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The Cooking of Southwest France: An Introduction

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The Cooking of Southwest France

Recipes From France's Magnificent Rustic Cuisine

Introduction to the New Edition

By Paula Wolfert

There are numerous ways to enter Southwest France. You can fly into Bordeaux or Toulouse, train in from Paris, drive in from Provence to the East or through the Pyrenees from the West I've done all the above. But recently, after deciding to revise this book, I entered in a completely different way -- by sea, via a British ship that turned into the Gironde to reach the outskirts of Bordeaux.

It was a remarkable journey, moving slowly, effortlessly up the river past the beautiful King's Lighthouse, then into the estuary, which may be the least polluted in Europe. Here sturgeon, eels, shad, shrimp, oysters and numerous types of river fish flourish. The banks are lined with some of the finest wine producing vineyards in the world.

Entering the Greater French Southwest this new way helped me embrace a fresh vision of the region, for though many aspects of the culinary scene here remain as they did when I wrote the first edition of this book, there have been changes... and I have altered my own outlook, too.

The good news: The phrase so often used by the French to describe the Southwest-- "They really eat well down there!”--remains true to this day. Certainly, the food of the Southwest is still wonderful, and the home cooks are still as good as I remember them. Artisinal foods are still produced on a small scale, and the foundations of the cuisine remain the same: cheese, cepes, foie gras, truffles, confits, cassoulets, game birds, superb cheese, pork, lamb, beef, seafood, fish, and wine.

When I wrote this book more than twenty years ago, nouvelle cuisine was all the rage. Some of the dishes I included are no longer served. Fascinating as they were, they didn't "wear" well, and so I‘ve dropped them from this new edition. The excitement I remember, creative reactions to the old ways of cooking, has settled down, and, not surprisingly, the mainstays, the great traditional farmhouse and local town dishes, remain beloved. But this isn't to say that inventiveness is dead. Southwest French chefs continue to explore fresh approaches.

The Cooks

When I first visited the French Southwest, the most important culinary figures were the highly talented, enormously generous and ebullient chefs of "La Ronde des Mousquetaires," an association, with a nod to the panache of Alexandre Dumas’s heros. They were the best chefs in Gascony. You will read much about them in these pages.

Jean-Louis Palladin has sadly passed away after a distinguished career as a chef first in Gascony, then in Washington D.C., Las Vegas, and New York. Andre Daguin no longer cooks in Auch; he is now president of a hotel-restaurant industry association, based in Paris. The great Toulouse chef Lucien Vanel, whose kitchen sensibility was the closest to my own, has retired. (I was flattered to find myself mentioned in his cookbook-memoir, Saveurs et Humeurs.) Roger “Zizzou” Duffour and Maurice Coscuella have also retired from their stoves, but their disciples still speak of them with affection and awe. Dominique Toulousy, at his restaurant Les Jardins de l’Opera in Toulouse, continues to elevate the rustic food of the Southwest.

Now there are "new voices" in the Southwest, chefs such as Michel Trama of Aubergade in the Agen, Thierry Marx at the Chateau Cordellan-Bages in the Medoc, Raymond Casau, at “Chez Pierre" in the town of Pau, and , of course, the brilliant, iconoclastic, self-taught genius, Michel Bras in the Auvergne, several of whose recipes you will find in this new edition.

While revising this book, I decided to expand the borders of "my" culinary Southwest to what I refer to as the “Greater Southwest”, expanding north into the Charente so I could include more Atlantic fish, toward the center into the Auvergne so I could include Michel Bras and his inimitable Southwestern approach, and a bit further south into the Languedoc-Roussillon, to catch sight of the Mediterranean, my region of speciality.

In Bordeaux, I hastened to meet pastry chef Daniel Antoine, who confirmed my work on caneles de Bordeaux, a recipe for which was published in The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. Francis Garcia and Jean Ramet are still cooking great food there, as is the luminous and portly Jean-Pierre Xiradakis, whose La Tupina is my destination of choice in that city. He continues to prepare the best regional dishes before an open hearth.

Andre Daguin's daughter, Ariane, a teenager when I first met her, has made a huge impression here in the United States, having co-founded, with George Faison, the firm D'Artagnan, the number-one domestic purveyor of foie gras, prepared confit, and other Southwest French product to chefs and consumers alike. It's safe to state that D'Artagnan has changed the face of restaurant cooking in this country.

Newly Available Ingredients

There has never been a better time in America to make the great dishes of the Southwest. The availability of new culinary products over the past twenty years has made the inclusion of numerous new recipes possible. Farmer’s markets are now commonplace, and their arrays of fresh vegetables and wild mushrooms, formerly considered "exotic," is a blessing.

Hudson Valley and Sonoma County duck foie gras is now as good as foie gras found in France. Various types of delicious fattened ducks are available here with which to make proper confits and magrets. We now have domestically rendered duck fat; domestic verjus; artisan breads and cheeses; as well as fresh black truffles imported from France and China; Gironde River caviar; melt-in-your-mouth Tarbais beans from the Pyrenees; piment d'Espelette (moderately hot paprika) from the Basque Country; moutarde violette (purple mustard flavored with grape must) from the Correze; ventreche (the French version of pancetta), and jambon de Bayonne (salt-cured ham); chestnut liqueur from the Limousin, and frozen demi-glace with which to make delicious and memorable sauces.

Our stores and markets have been transformed over the last twenty years from utilitarian sources of food into food-lovers' cornucorpia, providing us with free-range chickens, organic vegetables, organically fed lamb, beef , and pork.

When this book was first published, confit was barely known. Today duck confit is ubiquitous on restaurant menus. I believe our approach to eating has begun to change as well. When I wrote this book, and traveled the country, teaching the recipes at cooking schools, I found that that the most difficult concept to convey to my students was not how to cook the food, but how to consume it -- take pleasure in it, enjoy it slowly, and in moderation. I believe that in the past twenty years we've moved closer to the Southwest French approach to the culinary pleasures of the table.

The Recipes

It was enormous fun revising this book, revisiting dishes I hadn't cooked or eaten in years. In preparing this revised edition, I've tested and rewritten nearly every recipe--- refining, clarifying, even in some cases, modifying them entirely. Some outdated recipes have been dropped, but more importantly, I’ve added over sixty additional recipes.

Of these, thirty are completely new. Some of my favorites include Wild Leek with Mushroom Pie, Roasted Sea Scallops with Chestnuts; Duck Breast Grilled over Charcoal; Autumn Squash Soup with Country Ham and Garlic Croutes; Foie Gras Poached in Red Wine. About two dozen other recipes from one of my books now out of print have been rescued and completely updated. These are all recipes that properly belong in this collection.

In this edition, I've sometimes simplified steps, though never at the expense of flavor. Southwest French farmhouse cooking has always been intricate. The complexity of such peasant classics as poule au pot, garbure, and cassoulet is integral to their glory. I've also changed many ingredients, to include more authentic products now readily available that were not imported when the first edition was published.

In preparing this revised edition, I approached three French chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I now live, who practice Southwest French-style cooking: Gerald Hirigoyen recreates his native Basque food at his fine San Francisco restaurant, Piperade. Though Gerald works mostly in a combination of old and new cooking styles, he shared with me his simple, delicious, flawlessly balanced Potato, Leek and White Bean Soup garnished with olive puree. Laurent Manrique, a Gascon chef, uses mostly American ingredients at Aqua, where he specializes in fish. He gave me two new recipes: a traditional recipe for Braised Short Ribs in Porcini-Prune Sauce, inspired by his grandmother; and a bright new creation that employs fresh Yellowtail Tuna with Avocado and the mildly spicy Basque pepper piment d’Espelette.

Finally, Jean Pierre Moullé, the downstairs chef at the famous Berkley restaurant Chez Panisse for twenty-five years, and who also runs a summer cooking school in Bordeaux, taught me a wonderful complex brine for pork belly, which makes it unbelievably succulent and flavorful (see Petit Salé with Fava Bean Ragout).

Reprinted with permission from The Cooking of Southwest France, published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Copyright 2005 by Paula Wolfert

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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