A la recherche du potiron Provencal

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The Independent Online
IT'S TIME to bring you another recipe from the fabulous Peter Mayle Provencal Cookbook, as mouthwateringly described by the great man himself. And for today's offering he has selected:

La Soupe au Potiron

There comes a certain moment in the year in Provence when the sun hangs high and heavy in the sky, when the heat is oppressive rather than welcoming, and when the limp green leaves of the trees almost seem to pant, like dog's tongues. It is at this time that the TV crews come and film, lured by the thought of lunches on terraces, glasses of pastis with clinking ice and the gentle plop of another cork being eased out of another bottle of wine.

And it is at this sun-drenched time of year that they also like to film their winter scenes, using the parched, dry landscape to suggest the grim, chilly look of midwinter Provence, when it is blasted by the mistral, a time when we are furthest from the salads and bountiful pissaladieres of summer-time. A time, in fact, when the locals make one of their favourite winter warming dishes: la soupe au potiron.

Shall I make a confession? When I first heard of this dish, I did not know what a potiron was. I fancied it was something metallic, black and charred, like a firedog or some part of the blacksmith's repertoire. I imagined the soup (for I knew what the word soupe meant]) sitting, simmering, in a cauldron suspended from the potiron. Often, while rummaging through the delightful antique shops that are scattered through this paradise, I would pick up a battered and bent piece of blackened ironwork and say to the owner: 'Cette objet ici, c'est un potiron?' and he would laugh in his heartwarming way, say 'Non, monsieur', and sell me a wonderful old church settle or a grandfather clock instead.

My innocence did not last. One day while in the market, looking for some fresh truffles before adjourning to the friendly bar run by my stalwart friend Andre, I spotted the word potiron on a label on a pile of large yellow vegetables.

'C'est un potiron?' I asked the old girl in charge of the stall.

'Oui,' she said.

'And what est un potiron when it's chez soi?' I quizzed her. She seemed not to understand. I turned to my wife who is called Anne, or is that what she is called in the film, I can never remember, and said: 'Darling, ask her what that thing is, would you?' and she said, 'No need to ask her. I can tell you. It's a pumpkin.'

A pumpkin] That's all a potiron is] No wonder the man in the antique shop was so amused] Well, you could have knocked me down with a TV contract] This is just one of the many hilarious things that happen each day in our neck of the woods, and we roared with laughter. So of course we just had to buy our very own potiron, but you won't be surprised to learn that, this being Provence, the hard bit had only just started, as now we had to get it home and make the soup.

Well, the way to get things home in Provence is to slip into the local bar and chat to the inhabitants until you find a gnarled old paysan called Francois or Yves who will agree, after several glasses and a good deal of twinkle-eyed bargaining, to put the potiron in the back of his voiture and take it to your maison for you. Accordingly, after paying for the potiron and promising Madame to come back in a moment, my wife and I slipped into the comforting purlieus of Andre's bar.

As we opened the door, the lights were blinding. Someone shouted 'Let's have complete silence, please. Shut that door, PLEASE]' and someone else shouted, 'All right, action]' and we saw a white-haired man at a table playing cards with three locals in berets.

'Hold on,' said my wife, 'is that you sitting at that table, or is it someone you pay to come in and pretend to be you?'

'Hallo, Andre,' I said, ignoring this remark, 'let's have two Kirs, please, can we?'

He was not listening. He was watching the white-haired man at the table.

'Andre]' I said.

He turned and looked at me as if he did not know me.

'Chut]' he said. 'On est en train de tourner]'

'A bit of hush,' my wife translated. 'We're trying to do some filming in here]'

More tomorrow, when Peter Mayle explains that to make la soupe au potiron, you get a man in to do it for you, while you sit about getting sloshed.