Cookbooks are published every week, yet good ones are rare. Richard Olney's new book, Lulu's Provencal Table, is a good one. And so it should be, for the author is a dedicated purist.
Mr Olney is an American from Ohio, who received an arts scholarship and moved to Paris in 1951 to paint. Soon he moved to Provence, where he has lived ever since. Writing about food and wine began as a hobby, but by the mid- Sixties he was contributing articles to Cuisine et Vins de France. By 1970, he had published the French Menu Cookbook, by 1974 Simple French Food. From 1978 to 1983, he edited the 27-volume Good Cook series for Time Life.
Ellen Galford, the Edinburgh-based novelist and contributor to these pages, worked with him on the Time Life series. In Provence, Mr Olney took her to lunch with the Peyraud family, producers of Domaine Tempier Bandol, one of the finest Provencal wines. She recalls: 'It was one of those glorious lunches where you feel like you're in a French movie; where you are sitting under a peach tree, surrounded by every generation of a huge family, being served beautiful wine and beautiful food.'
As a long-time friend of the Peyrauds, Mr Olney has frequently sat under that tree, drinking that wine. His deep regard for the family matriarch, Lulu Peyraud, informs the new book. He has collected her menus and recipes, which he presents in the order of the vigneron's year, beginning with autumnal food for the November harvest. The recipes reflect the dedication of someone who would leg it down to the port at dawn to buy absolutely fresh fish, and the generosity of a hostess who will somehow produce rare treats for any guest at any hour.
While the spirit of the book is Mrs Peyraud's, its strictures are pure Olney. There is not a short cut, cheap trick, substitution or cutesy idea to be found. 'Richard is not a home economist,' says Ms Galford. 'He cooks with a combination of scholarship and love of the ingredients.' A recurring motif in his recipes, well illustrated by the ratatouille below, is the importance of slow cooking to eke out every bit of flavour.
That he is little known outside the food world does not surprise Ms Galford. 'He is not someone to court publicity,' she says. 'He has the spirit of an artist, in the old- fashioned, honourable sense. I suppose he is reclusive, except among his friends. He was great friends with Elizabeth David. Like her, he's a giant, who doesn't suffer fools . . . or bad cooks.'
Good British and American chefs, such as Alastair Little, Nico Ladenis and Jeremiah Tower, will know their Olney. However, Ms Galford marvels at his impact in France itself. 'It is a very interesting experience to book a table at a celebrated Parisian restaurant under my name, then to arrive with him and be received like a rock star, with an ecstatic chef zooming out of the kitchen waving a French language edition of Simple French Food,' she says.
Admiring Mr Olney's reputation is easy. However, to test his book properly, I cooked from it. In view of the seasonal glut of tomatoes, I chose ratatouille. It was a revelation of how wonderful that much- abused dish can be.
To make it, gas users unfamiliar with slow cooking should be cautioned that a heat-diffuser over the lowest possible flame is desirable in order to simmer the stew uncovered. It may be necessary to cover the pot for the first hour of simmering to prevent the ratatouille from drying out. Mr Olney does not give amounts when he instructs cooks to add salt. I would urge them not to be mean.
The secret to the recipe's goodness, Mr Olney notes, is in the individual treatment of each ingredient before all are combined. Mrs Peyraud roasts her peppers over a wood fire. Mr Olney suggests those doing it in a conventional kitchen should grill them slowly and evenly in the oven, so they are meltingly soft instead of simply seared. As usual, he is right. Without further ado, here follows Mrs Peyraud's recipe, as recorded by her admiring friend.
Ingredients: olive oil
1lb (450g) large sweet onions, split in two and finely sliced
6 garlic cloves, lightly crushed, peeled and finely sliced
1lb (450g) courgettes, quartered lengthwise and cut into 3/4 in (2cm) cubes
1lb (450g) firm young
aubergines, unpeeled, cut into 3/4 in (2cm) cubes
1lb (450g) tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered
3 large sweet peppers, 1 red, 1 yellow, 1 green, grilled,
peeled, seeded and cut
lengthwise into narrow strips, juices reserved
bouquet garni containing 2 bay leaves and 2 or 3 thyme sprigs
freshly ground black pepper
Preparation: Warm 3tbs olive oil in a large casserole pot, add the onions and cook, covered, over very low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for at least 30 minutes, or until they are melting and simmering in their own juices but uncoloured. Remove the lid, raise the heat slightly and cook, stirring regularly, until they are uniformly light and golden brown. Add the salt, garlic and courgettes and continue to stir regularly.
Meanwhile, heat 4tbs olive oil in a large frying pan and add the aubergine and salt. Saute, tossing and turning until the pieces are softened. Add them to the pot with the onions and courgettes, reserving any remaining oil in the frying pan.
Add more oil to the frying pan if it is nearly dry. Over high heat, add the tomatoes and salt; saute, shaking the pan and tossing constantly until their liquid has evaporated. Remove them from the heat before they begin to disintegrate and empty the frying pan into the pot. Add the peppers and their juices to the pot, immerse the bouquet garni and adjust the heat to maintain a simmer, pot uncovered, for about 2 hours. Displace the vegetables gently, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot with the wooden spoon from time to time and lowering the heat until all excess liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are coated in a syrupy sauce.
Remove from the heat, grind over pepper and taste for salt. If prepared ahead, transfer to a dish and leave to cool before covering and refrigerating - the flavours will ripen over a day or two. If meant to be served at room temperature (too cold, the flavours are paralysed), remove the ratatouille from the refrigerator an hour or so before serving and stir in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil at the last minute.
To order 'Lulu's Provencal Table' (HarperCollins, USdollars 30 plus post), ring Worldwide Shipment on 0101-203 966 5470.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies