I have just put down Provence 1970, the book I found in the free book mail box in Chinon during my latest road trip around Touraine. Written by Luke Barr, the grand-nephew of MFK Fisher, the original Francophile, Provence 1970 is the story of a unique moment in time nestled in the valley of Aix-en-Provence and Grasse in Southern France, a moment when the paths of the greatest American food writers on French cuisine crossed: Julia and Paul Child, James Beard, MFK Fisher, Simone Beck (co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cuisine), Judith Jones (Knoff food-editor) and Richard Olney.
This is a book that makes you hungry: hungry for the food being cooking within the pages, hungry for France (and I live here!), hungry to cook, to taste, to experiment…
Obviously, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s rare nowadays, with my schedule as hectic as it is, to have the time to truly immerse myself in a volume. Provence 1970 is an exception. I could hardly put it down, even fell asleep with it open in my hand several nights in a row.
Barr’s descriptions, which take up half of the book’s 286 pages, are magnificent. We feel like we are having lunch with Julia and MF and James on the terrace of Child’s Provence house near Grasse. And when Barr, a food and travel editor by profession, starts to depict the meals and the cooking, the book ceases to exist and we’re suddenly there right beside Julia trussing her chicken or Richard ever so delicately slicing open sea urchins. We’re transported to this place in that time for a walk down memory lane along side these giants of French cuisine.
Impeccably researched, based on diaries, conversations and family stories past down through the generations, Barr’s count is a passionate one; although his insistance on the theme of a great change in French-American cuisine occurring during the summer of 1970 is overstated, repetitive, and a little boring. Sometimes, in certain parts, it reads as if a thesis on the subject – a persistence to make the point – rather than story-telling. The reader is much more taken by the story-telling! And thankfully, there is plenty of it.
I didn’t know much – or anything – about Olney or Beard or even MFK Fisher before reading his book. Now, of course, I have to run out and buy their memoirs so that the wonderful taste in my mouth will continue!
I leave you with a few of my favorite passages:
Diner at the Childs’:
Julia opened the side door directly to the kitchen, and she and Beard welcomed them in. Paul took the corkscrew from its hook on the Peg-Board kitchen wall and opened the wine. The kitchen smelled wonderful, and they all offered to help – arranging some of the smoked salmon and pâté on plates, setting the table, string the beans. Diner at La Pitchoune was a communal affair.
At Child’s house, everyone gathered for a feast, and everyone pitched in a hand:
Then Child set the goose on the floor and straddled it, winding the tendon around a broomstick, which she used to yank it out. The tendon came out whole. “Just like pulling a cork out of a bottle”, she said. The process was repeated with the other tendons… Jones, meanwhile, was peeling gizzards. They would be chopped and sautéed with the goose liver, sausage, and onions for the stuffing. This all went into a large bowl, where it was mixed with cubes of dried bread, eggs, and a dash of cognac. …
The birds were ready for stuffing. Child and Jones spooned in layers, alternating the sausage stuffing, the chestnuts, and the prunes.
When the geese were ready, Julia and Judith made a sauce in the roasting pan, spooning out the fat and adding the brandy that had been steeping the prunes, cooking it down and scraping up the caramelized drippings.
The mood was celebratory – a Christmas feast. … So here they all were, admiring the roast geese and delectable stuffing, drinking Paul’s sweet and strong cocktails by the fireplace, looking out over the terrace to the Provencal valley below…
Richard Olney in his kitchen on the French Riviera, cooking:
After putting the roe and fish through the sieve, he chopped some pistachios, whisked together some cream and egg, combined everything in a bowl, then spooned the mixture into a heavy terrine dish, which he had lined with the fillets. He folded the sole over the mousse filling to create a loaf, and dabbed more of the mousse around the edges and the top. Now he lifted the dish and banged it on the counter to settle the contents, then put it in the oven, where it would cook gently in a bain-marie…