It’s been a couple of years since I was lucky enough to spend time in Provence, researching a book but mostly going to open-air markets between severe bouts of eating and drinking. All those joys came rushing back to me yesterday afternoon, thanks to a late lunch with the Guy family of Houston’s Bistro Provence. Besides, any meal that starts with wine from Bandol and salad with the tres-crusty-twisty Provencal bread colorfully known as fougasse is guaranteed to remind me of something wonderful somewhere.
One of the beauties of Provencal cooking is that it doesn’t stop cooking when the weather turns hot. After all, being the crown jewel of the South of France and plugging directly into the French Riviera means the weather turns hot fairly often and tends to stay that way. On the other hand, with both Provence and Texas in mind, it’s hard to deny the good sense and great taste of this simply cooked fish served atop a room-temp, mayo-free potato salad. Did I mention that Provence produces some of the best olive oil anywhere?
Then again, here’s what I was saying about not stopping real cooking. In pragmatic terms, this roasted Cornish game hen may heat up your house a bit if you make it at home. But that’s only the cooking. As for the eating, complete with a crust of Dijon mustard and plenty of fresh thyme, this moist, flavorful bird is on its way to picnic food. In fact, chill the Tavel rose and call the outing le picnique, and I am so in.
If your taste buds insist on something with sauce whenever you hear the f-word – that being “French,” naturally – the Guys of Bistro Provence have a super-popular dish for you: honey-lavender roasted duck. Created a while back during a festival about the eight or nine different herbs in herbes de Provence, this duck has been taken off the menu once or twice, only to be returned quickly by mobs that resembled the ones outside the Bastille. Yes, lavender. Yes, honey. Two Provencal signatures. And veal demi-glace ain’t too shabby either.
By this point, just about everybody who cooks around here knows that I’m no chocoholic. Nonetheless, they also know that if their chocolate creation is intense enough, it plugs right into my love of dark-roasted coffee and chicory that I grew up on in New Orleans. Taking the bitter with the sweet, in other words. This double-thick version of mousse-meets-fudge is wonderful, especially when you get a little of the whipped cream with every bite.
Typically, a French-style apple tart is more to my liking – and the one set in front of me yesterday at Bistro Provence was to my liking a lot. It was a bit Franco-American, I’d say, since the stewed apples are enclosed as in the pie that there’s nothing more American than. Yet the flavor profile is French, as in the legendary tart Tatin. Best of all, perhaps, the usual vanilla ice cream (which I never turn down, especially this close to Brenham) is augmented here by cinnamon. Let’s keep the apple pie ball bouncing, shall we, right into this ice cream. I swear: had I dared drink a glass (or three) of pastis, I wouldn’t have needed a plane ticket to get back to Provence at all.