Sun-kissed

Vegetables a la Provencal
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During my stay at La Bastide de Moustiers, Alain Ducasse's hotel in Provence, as surely as one meal time followed on from another, the waiter would stand and deliver: "Ce soir, le chef propos pour vous", followed by the set menu. It was a mantra delivered with the finest Rada inflection: "pour vous" was for you and you only.

What "le chef" usually proposed was vegetables followed by more vegetables, which is pretty much as it should be in Provence: I can think of few places where vegetables could stand up to the genuine simplicity of Ducasse's cooking. Offerings at La Bastide are especially pure, organically grown and harvested fresh, sometimes twice a day.

While I would have expected the vegetables to be good at La Bastide, I also indulged in a spot of retail therapy in the markets in the Carmargue, and what became clear is that, for the average shopper, the quality of fruit and vegetables is considerably higher than in the UK.

I was pleased to catch the tail-end of the aubergines, peppers and courgettes, and to see the autumn ushered in with huge heads of blettes, or Swiss chard, different varieties of squashes and pumpkins, and endless types of onion and shallot. There were bunches of sorrel and La Ratte potatoes, heads of garlic that were large and pink, and dishevelled mop-heads of frisee.

"It's a good year for wild mushrooms," the woman behind me in the queue whispered conspiratorially: ceps the size of your fist, girolles and pieds de monton. This was on a trip to Nimes. Whenever I have indulged in competitive market discussions, it is always others that have won out with tales of Arles market, but Nimes would be hard to beat.

First, a cultural lesson: the stallholder does not pick your produce for you; instead, you collect a plastic basket and select, one by one, the potatoes, the peaches, or haricot beans exactly as you want them.

Not being confronted with an encyclopaedic range of vegetables from around the world makes for a surprisingly calm shopping and cooking experience. Stick to ingredients that are indigenous to one particular area, and all the time-honoured regional classic recipes come flowing out once you get into the kitchen.

If shopping in Provence is about picking up whatever looks good, cooking is about doing as little as possible to it: the goat's cheeses were breathtaking - in particular, the type that ran onto the plate as you cut into it eaten with a salad of frisee dressed with balsamic vinegar and the aromatic olive oil typical of the area. By way of a gratin, white aubergines are sliced and roasted in the oven, then layered with skinned petals of tomatoes sauteed with a little garlic.

Artichokes are braised a la barigoule with onions, thyme and bay leaves - freshly shelled and cooked haricot beans added at the end. A pumpkin soup was garnished with plump orange mussels. Fine slices of fennel and batons of carrot were dipped into a charcoal-grey tapenade made with local olives.

There is no point in bemoaning that our markets and fruit and vegetables are not like they are in Provence. They will never be easily matched: we do not have their weather. I'll settle for a yearly pilgrimage to some such place and make do with the memory for the rest of the time.

Hors D'Oeuvres, serves 6

Tapenade and goat's cheese dip are especially good eaten in unison. Accompany with batons of carrot, cherry tomatoes, grissini bread sticks, and radishes - the long ones are the most peppery. In my household, the carrots seem to disappear before everything else, so have lots of these.

Green Olive Tapenade

Ideally use cracked green olives, I buy ones that have been marinated with spices and a little chilli.

8oz/225g green olives

12 garlic clove

1 tbsp capers, rinsed

1 tbsp shredded basil

black pepper

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

a few slivers of spring onion, white and green parts

Pit the olives and place in a food processor with the garlic, capers, basil and pepper and reduce to a coarse paste. Add the olive oil and continue to whizz for a minute or two. Serve in a small bowl garnished with a few fine slivers of spring onion.

Goat's Cheese Dip

6oz/175g medium-mature goat's cheese, eg Crottin de Chavignol

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

black pepper

a few slivers of spring onion, white and green parts

Remove the rind from the cheese and crumble into a bowl. Mash to a coarse paste with the olive oil and black pepper. Garnish with the spring onion.

Artichokes a la Barigoule, serves 4

Delicious eaten with the green olive tapenade and the goat's cheese dip, and large pieces of chargrilled French bread with olive oil poured over. The flavours improve if left overnight.

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 onions, peeled, halved and sliced

6 garlic cloves, peeled

6oz/175g carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 celery stick, thinly sliced

white wine vinegar for acidulating water

8 large artichokes

5 fl oz /150ml white wine

juice of 12 lemon

2 bay leaves

5 sprigs of thyme

sea salt, black pepper

2 heaped tbsp coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 heaped tbsp snipped chives

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the onion, garlic, carrot and celery for 15 minutes over a low heat, stirring now and again, until they are soft but not coloured.

In the meantime, start paring the artichokes: acidulate a large bowl of water with white wine vinegar and have a bin at the ready for the trimmings. Break off the stalk, then, starting at the base of the artichoke, slice it off to reveal the white of the artichoke heart. Dip any exposed flesh into the acidulated water as you go. Cut around the sides, and cut off the top so it is level with the top of the choke - do all this with a large, sharp knife.

Now take a small paring knife and trim the base and sides of any green bits, and cut around the choke to remove it. Scrape away the pitted layer where the hairs of the choke were rooted to the heart using a teaspoon. This layer rapidly discolours to a dark green. Reserve the pared hearts in the acidulated water: do not worry overly if they discolour a little because the lemon juice will bleach them when they come to cook.

Add the artichoke hearts to the vegetable base. Pour over the wine, 5 fl oz/150ml of water or so that the hearts are three quarters covered, and the lemon juice. Add the bay leaves and thyme, 1 teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, and cover with a circle of baking parchment. Bring to a simmer, cover with a saucepan lid and braise for 20 minutes. If much liquid remains at the end, cook uncovered until the vegetables are sitting in a thickened sauce.

Remove to a bowl and cool. Just before serving add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the chopped parsley and chives, and adjust seasoning, I usually scatter over a few flakes of Maldon sea salt.

Swiss Chard and Sorrel Tart, serves 6

Under threat of having to carry my own luggage I agreed to take just one cookery book, Lulu's Provencal Table, by Richard Olney, a recipe from which forms the basis of this tart. If you are going to serve the tart cold, then halve the number of eggs for a creamier set.

9oz/250g puff pastry

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, peeled, halved and sliced

1 head of garlic, peeled and sliced

8oz/225g sorrel, ribs removed, and sliced

1lb/450g Swiss chard, leaf part only

8oz/225g spinach

sea salt, black pepper

4 medium eggs

10fl oz/275ml double cream

3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 180c (fan oven)/190 (electric oven)/375f/Gas 5. Roll the pastry 1/8"/0.25cm thick on a lightly floured surface and line a 10"/25.5cm x 2"/5cm tart tin so the pastry hangs over the sides. Weight with foil and baking beans (dried pulses will do), so the sides are well- secured. Bake for 25 minutes until lightly golden, then remove foil and beans.

While the pastry is baking, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Heat the olive oil in a largish saucepan and sweat the onion and garlic over a low heat for 10-15 minutes until slippery and soft, stirring occasionally, then add the sorrel and cook until it turns a dull khaki.

Add the chard and spinach leaves to the boiling water, bring back to the boil and cook for two minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water, squeeze out thoroughly and chop. Add these leaves to the onion and garlic and cook for 10 minutes, seasoning well.

Whisk the eggs and cream in a large bowl, add the chard mixture, stir well, then pour into the tart case. Sprinkle over the grated Parmesan and bake for 30-35 minutes. Trim the pastry either in line with the top of the tin, or with the top of the filling. Serve about 10 minutes out of the oven rather than piping hot.

`Lulu's Provencal Table' (HarperCollins pounds 25) by Richard Olney is available from Books for Cooks 0171-229 1992

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