Review of Patricia Wells’ The Provence Cookbook
Book review of Patricia Wells’ The Provence Cookbook: 175 Recipes and a Select Guide to the Markets, Shops, & Restaurants of France’s Sunny South, Harper Collins Publishers, First Edition, New York, 2004.
When I was a college professor, I used to tell my students that early on in their lives they needed to make three critical decisions about what they wanted to do in the next forty years, where they wanted to live, and with whom they wanted to share their lives. If they made the right decisions for themselves, decisions not based on external factors such as pleasing their parents, or their friends, or living up to some societal norm of success, then the chances were that they would lead a satisfying and fulfilling life.
Patricia Wells made those decisions perfectly well, and has since led a most fulfilling life. She married the man she loved, chose to live in France, and decided to be a “food writer” as she describes herself. The Provence Cookbook is dedicated “To Walter, my husband and best friend. Thank you for always waving that magic wand, improving our little kingdom. With gratitude for a truly remarkable past, a stellar present, and in anticipation of a future together without end.”
As a “food writer” she accomplished much: fourteen books, and one that is in its fifth edition (The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris). She teaches personalized cooking classes a few weeks each year, in their 18th century Provencal farmhouse, that are booked solid years in advance. She is a four-time James Beard Award winner, and has been awarded the prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for her contribution to French culture.
It is within this framework that one should look at The Provence Cookbook: it is not just a set of 175 recipes, but it is the product of a life well lived. From the dedication to the very last page, Wells shares her joie de vivre, her personal stories, her culinary discoveries, her favorite wines and how to match them with the dishes served. She sets her recipes or individual items in specific locations: with regards to salt, for example, she writes “Aigues Mortes, a lovely seaside village along the Mediterranean coast has been the host to salins – or salt marshes- since the days of antiquity…” (p.88) Advising the reader on how to prepare food she relates her own experience. On how to clean truffles, for example, she begins “I remember as though it was yesterday the first time I saw a freshly unearthed truffle. It was the day before Thanksgiving in 1984, and we had just acquired Chanteduc (their 18th century farmhouse). It seemed fitting that our first family meal would include some of our best friends…” (p. 250) Would you not want to read the recipes on using truffles after such an opening?
The Table of Contents is classical: Appetizers and First Courses, Salads, Soups, Fish and Shellfish, Poultry and Rabbit, Meats, Pasta, Rice, Beans and Grains, Vegetables, then a whole chapter on Potatoes, another on Eggs and Cheese, and Desserts bien sur! But Wells adds menus as well, “A Springtime Dinner with Friends,” or “It’s May and Time to Play,” “June: A Summer Solstice Evening,” putting the recipes in their context. Each of us will find a favorite recipe – each will be able to savor a special dessert or wine. I do not know that we will ever be able to prepare all the delectable dishes that Wells has brought together in this book. But there are enough to make us dream of preparing the perfect meal that will be part of the family lore for years to come. Because this book is not just about food, but about how to enjoy it as a celebration of Provence and of life.