The other day I read an article in The Provence Post (a blog I follow religiously) entitled "Where would Patricia Wells eat?" and that triggered a flood of wonderful memories. Many of you know by now that Peter and I love to cook and a smaller number of you know that Peter and I went to cooking classes with Patricia Wells in her home in Provence in 2006. Following the "trip of a lifetime", I wrote a summary of the trip and an homage to Patricia which I'd like to share with you now. As the trip was two weeks long, only one of which we spent with Patricia and Walter, I'll separate the summary in to two posts. I know this is a great deal longer than most of our posts but we truly hope you enjoy this vicarious sojourn to Vaison la Romaine and Chanteduc, the home of Patricia and Walter Wells.
October 8, 2006:
Our Trip in a Very Large Nutshell
In the summer of 1999, I happily stumbled upon a hardback copy of Patricia Wells At Home in Provence, a cookbook unlike any other I’d ever seen. Its presentation is so stylish you could mistake it for an eye-catching coffee table book; its recipes are more like short stories - each has a preamble by Patricia telling how she found or developed it, when she’s most likely to prepare it and how it makes her feel. I took this book to the beach with me every week-end that summer, reading it once straight through, learning from the recipes, savoring the photos of the food and relishing the pictures of her farmhouse in Provence.
And when I was finished, I started again. It is the most page-worn cookbook in my entire collection from use as well as daydreaming over the pictures. When I learned in 2004 that Patricia teaches cooking classes at her farm in Provence, I had to sign us up and that I did – two years ahead!
The week in Vaison la Romaine at Chanteduc, cooking and learning about wine with Patricia Wells was so much fun. As you know, Peter and I cook a lot but we learned something new everyday. The first evening, while sipping champagne near the vineyard and taking in Mont Ventoux in the distance, we learned that an almond-stuffed date, sautéed in a little olive oil and sprinkled with a little salt, makes an incredibly yummy appetizer.
The first full day, Peter and I worked together in Julia's Kitchen (Julia, as in Julia Child) - a kitchen separate from Patricia’s main kitchen, just off the courtyard, near the outdoor bread oven. There are photos of Julia there cooking with Patricia and one of Julia's original ovens – still operational.
Here we made Cavaillon Melon Soup which was a first for both of us and out-of-this-world delicious. That night, while we each did our part in preparing dinner, we all joined Patricia in her self-confessed addiction to toasted pumpkin seeds. Tossed with soy and salt, toasted until “crisp and golden”, they are truly irresistible and they disappeared.
Peter is always combining new and unusual ingredients, trying to make some new flavor combination. Well, even he was surprised to be combining heirloom tomatoes, freshly scraped vanilla, lime juice and olive oil, resulting in an absolutely heavenly salad, which happened also to be a perfect complement to the home-smoked salmon main course.
None of us had ever seen a stove-top smoker, in which Patricia placed a tablespoon of alder chips, covered by a drip pan and a rack, and salmon fillets, skin side down. Adding nothing further, Patricia slid the lid closed and placed the smoker over a fairly high flame for about 15 minutes. How simple! This was the best salmon I’ve ever tasted, and we can’t wait to do it at home. Of course, eating it outside, under an arbor, watching the sun bathe the valley below and sipping wine with it … certainly added to its enjoyment!
What did I learn? I learned how to shell langoustines for deep-fried phyllo and basil wrapped appetizers, and I learned that avocados can be sliced very thin on a mandolin. I learned that bay leaves do grow on trees – in Patricia’s courtyard - and that there are numerous types of basil, all of which grow in Patricia’s garden. And I learned that the juice from lemons and limes picked from trees just outside the door is somehow more satisfying than the juice from those picked from a bin in our supermarchés. Patricia said several times that she believes that people should generally eat food grown or raised within 100 mile radius which is exactly what we’ve done all week. The lamb that was our first night’s dinner was raised on a distant hill to the east. The chicken was raised in the valley. The goat cheese we enjoyed one evening came from the milk of goats nurtured by Patricia’s friend Josiane. The only exception was the avocados, which Patricia loves and sadly do not grow nearby.
We all understood how easy it would be to eat food from the area when Patricia took us to Vaison’s weekly market. Being from the east-end of Long Island, Peter and I are no strangers to fresh produce and good quality food but this market took our breaths away. First the simple fun of it was a joy. There seems to be a competitive camaraderie among the vendors each vying for our attention and space in our pantries or on our tables. It’s evident that each takes great pride in the quality and presentation of his or her products – the fishmonger, the butcher and the farmer.
The collage of color from one farmer’s vegetables was so brilliant that no one passed without pausing to consider adding something from his produce to that night’s menu.
Did I mention that this was a cooking and wine class? Patricia and her longtime friend Andrew Axilrod taught the wine classes. I learned so much more than I expected to about wine and taste. The wine part of the week-long class is constructed in such a way that each day builds upon what was learned and experienced the preceding day.
Day one we walked amongst the vines at Chanteduc learning and seeing where wine begins – terroir and grapes – which was followed by tasting exercises. It felt a bit silly to be sipping small amounts of sugar water, salted water, white vinegar and Campari from a tasting spoon but it really did point out where in my mouth or on my tongue I taste sugar or sense acidity. We learned that the pleasure from wine comes not only from taste but rather a combination of sight, smell and taste. Women, it was said, have a very strong sense of smell which I came to doubt in one blindfolded test. We were asked if we could determine whether the wine in two glasses before us was white or red, using our sense of smell as well as taste. For the life of me I couldn’t tell the difference. Well I learned that I should trust my own instincts. When the blindfolds were removed, I in fact had the same red wine in both glasses. My senses had not failed me.
One morning, sitting under the Chanteduc oak tree, Patricia used a peculiar looking meter to measure the degree of alcohol in the Chanteduc grapes – Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah, if I recall correctly. It’s September and harvest time should be near; last year it was the 25th of September. This time of year the grapes ripen about 1 degree a week and if all goes well, the harvest may be in the next week or two.
With the foundation laid in our wine education, we set off on Wednesday morning for a private tour and tasting at Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The drive to Beaucastel took about half an hour and gave us an opportunity to really see and appreciate the terroir. Acres of vineyards stretched for as far as the eye could see lending a soft hue to the atmosphere and peaceful constancy to the landscape. Seeing vines laden with grapes, we could also sense nervous anticipation in the air for the harvest to come.
Fabrice Langlois spent over two hours with us in the vineyards and then the cellars of Beaucastel explaining, in many colorful ways, all that goes into making a wine at Beaucastel: the constant attention to the vines, the terroir, their uncompromising standards and, when all else is said and done, a bit of chance. A large storm was in the forecast and we could all sense the tension of uncertainty that Fabrice carried inside, this close to harvest and following a near perfect season.
The last two days of the class started with special wine tastings conducted by Juan Sanchez from a left-bank wine shop in Paris called La Dernière Goutte, which means “the last drop”. We had to leave the arbor, which was soaked, and adjourned to Patricia’s cozy dining room. Listening to the rain, every one of us was now worried about the harvest but we focused our attention on Juan’s discussion of the wine regions throughout France. By this time, far from experts, but certainly more knowledgeable, we were feeling fairly confident in our appreciation of the wines we tasted and our ability to identify those that we liked the best. Now we learned a whole new way to use everyday words to describe the experience of tasting the wines. Words you’ve heard used before of course prevailed, such as: plums, honey, oak, and butter. But others were used with some regularity and did not necessarily mean something bad, for example: leather, steel, damp earth and, our particular favorite, wet horse – which always brought a whinny from one in our crowd. Peter and I are looking forward to applying everything we learned, including our new vocabulary, to the “new world” wines from the North Fork of Long Island.
What did I come away with from this week? I now have a few new skills that I can have fun honing and that are going to allow me to enjoy my food and wine even more than before. What’s wonderful is that Peter was with me so we can enjoy this together. The week with Patricia in and around Vaison and at Chanteduc was nothing short of special and exceeded even my expectations. I know we all were “tuition-paying students” but Patricia and Walter made us feel like very welcomed guests and the fact that we worked elbow-to-elbow with one another made it feel much more like welcomed friends. When I write to thank them for all the wonderful memories, I must remember to ask about the harvest.