Sharing good food and wine with someone you love is perfection. – Jean-Andre Charial
The inspiration for today’s lunch in Provence was simple; it was cold out and I longed for comfort food. Everyone has their own mental picture of what that might entail, but for me, it is anything Provencal. What I love so much about Southern French cooking is that it is very approachable, unpretentious and rustic yet at the same time diverse and alluring. A food deeply rooted in its regionality which was carved out by conquest, invasion, and geography. It’s an artist’s palette of beautiful colors and textures, invoking a sensuous and communal dining experience.
Lunch in Provence
I am deeply moved by Jean-Andre Charial’s philosophical book ‘Lunch in Provence’. More correctly, it strengthened my conviction that the foundation of great food lies not only in the provenance of ingredients and simplicity of preparation but in emotion and passion while enjoying it.
Charial spoke of lovely, outdoor makeshift lunches where just-picked vegetables and fruits from his own farm, fish caught that morning and local pastured meats were served to a gathering of friends. Shared meals are so much more than simply food, they become life experiences that celebrate through laughter, friendship, and communion with the natural world. They provide meaning and context to our busy lives and enrich our souls.
Charial advises “the meal need not be grand, but the experience surely can be.” As I read those words, I closed my eyes and could begin to smell the nearby lavender in bloom. I listened carefully to the cicadas singing softly in the distance as I lifted a spoonful of soupe de poissons to my lips. The briny aromas of the sea carried me to the Mediterranean and made me think, it is time to visit Provence again, even if only in a meal.
The joy of living, I say, was summed up for me in the remembered sensation of that burning and aromatic swallow, that mixture of milk and coffee and bread by which men hold communion with tranquil pastures, exotic plantations, and golden harvests, communion with earth.
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry
The premise behind the menu was simple: prepare a comforting meal that would transport us back to the south of France. I settled on three favorite rural dishes more likely to be found on your maman’s table than in some upscale restaurant. Soupe de Poissons served with spicy rouille, shredded Gruyere and garlicky croutons can be found everywhere along the Provencal coast. An ancient recipe for duckling from Roger Verge’s grandmother, and then finished strong with a simple chocolate mousse with cocoa nib brittle found in Charial’s book.
Soupe de Poissons
It won’t matter if the sun doesn’t come out when you serve this soup,
because it is hotter than the sunshine of the Midi.
~ Roger Verge
Nothing could be more Provençal than to eat a fish soup, whether it’s in the form of bouillabaisse, bourride or this simple rustic soup. Marseille fish soup, or soupe de poissons as it’s known, is something I crave all the time, the assertive flavors redolent with the very soul of Provence transports me back to the old port of Marseilles where I first tried it many decades ago.
The body of the fish has gone. The soul remains.
Author Waverly Root writes at length about his frustrating search for an authentic fish soup in ‘the Food of France’. He narrowed it down to a version served in Saint Tropez, 65 miles east of Marseilles, largely because of the addition of a local chemical green colored fish. Finding the elusive fish was maddening “because the mistral had been blowing without a let-up during the whole period. This is supposed to discourage the fish, or at least some of the fish, which do not allow themselves to be caught in weather they feel unsuitable for the purpose. The effect of the mistral on the fish may be a legend, but the effect on the fishermen was observable. They preferred to stay ashore and play petanque…” Finally, on his last day in Saint Tropez he is blessed with not one, but two offerings of soupe de poissons.
Further, in Waverly Root’s narrative, he provides a compelling argument as what should be the correct title. Soupe de poissons implies a soup with fish floating inside. “A dish providing soup and fish is not the genuine article, as the Riviera understands it. In soupe aux poissons, no fish is visible. It is there all right, but it has disappeared into the liquid. The body of the fish has gone. The soul remains. The fish is ground, crushed, pulverized, and then cooked until it has become liquid itself, and the soup is then strained to eliminate any telltale traces of the ingredients that provides its greatness.”
Provencal Duck Stew with Winter Fruits
Try the duck stew while it is still cold in many parts of the country. It is a great dish for dinner parties because it is best prepared ahead of time and reheated. It will allow you to enjoy the meal as much as your friends.
Duck Stew with Winter Fruits
- 1 4-5 pound duck
- 1 carrot thinly sliced
- 1 onion thinly sliced
- 1 stalk celery thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic mashed
- 10 black peppercorns
- 10 juniper berries
- 1 piece star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 orange peel and juice
- 1 bottle Pinot Noir
- 12 prunes
- 12 walnuts
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 1 apple peeled and diced
Cut your duck into eight pieces, like you would breakdown a whole chicken, and put in a large bowl with room for more ingredients.
Add the carrot, onion, celery, garlic, black peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise, cinnamon orange and pinot noir. Let marinate for 10 to 12 hours sitting out in your kitchen.
Strain the marinade, separating the vegetables and liquid. Simmer the prunes and walnuts in the liquid for 20 minutes.
Melt the butter in a large saute pan and brown the duck on both sides. When browned, remove the duck and saute the vegetables leftover from the marinade.
Sprinkle flour over the vegetables, mixing well. Strain marinade into vegetables and add the browned duck pieces back to your pan. Keep the prunes and walnuts to add back to the sauce later.
Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for one hour.
As you cook your duck you may need to add chicken stock to keep it moist and stew-like. I ended up using about one quart.
At the end of the cooking time, remove the duck pieces and strain out and discard the vegetables. Return the duck meat, prunes and walnuts, and apple then simmer for ten minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve.
I used an Alina duck from LaBelle Farms in New York. They are a special French breed renowned for their ultra rich, almost squab like flavor, that are raised in arena style hoops and fed only corn grown on the same farm.
Chocolate Mousse with Cocoa Nib Brittle
Lastly I offer a slightly simplified version of Charial’s chocolate mousse that does not lose any of its deliciousness in the translation. Almost no other dessert could be more French than mousse.
Chocolate Mousse with Cocoa Nib Brittle
for the brittle
- 1/3 cup flour
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange or tangerine juice
- 3 tablespoons melted butter
- 2 ounces cocoa nibs available in most stores
for the chocolate mousse
- 1/2 teaspoon powdered gelatin
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
- 5 egg whites
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 quart caramel ice cream
for the brittle
Mix flour, sugar, orange juice and melted butter in your food processor.
Add the cocoa nibs and let sit in your refrigerator for one hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Put six spoonfuls of brittle batter pressed down onto a sil pat covered sheet pan.
Bake ten minutes or until lightly brown.
Let cool while making mousse.
for the chocolate mousse
Mix powdered gelatin with two tablespoons of water and let sit for ten minutes.
Put a small amount of water in a pot to boil then remove from heat.
Set bowl of gelatin over till it melts and turns to a clear liquid.
Boil cream and mix with gelatin.
Pour over chocolate chips and stir till well mixed. The chocolate should be slightly warm to room temperature.
Beat egg whites in a stand mixer till light and frothy.
Add sugar and continue beating for 30 seconds on high speed.
Gently fold into chocolate and pour into serving vessels. I used clear glasses.
Garnish mousse with cocoa nib brittle and a spoonful of caramel ice cream.