Slow Food, Provençal Style

cut-tomatoes.jpg

When I was a child, one of my aunts, Micheline—we called her Mine, pronounced “min”—bought a vacation home just outside of Cavaillon, in a little town called Velleron, in the heart of Provence. She set her heart on a house right in the center of the village, probably imagining herself retiring there one day and becoming the old lady who lived next door, wrinkled by 80 years of Provençal sun, whom you would see slowly strolling down to the boulangerie and the boucherie every morning.

Mine’s narrow house had no land, and just a tiny garden set up on a two-level terrace where we would relax on chaise lounges amidst the Laurier roses, under the olive trees. On the street side the shutters were always closed—Mine said it was to keep the heat out, but I imagine she was just not used to having people peek directly into her living room. At the back of the house the kitchen stretched along the entire width of the house with plenty of windows, and French doors leading to the rez-de-jardin.

Mine was a serious cook, in a peasant’s intuitive, self-taught way. I never saw her look at a recipe book unless she was making a dessert, and she had the genius ability to produce an amazing dish out of what anyone else would have considered an empty fridge. I have many fond memories of her cooking, but my absolute favorite dish of hers was her ratatouille.

Watching her execute the glorious dish one summer—it had to be 1982 or 1983, I was no more than 10 years old—made me realize the importance of taking one’s time to make something the right way. It was August, and we were at her house in Velleron. We went to the market at sunset to collect our bounty—I didn’t know yet what Mine had in mind when we set out, and as she is a woman of few words, I knew better than to ask.

Although Velleron is a very small town, its market is one of the biggest in the region, held right outside of town in an empty lot lined with Cypress and lavender. On this August day the crickets were delirious with heat, and the dozens of farmers, all maraichers, meaning they sold fruits and vegetables only, presented the peak of the season in the heart of the most bountiful region in France. It was a feast for the eyes and nose, and my senses were exploding over mountains of colorful peaches, tomatoes, peppers, onions, herbs, and, of course, Cavaillon’s gorgeous melons.

“Let’s make ratatouille!” proclaimed Mine. She was quick to assess the right vendors, but took her time selecting the right vegetables. I knew right then that this was going to be a lengthy process, and there was no way we were going to eat it that night.

The following morning, I woke up at the crack of dawn, and went downstairs quietly to find Mine already cooking.

“You have to beat the heat,” she said, “I don’t want to be in the kitchen at 11am, it will be too hot!”

The smell was intoxicating—on the stove she had five pans going at once: sweating onions mixed with rosemary, tomatoes with basil and garlic, eggplants roasting slowly, sucking up olive oil; zucchini sprinkled with thyme, and red and yellow peppers.

“Wouldn’t it just be faster to cook them all together?” I couldn’t help but ask.

Mine looked at me in disbelief. “And why should I rush?”

I stood next to her while she manned the stove. The onions were done first, then the peppers and zucchinis, and we continued to wait for the eggplants. The tomatoes were roasted quickly to release some juice and to weave together the flavor of the garlic and basil, which she removed just as it started to turn slightly brownish. When each vegetable was cooked to Mine’s satisfaction, she mixed them all up and cooked them all together for a while on a very low flame.

“You don’t want to overcook anything,” she advised, “but now the flavors have to combine.”

By then the sun was high in the sky and the ratatouille was ready, but we couldn’t eat it just yet.

“It will be perfect tonight!” Mine proclaimed happily, pushing the pot to the side of the stove to let it sit for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, I was left counting the hours until dinner.

The day remains very vivid in my memory, and yet I don’t remember the actual meal that particular evening. The night was just another night, and I can still taste the explosion of flavors, but that happened each of the many times in my life I had Mine’s ratatouille. But that day helped shape my natural instinct for slow food, and taught me that things take time to build and weave together, and this needs to be respected. Each ingredient should be picked thoughtfully, and then cooked with the same care.

In my life, I’ve gone from Slow Provençe to Crazy New York Brooklyn, and along the way, back to my roots again and always.

And in the end, wherever I land, I need to remember that there is no need to rush.