Even for a man accustomed to truffles and foie gras, the Market offers an embarrassment of riches. But at midday, Mayle seeks the simple foods described in luscious detail in his novel Chasing Cezanne, just one of his delightful books. "Fat shiny black olives, radishes with white butter, country bread that stood up to chewing, a jug of red wine."
The feast we'll assemble begins with olive bread and goat cheese, proceeds to a warm fava bean salad, followed by ratatouille, grilled lamb chops and tiny new potatoes. For dessert, an apple tart. "That's a very good, achievable meal -- something I might serve to friends," says Mayle, who sees himself as "a great audience for food,' not a chef." For that I would have to call upon my wife. She is a great cook. "
The famous author is easy to spot amid the casually dressed tourists in the Market on a Monday morning. He's the snappy dresser in the tweed jacket, cream-colored shirt and yellow tie. He pauses on the threshold of Le Panier, a tres French bakery, to sniff the warm air. It smells deliciously of France, a scent he describes in his latest book as "part strong black coffee, part tobacco, a soupcon of diesel fuel, a waft of eau de cologne, and the golden scent of pastry made with butter."
Without further adieu, Mayle plunges into Le Panier, where shelves of golden bread, herb-scented rolls and pastries rise halfway to the ceiling. Amid the bustle, he calls for a loaf of dense, lightly browned olive bread. "That's a nice way to start a meal," he says, squeezing the center of the loaf to determine its freshness. He sniffs the bread, breaks off a piece and pops it into his mouth. He smiles with approval. "It's wonderful," he says, noting that olive bread is "really as big a thing in Provence as it is in Italy."
"We may be back," Mayle calls out over his shoulder as we leave Le Panier. He confides that his shopping expeditions often take two hours. "If I weren't on a book tour, I would spend many happy hours here, tasting this and tasting that. I'd go back and forth, change my mind and probably have a drink midway. But today I'm on American time."
He displays admirable efficiency at the nearby Pike & Western Wine Shop. "I've suggested lamb for lunch, and this goes very well with it," he says, brandishing a $31 bottle of Clape Cornas red wine. He turns to the proprietor and promises, "We'll do our best not to drink it through a straw."
Off we go to Quality Cheese, where Mayle rubs his chin in the French manner while eyeing the choice slabs. After taking a whiff, he chooses a perfectly plain goat cheese. "I don't like it mucked with up herbs," he says. "You want it very fresh, so the natural flavors come through."
Laden with packages, we select vegetables from Frank's Quality Produce in the Market. "I'm looking for little fava beans," he tells the vendor, "those little devils."
He breaks open a few beans, eats them raw and buys a bag. Then he gathers the ingredients for ratatouille, a Provencal dish of eggplant, tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, zucchini, garlic and herbs -- all simmered in olive oil. Somewhere we acquire a pricey bottle of Badia a Coltibuono olive oil. It's Italian, not French, but Mayle knows the owners and can vouch for the quality.
Seeking only the freshest vegetables (he's not above giving a pinch or sniff), Mayle selects red, yellow and green peppers, plus garlic, Walla Walla Sweet Onions and tiny red potatoes. Lusty, chocolate-colored Portobello mushrooms distract him, even though they're not on our menu.
"I love those," he says, advising me to remove the stems and cook them gently in a saute pan with olive oil and parsley.
"Now for the meats," he says, clapping his hands with delight. But soon he's distracted by the fresh fish stalls, where red-shelled crabs and fat pink prawns rest on ice. "We don't have anything like that in Provence. We're so far from the sea. A fish truck comes by every Tuesday. That's it."
At Don & Joe's Meats, where cuts of meat are displayed like ruby necklaces under glass, Mayle says, "What a wonderful shop. A man could go blind with pleasure here. They've got such unusual things. Such a nice selection. Louisiana sausages, slab bacon. It's very fresh. Very clean."
We choose loin lamb chops ("You want them thin for grilling."). Then we buy slab bacon for the fava bean salad -- a typical Mayle dish, requiring few pots and no measuring. All too soon, we part, but not before he gives me the recipes for my Provencal lunch, which you see below. "Start the meal with soup, minestrone or beef stew," he advises. "It depends on what's available that season. You could have pate with pickles and gherkins. Or radishes and white unsalted butter. You add sea salt to the butter because it's crunchy ... Or you could start with salad and oysters."
I promise I'll go home and cook a Peter meal.
Here are Peter Mayle's recipes:
*Warm Fava Bean Salad Buy a handful of fresh fava beans for each guest. Shell the beans and put them into a pot of cold water on the stove. Turn up the heat. Cut about a quarter pound of slab bacon into cubes and cook in a saute pan. By the time the bacon is cooked, the water for the beans is boiling. Drain the water and pour the bacon fat and bacon over the beans. Serve immediately.
*New Potatoes ala Peter Choose tiny new potatoes with red skins. Wash them, but do not peel. Put the potatoes on a sheet of aluminum foil. Add olive oil, salt, pepper, and sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary. Seal the potatoes in the foil and bake until tender. Peter Mayle's Risotto In his own words: "Take one big onion for each guest. Chop it up. Cover the bottom of a saute pan with olive oil and a big gob of butter. Melt the butter, add the chopped onions and simmer for an hour until caramelized. It's slow cooking. You want it soft and sweet. Meanwhile, prepare the stock. You put bouillon cubes, two cubes for four people, into a small saucepan. Add water and boil. "Now you've got your onions. You've got your chicken stock on the stove. Chop up prosciutto and put it in with the onions. Put in fresh or frozen peas. Start adding the chicken stock and Arborio rice, a handful for each person. Keep stirring and adding stock. You don't have to stand over it. Just make sure it doesn't scorch.
"Between stirrings, grate some fresh Parmesan cheese. When the risotto is tender, serve it in bowls and top it with the cheese." How successful is this risotto? "It's very good. I've never had it sent back. There are only two pans and no dishes. Once you've got the basic recipe, you can do millions of varieties. You can add mushrooms, chicken, mussels, shrimp. The secret is the onions, cooked until they caramelize. You can't go wrong with that."
By Candace Dempsey, from MSN