This recipe for Soupe au Pistou from Provence Food and Wine is a beautiful seasonal soup that celebrates the bounty of the season.
It took me nearly a year to finish reading A Year in Provence.
My chocolate chip cookie-loving boss let me borrow his copy a year ago in May, knowing how much I love food and foraging. He mentioned something about it being a classic and left me to it.
I dug in, devouring the first few months of Peter Mayle’s sojourn to the south of France every chance I got. I tried hatching my own scheme to be able to call a foreign land home for a year, eating, drinking and living a quaint life. Then I got busy with the year in Niagara and put the book down, only to come back to it in fits and spurts to help me fulfill my promise of returning it to my boss before my maternity leave started this past February.
When I finished reading it, I felt like old Pete and I had been together so long, we needed to talk about dividing our assets when we parted ways. Then the book Provence Food and Wine: The Art of Living ($24.95 Surrey Agate) by François Millo and Viktorija Todorovska arrived on my doorstep and it felt like a reunion.
As I cracked the spine to reveal vibrant photos of the place and its food, with recipes to accompany them, I felt myself channel my inner Peter Mayle. And as a new mom who wouldn’t be escaping to any foreign land any time soon, I got lost in the pages, rubbing my fingers over their smooth glossiness as my getaway between naps and feedings.
Travel Guide meets Culinary Adventure
Provence Food and Wine is one part travel guide and another part culinary adventure, showcasing the region’s different landscapes and their influence upon what can be found on people’s plates: hearty, earthy meals in the rugged inland of Haute Provence, such as wild boar stew or fried chanterelles; grilled sardines and bouillabaise in coastal Marseille; barbecued mussels and pumpkin soup with chestnuts in the varied La Côte Varoise; and Niçoise salad or street food like pissaladiere in Nice and the Riviera.
I couldn’t wait to try the recipes. Of the 47 traditional Provençal kitchen how-tos, there wasn’t one that lacked appeal despite my being a vegetarian. The dishes, in true Provence fashion as good old Pete taught me, were uncomplicated yet elegant; the emphasis on fresh ingredients that didn’t need to be helped along by lots of fussing and gussying.
When asked to review this book, I said yes to see how one of the most famous food and wine regions in the world compares with my corner of the globe, a Canadian culinary destination striving for world-class status. Parallels were simple to draw: easy access to fresh, seasonal produce serving as a muse in the kitchen seemed obvious at first glance.
But more than just instructions for making fresh food with a strong Mediterranean influence, Provence Food and Wine provided plenty of context for the region’s culinary influences and its cultural ones, too. It’s Provence 101, starting with a history and geography lesson that details the diversity of the landscape and climate, reintroducing me to the Mistral, that cold winter wind that Peter Mayle lamented. I know why lavender has a role in Herbes de Provence, given the fields of it growing wild, the crops also harvested for perfume. I want to bathe with a bar Marseille soap, made of the purest Provençal olive oil, and play a game of Pétanque or French bocce. I’m intrigued by Provence’s dialect with its Latin influence, brought to the region by the Romans, sprinkled throughout.
Niagara’s kindred spirit
It was the section on wine, however, when I felt my home was a kindred spirit with Provence. The vineyards there extend from the Mediterranean (hey, we have Lake Ontario wielding its influence) to the alps in the north (here we call it the Niagara Escarpment). More than that, though, Provence is the birthplace of French wine, starting 2,600 hundred years ago. Niagara is the cradle of Canada’s wine industry, where it started to get serious in 1975 when Inniskillin Wines got a licence to make tipple with anything but laughable Labrusca grapes.
Today, Provence is known most for its rosé while in Niagara, we try to decide between Riesling and Chardonnay as the cornerstone of our wine industry. Both regions, however, have booming wine tourism in common and nothing goes better with a glass of vino then a meal of seasonal local food, at which we also both excel.
It was the writing about food and wine where the real passion came through in this book, no doubt stemming from Millo’s role as the director of the Provence Wine Council. His love for his home also shone in his stunning photography, which carries Provence Food and Wine more than its words, and draws one into the recipes like a maître d’ stationed outside a restaurant, beckoning tourists to enjoy the table d’hôte. It all made me want to crack a bottle of pale pink wine, and start combing travel websites for cheap airfare.
You know, master the art of living, which this book is all about. But until departure day, I just want to get in the kitchen and cook up escape on a plate, especially with this soupe au pistou. It’s fresh and beautiful and celebrates the bounty of the season. Even better, you don’t have to go far to find the ingredients for the recipes, save for the off-the-boat fresh seafood. I have yet to try a sardine in Niagara that doesn’t taste fishy and so will wait for when I can one day travel to Provence to fall off my vegetarian wagon again.
Still, this book, with its spot-on instructions, has demystified how to cook mussels, showing it’s simple to prepare shellfish that I had have deferred to trained chefs to do for me. It enables me to easily assemble an artistic Tian a la Provençale, and makes onions and anchovies atop pissaladiere sound like more than just a recipe for bad breath.
This book is a keeper for me and one I’ll turn to anytime I crave a vacation but have to settle on getting away in great meal instead. In the meantime, I beg your pardon while I get back to concocting a plan for my year abroad a la Peter Mayle.
Soupe au Pistou
This is a perfect summertime soup because virtually all of the ingredients were in my CSA basket or could be found at a farmers market. I did have to use canned beans but you could easily swap out the cranberry and cannellini beans for fresh Roma beans showing up at markets right now. If you decide to stick with canned beans instead, you can easily omit two cups of water for the stock.
Reprinted with permission from Provence Food and Wine by Franois Millo and Victorija Todorovska, Agate Surrey, March 2014.
For the soup
- 4 quarts (3.80L) water
- 1/2 pound (227g) fresh shelled cannellini beans (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 1/2 pound (227g) fresh shelled borlotti (cranberry) beans (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 2 fresh bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, divided, plus more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
- 1/2 pound (227g) haricots vert, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 4 medium potatoes, cubed
- 4 medium zucchini, cubed 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 small tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the pistou
- 1 tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 cup fresh basil
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
To prepare the soup:
Place the water in a medium stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the cannellini and borlotti beans, bay leaves and thyme, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and the rosemary. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium-low and cook for 30 minutes.
Add the haricots vert, snow peas and potatoes, and cook for another 10 minutes.
Add the zucchini, onion, tomatoes, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Remove and discard bay leaves and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
To prepare the pistou:
As the soup cooks, combine all the pistou ingredients in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Pulse to obtain a thick sauce. Transfer the pistou to a small bowl.
To assemble the dish:
Transfer the soup to a serving dish and serve immediately as a hot dish, or chill in the refrigerator and serve cold. Pass the pistou on the side for guests to add as desired.