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Food and Drink

Sometimes Provence

As inhabitants of the region will know, most Provencal cooking is nothing to boast about, and it is currently under attack from two ends of the gastronomic spectrum. The first consists of tourists and casual visitors who have come - too many of them led thither by Peter Mayle's exceedingly gushy books - expecting something typically Provencal, meaning full of tomatoes, garlic and olives. The second is more insidious and consists of chefs setting up in the area and seeking to transform Provencal cooking into something else.

I can live with the first batch, for they know not what they do, and they are responsible only for a proliferation of very ordinary restaurants. I was in upper Provence last week and I heard plenty of laments: local restaurants, everyone agreed, were either pricey and pretentiously bad or were reasonably priced and dull. Surely, I replied, Provencal cooking is a simple matter; the ingredients for each season are excellent, and it takes no chef of genius to toss lamb on a grill or to make a pistou or any one of a dozen fine tomato dishes. They laughed: there was not, they claimed, a restaurant that grilled meat or fish within 50 kilometres - because that is not what the tourist expected.

Staying in Gordes, I was able to experience one side of the argument at La Bastide, a much-advertised restaurant and hotel of quite extraordinary pretension, with all sorts of 'seasonal' dishes, all of them exiguous and extremely expensive (you could not get out of there for less than about pounds 75 a head). The point about La Bastide is that it misunderstands the nature of Provencal cooking, which is peasant food using local ingredients and herbs not fussed up into a poor imitation of Paris.

Fortunately, everyone agreed that one restaurant in Gordes was authentically Provencal, generous and unfancy. This was La Mayanelle, which is run by Mr and Mrs Malla, neither of them in the first flush of youth and both aware that simplicity is the fountainhead of good regional cooking. The service may have been exceptionally slow (the place was packed with locals and tourists) but the food was Provencal cooking at its simple best.

I had a pistou to start, and a cassoulette of sweetbreads as my main course. Baked like this, with pungent garlic and shallots, they were delicious. My wife had an excellent fresh terrine aux herbes de Provence and lamb chops; the junior gastronome had a salade folle (from which his mother pinched the foie gras de canard) and an entrecote marchand de vin (a good choice, for the sauce with the local wine was unctuously rich). All were washed down with an excellent local Vinsobres (cotes du rhone.)

Fortunately, Provencal cooking travels well: so long as the ingredients are bought in full season - tomatoes that are really ripe, garlic that has not been on the shelves for months and olive oil that retains some flavour of the olive (which is contrary to French taste and is consequently hard to find.)

Pistou, like its cousin, the aoli, is a stalwart of Provencal cuisine, though it migrated to the region from Genoa and can be found throughout the south of France. It is certainly not hard to make and is a fine year-round soup. Here is a favourite recipe for pistou from Nimes.

You will need fresh green beans, sliced quite fine, and both white and red beans, which you can buy dried or fresh. Add a diced potato or two, a couple of thinly sliced carrots, two peeled and sliced courgettes and the white of a single leek, coarsely chopped. Cover with water and allow to simmer for at least 75 minutes. The proportion of all these ingredients is a matter of taste - Mr Malla's pistou, for instance, was strong on white beans and weak on green.

The garlic and basil part is prepared in a mortar; it is, in fact, a pesto without the pine nuts. The amount of garlic you crush is up to you, but in general the rule is: more is better than less. Add chopped basil generously and when the two are well blended, add a small amount of olive oil to bind. The mixture is emptied into the hot soup (I add a little fresh basil and a touch of parsley) and, before serving, parmesan is coarsely grated on top.

It is possible to eat well in Provence. I suggest you be guided by the menu outside the restaurant. If it sounds fancy, pass it by. If it costs more than pounds 15, ditto. And look for locals eating there. Better downmarket authentic than upmarket fraud.