High in the hills of Provence, France, in early summer, far from the crowds of the Cote d’Azur, when the lavender fields are in bloom and the mountains are fragrant with rosemary and thyme, the markets of the Vaucluse are filled with the products of the region. No one is more proud of their regional cooking than people in the communities of la France profonde — deep rural France. Even the huge hypermarkets are obliged to carry local produce and give space to local growers.
The villages, on the other hand, have been steadily depopulating since the end of World War II. In the 1990s, when I spent a full school year in the region with my family of four children, only the larger towns had any hope of filling classrooms.
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Life is hard up in the mountains. Shepherding and subsistence farming were the old ways, and the children of the war years had no desire to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Thereafter, the drift to the towns appeared unstoppable until the arrival of les soixante-huitants, the 68ers, a wave of young escapees from the university cities, particularly Paris, after the brutal suppression of the student uprisings of 1968.
In Provence, small towns populated by those escaping city life
The young who fought the tear gas of former French President Charles de Gaulle’s riot police with Molotov cocktails retreated to the old communist strongholds — centers of resistance under German occupation — escaping from joblessness (then as now) and the demands of the consumer society. By the 1990s, a new age of disillusionment brought a fresh crop of escapees to join the teenage children of the original good-lifers.
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Village schools reopened, area cafes reclaimed their clientele and young farming families began to replant the old subsistence crops and revive traditional crafts. Among these second-wave escapees was the redoubtable Annie Pacaut, innkeeper at Savoillans in the valley du Toulourenc, who collected old farmhouse recipes and acquired a local following for cuisine grandmere, hearty dishes served without pretension and not a Michelin star in sight. Under Pacaut’s patronage, the village acquired an artisan baker using locally milled flour and a butcher specializing in regional charcuterie.
Her menu was strictly du jour, and she was open Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday for lunch. Main courses were either milk-fed kid with an almond-thickened sauce or shoulder of one of the small mountain lambs braised with epeautre, or spelt, an ancient strain of wheat that appreciates altitude and poor soil.
The hors d’oeuvre was a rough-textured pate-de-campagne with homegrown radishes and home-pickled cornichons. Wine and water came in jugs, and the cheese course was equally unpretentious: a hank of salad (endive or frisée) dressed with local olive oil and vinegar topped with a little disk of goat cheese on a round of toast blistered under the grill. Should you wish for dessert, the baker could oblige (if it wasn’t too late) with a buttery chausson de pommes — apple turnover — and you might care to pass by the butcher on the way home for his air-cured saucisson, a cured sausage, or a second helping of paté.
Roast Kid or Lamb With Almond Sauce
Annie Pacaut’s recipe is for a whole milk-fed kid to serve 30, so I have adapted it for leg of lamb, a lean meat that works well with a rich sauce. Serve with plenty of bread for mopping.
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds (1 kilogram) leg of lamb, chopped in thick steaks across the bone
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces (200 grams) whole, unblanched almonds
1 whole garlic head, cloves separated but unskinned
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup white wine
1 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Check over the lamb steaks and trim off any gristle.
2. Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a heavy casserole. Toast the almonds in the hot oil, remove and reserve.
3. Add the rest of the oil, reheat and fry the meat until it browns a little. Add the garlic cloves, parsley and wine and bubble to evaporate the alcohol.
4. Add the water and bubble up again.
5. Turn down the heat, cover and leave to simmer very gently for about 1½ hours, until the meat is tender enough to eat with a fork. (You may need to add a splash of boiling water if it looks like it is drying out.) You can also cook it in a low oven — 275 F (140 C or Gas 2) — for about 1½ hours.
6. When the meat is perfectly tender, pound the reserved almonds to a paste, dilute with a little of the lamb juices and stir the mixture back into the sauce to thicken it.
Peppered Lamb Shoulder With Spelt
Pearl barley is a possible substitute for the hard-grain spelt, Pacaut says. The secret to the flavor is an unreasonable amount of white pepper — white peppercorns are fierier though less aromatic than black. The result should be as hot as chili sauce.
Serves 4 to 6
1 small bone-in lamb shoulder
8 ounces (250 grams) spelt or barley grains
2 pounds (1 kilogram) fresh or canned tomatoes
12 garlic cloves
2 ounces (50 grams) unsalted butter
2 to 3 heaping tablespoons ground white pepper
1. Wipe the meat and rinse the grains through cold water, leaving them damp.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C or Gas 7).
3. Spread the tomatoes (skinned and roughly chopped if fresh) in a roomy roasting tin. Settle the lamb joint on top, and spoon the grains over the tomatoes.
4. Sprinkle with the garlic cloves, and drop a knob of butter in each corner.
5. Pour a glass of water over the grains to ensure they have enough liquid to swell.
6. Dust the meat with the pepper. Cover tightly with foil so the steam doesn’t escape.
7. Roast in the heated oven for half an hour, then prick the meat so the juices run and add more boiling water if the grains are beginning to dry out. Replace the foil, reduce the oven heat to 350 F (180 C or Gas 4) for 1½ to 2½ hours, depending on the size of the shoulder, until the meat is so tender it can be pulled apart with a fork.
Main illustration: Green almonds. Credit: Elisabeth Luard