes should be very tender and nicely browned; no cooking liquid should remain.
Serve in the baking dish.
NEXT WEEK Roger Verge's definitive guide on how to cook vegetables (Photographs omitted)