A Pig in Provence
Good Food and Simple Pleasures in the South of France
By Georgeanne Brennan
Georgeanne Brennan deftly illustrates the joys of cooking and eating together in A Pig in Provence, which recounts her life in the South of France. This Provençal memoir is not arranged chronologically, but instead thematically, which allows Brennan to focus in on the region—her home off and on for the past three decades. Her tale reads like a love letter to Provence, which she describes as a locale where people uphold tradition and live in harmony with the land. Changing times do affect some traditions, however, like the jour du cochon, an event where friends and family would gather together to slaughter a pig and spend a labor-intensive day cooking and preserving its various parts. She tells how this day has faded from prominence; now butchers are solely responsible for many of the pork products that were produced during this event.
Her intimate knowledge of the changing face of Provence and details like the regional variations of bouillabaisse and encyclopedic-like asides about la cueillette (seasonal mushroom hunting) demonstrate the depth of her knowledge, culled over years of meals and formed relationships. Hers is a memoir full of Provence with its ways of living and its foods, more universal than memoirs focused on one person's life as it happened to them. Each chapter is littered with culinary creations, and at each chapter's end is a full recipe, often one featured prominently in the chapter. These recipes, composed as narratives, continue telling the story of Provence, an account she shows to be full of laughter and life.
Reviewed by Margaret Galvan
Soupe au pistou
Vegetable Soup with Basil-Garlic Sauce
My friend Anne, who is from Marseille, taught me this version of the quintessential summer and early fall soup of Provence, so thick with fresh shelling beans and vegetables that a wooden spoon can almost stand up straight in it. Just before serving, the soup is laced with the pistou, a purée of garlic, basil, and olive oil.
Begin by putting 2 quarts water in a soup pot. Add a teaspoon of coarse sea salt, three handfuls of green beans (each cut into several pieces), and a handful of diced carrot. Next, dice the following vegetables and add them to the pot: three small potatoes, a couple of medium zucchini, and a small onion. Finally, add three handfuls of fresh shelling beans, such as cocos rouges, cranberry beans, or cocos blancs, white beans. Add several pinches of fresh thyme and a bay leaf.
Bring the water to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft and the liquid has reduced by about one-third. Allow about 40 minutes for this. Taste the soup and add more salt, plus freshly ground black pepper and more herbs if needed. Add a handful of spaghetti broken into small pieces, and continue to cook until the pasta is tender, about another 10 minutes.
While the soup is simmering, put three or four cloves of coarsely chopped garlic in a mortar and add a pinch of coarse sea salt. With a pestle, grind the salt and garlic until it becomes a creamy paste. Add a handful of basil and crush until blended with the paste. Add another handful of leaves and crush these. Now, slowly drizzle in about 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil and, still using the pestle, incorporate the oil until a thick green sauce, the pistou, has formed. Allow 10 to 15 minutes to make the pistou.
When the soup is ready, put it into a terrine or large bowl. Still in about half of the pistou, reserving the rest to accompany the soup.
Serves 4 to 6
(Updated: 12/11/08 SB)