When I saw that Patricia Wells was having a new book published in Spring, I began, after several months of procrastinating, to review a series of her books, especially since the new book seems to overlap the book I am about to review in this MS.
Wells is high in the pantheon of distaff culinary journalist / teachers, on a par with Ann Willen and somewhat less well known than the great Julia Child and Elizabeth David. This book on 'home cooking' in the Provence region of France falls, it seems, at the end of a series headed by the book 'Simply French' which expounds on the cuisine of Joel Robuchon. This volume covers the high-end 'haute cuisine' end of the spectrum. A recent book, 'The Paris Cookbook' covers the less Olympian subject of cooking by Paris bistros, restaurants, and purveyors. This is closer to Child's classic subject, 'la cuisine Bourgeoisie'. The subject of this review reflects cooking done by Wells herself in Provence, based on the influence of local sources and her own invention. It is a combination of Curnonsky's 'la cuisine Regionale', and 'la cuisine Improvisee'.
Since many, if not most of the insights into cooking in this book can be traced to the earlier book on Robuchon, it was harder to identify the value of this book in its own right. But, I think I can safely say that this volume stands on it's own two feet by combining the simplicity of home cooking with the healthy ingredients of the Mediterranean ingredients and the cachet of Provence, being an intersection of some of the best of both France and Italy.
My strongest visceral reaction to these recipes is the wealth of things to do with common, inexpensive ingredients such as potatoes, celery, carrots, and tomatoes. My next delight was the variety of bread recipes. The star of this act was a version of brioche that is based on olive oil rather than butter. The reputation of butter has undergone something of a revival since this book was published in 1996, but if you have gotten into the habit of looking for ways to have olive oil to replace butter, this is a recipe for you.
Like all of her other books, this volume's organization follows that most classic of orders, with chapters on:
Appetizers, Salads, Soups, Vegetables, Pasta, Bread, Fish and Shellfish, Poultry and Game, Meat, Desserts, and Pantry.
As the Wells homestead is a fair distance from the Mediterranean, the coverage of fish and shellfish is a bit light, but this shortfall is more than made up by other chapters, especially the chapters on vegetables and pasta, which broadens ones range defined by classic southern Italian cuisine. The most interesting seafood discovery is Wells' combining mint and crabmeat. My Baltimorean friends are rolling their eyes already.
The star of the chapter on meats is the daube of either beef or lamb. This is a fascinating technique with a French name which, however, seems to be characteristic of northern Europe. German dishes like sauerbraten use the daube technique, but, to my knowledge, there is no daube style dish in any Italian cuisine. A daube is basically applied to a dish that has marinated for a long time, a day or more, in a sauer medium, either wine or vinegar. Browning and braising follows the marinade. The recipe may even call for a further day's resting to mix together the flavors.
As with her other books, this volume includes recommendations for wine to serve with each savory dish. Unlike the very specific suggestions in 'Simply French', these are fairly generic, simple enough for the least enlightened of liqueur store clerks to interpret. For those who live and die by the very best choices of wine, specifics are included with the general suggestions.
As books on French provincial cooking go, this book is at the opposite end of the spectrum defined by Elizabeth David's classic in that all instructions and descriptions of ingredients are detailed and crystal clear. Virtually everything in all the dishes should be available at a good urban supermarket.
My only complaint, which I bring up only because Ms. Wells is a culinary teacher as well as a journalist, is the inaccuracy of conversion between pounds and kilograms. A kilogram is 2.2 pounds, but Ms. Wells consistently treats the conversion as two (2) pounds to the kilogram. Fortunately, such approximations do not appear in the baking recipes, where she is extra contentious about the accuracy of her metric to English conversions of weights and volumes.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves French or Mediterranean cuisine and who needs a new source of recipes from these sources. I strongly recommend it to anyone who loves to read about food. I recommend it to anyone who cooks. There will be several simple recipes here for inexpensive ingredients that I know you will enjoy.