Provence's cuisine as a literary feast from Robert Carrier

August 11, 1993|By Peter D. Franklin | Peter D. Franklin,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

To foodies, Robert Carrier stands for quality. On the international culinary scene for 40 years, this author, chef and restaurateur always has put forth a superior product, and he has done it again in 1993.

His new cookbook, "Feasts of Provence" (Rizzoli, $37.50), is a sentimental journey to one of France's havens for gourmets, which he first visited as a young man right after World War II. It also is his first major cookbook since "A Taste of Morocco" (Potter, 1987).

The pricey "Provence" is as much a travel journal -- an affectionate adventure through Southern France -- as it is a book for cooks. From St. Tropez and Marseille on the sun-splashed Mediterranean to mountain villages like Roquebrune and Lacoste, Mr. Carrier discovers the best the region has to offer.

"For me Provence remains forever a special place, a private world of wood smoke and wild mushrooms, of fresh fish and garlic, of lamb and dried herbes de Provence sizzling over open fires," Mr. Carrier writes. "It is bougainvillea and mimosa. It is almond blossom and lavender. It is, quite simply, Provence."

Much of the credit for the attractiveness of this book should go to photographer Michelle Garrett, who provided the lion's share of the color photography.

But inasmuch as "Provence" is about food, we need to tag along with what a British newspaper once described as "the most sophisticated stomach in London," and see just what Mr. Carrier was able to uncover.

His is a gourmet's journey to what he considers some of the best FTC restaurants of the region, even though they may not have earned Michelin stars as yet.

His first stop, for instance, is at a small restaurant, Auberge de la Madone, at Peillon, a mountainside village not too far from the hamlet of Les Sept Lacets, or the Seven Shoelaces. In Peillon, Chef Christian Millo, his mother and sister prepare for a delighted Mr. Carrier the likes of poached asparagus with tapenade, ravioli made in madone, and daube of beef with wild mushrooms. "Family cooking at its very best," writes the author.

The next stop is at Chez Fifine, on the coast at St. Tropez. "To those who demand 'le grande cuisine,' " he says, "my advice is to stay away." The service can be erratic and the wine list lacks vintages, but what Ms. Fifine -- "a truly great cook" -- serves are her simple, homely dishes of Provence.

A fisherman's bouillabaisse, using the catch of the day from the nearby wharf, is a Fifine specialty, along with a variety of fish soups. The menu might also feature grilled sea bass with herbs, quick-fried sardines or a pan-roasted John Dory with beef marrow in a fig leaf.

And so the galloping gourmet's journey goes, to Le Provencal in St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat where Chef Jean-Jacques Jouteux creates griddled artichokes, or a delightful chilled melon "flower."

At other stops, Mr. Carrier samples the local soups, including garlic and sage consomme with poached egg, the salads of infinite variety, roast loin of pork with stuffed vegetables, veal chops Nicoise, stuffed cabbage and ratatouille.

It is a delightful trip for those interested in travel as well as in cooking.

"This fresh-tasting salad from the old city of Aix-en-Provence makes the most of the pure, fragrant olive oil of the countryside," Mr. Carrier says. He notes that "it is a delicious alternative to the better-known salade Nicoise as a first course . . ." It also makes a lovely dish for a light lunch.

Salade Aixoise

Makes 4-6 servings

4 medium-sized red-skinned or yellow-fleshed potatoes

L 4 fresh artichoke hearts (or 6 to 8 canned artichoke hearts)

8 ounces very fine green beans, topped and tailed

4 medium-sized tomatoes, seeded and quartered

1 large green pepper, cut into strips the size of the beans

For the dressing

6 to 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 or 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

salt and ground black pepper

For the garnish

8 to 12 anchovy fillets, in oil

8 to 12 small black olives, in oil

leaves from 1 or 2 sprigs fresh tarragon

Boil the potatoes in their skins and, in a separate saucepan, the fresh artichoke hearts until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Choose beans that are bright green and as small and as slender as possible. Boil them separately until just tender but still a little firm, 5 to 7 minutes. Cool vegetables under cold running water; drain on absorbent paper.

Just before serving, peel the potatoes and slice them about 1/4 -inch thick. Cut the artichoke hearts in halves or quarters and put them in a bowl with the potatoes, tomatoes, strips of green pepper and beans.

Whisk the salad dressing ingredients together; spoon over the salad and mix well. Garnish the salad with anchovy fillets and olives and sprinkle with tarragon leaves. Serve immediately.

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