How I Learned to Bake French Bread in the South of France
For about three decades the Luberon area of southern France has enchanted me, inspiring regular returns. While the region and its customs, foods, and winemaking remain largely unchanged, they are not immutable and we are lucky when records survived and recipes passed on to apprentices, allowing us to duplicate what would otherwise have been lost forever.
Chef Pierre Hiely’s eggplant in Avignon was a dish that I, along with thousands of his patrons, adored. Several years ago, after Hiely sold his restaurant, I returned to find to my disappointment that the dish was no longer on the menu. Luckily others published the recipe so that it was not lost and you can duplicate it. The version below is from The Independent. In brackets I have offered alternative suggestions by Simon Hopkinson who, in his book Roast Chicken and Other Stories, offers up the recipe, too.
4 small aubergines, peeled and thickly sliced
fine sea salt
olive oil [about 2 oz worth]
50g butter[about 2 oz worth]
8 ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped[Hopkinson uses 5 chopped garlic cloves]
salt and pepper
3 pieces of pith-less lemon zest
2 heaped tbsp chopped fines herbes: tarragon, chives, chervil and parsley (you may include some basil too, although it isn't strictly "fine")
juice of half a lemon
400ml whipping cream [450 mil or ¾ pt crème fraiche—in which case you skip the lemon juice]
[Fry the eggplant slices in hot olive oil until pale golden. Drain and cool.]
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375F.
Melt the butter in a roomy pan and add the tomatoes to it, together with the garlic, seasoning and lemon zest. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, or until nicely thickened and mulchy, but not too dry. Remove the pieces of lemon zest and put to one side.
Lightly butter a shallow oven-proof dish, preferably oval in shape. Start to fill the dish, beginning with one slice of eggplant swiftly smeared with a spoonful of the tomato mulch. Slightly overlap with a second slice and smear with tomato once more. Continue in this fashion until the dish is full and neatly layered. Now pour the cream into the (unwashed) tomato pan, together with the chopped herbs. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until reduced in volume and showing signs of thickening to the consistency of custard. Whisk together to smooth and amalgamate and pour evenly over the eggplant. Shake the dish a bit to allow the cream and herbs to sink in, then slide into the oven and bake for about 25 minutes, until bubbling and blistered with little points of brown.
Another food I cherished over the years: the exquisite, savory tarts of Madam Dromer. I remember dreaming of their taste for months before a visit, arriving and telling our hosts, the hospitable Richard Perle and his wife Leslie Barr, that I had to have one. My heart shattered to learn she’d sold her lovely bakery in Cabrières-d'Avignon and there’d be no tarts that trip. Fortunately, once again, others shared my high opinion and she now sells them at the weekly market in Coustellet. I have not seen her recipes anywhere nor have I tasted their like, but now that her family is intimately engaged in the operation, I hope the tradition of her pastry making will continue.
While her bread is no longer available, we have found a very good substitute in Robion, where baker Jean Honorat makes, among other things, pain au levain using a 92-year-old recipe and a wood-burning stove. He was nice enough to allow me to observe and photograph his work, and I hope you will find the process as interesting as I did.