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First of two articles.

September 06, 1987|RUTH REICHL

ON THE ROAD, France — We were sitting in a cafe in Cassis, watching fishermen wander in and out of the restaurants along the old port. The air smelled of salt and licorice and the sun went skittering across the water. We had just finished the world's best ratatouille-- eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and onions cooked slowly into a sort of hearty jam. Patricia Wells was taking notes. "I cook the vegetables separately, madame," said the proprietress, "and only combine them at the last minute." Wells nodded sagely and wrote some more. James Villas looked up, pointed at Wells and in his impeccable French said: "In America, she is our Michelin."

It's true; no American interested in eating would think of leaving for France without a copy of Wells' "Food Lover's Guide to France" tucked under the arm. Wells has spent the last seven years eating her way through France, and she knows the edible landscape better than anybody. (The French think so highly of Wells that her book is now being translated by a French publisher.) In an increasingly industrialized nation, Wells has made it her mission to seek out the fast-fading France of handmade food; she knows which shepherds still make cheese, which bakers still use wood, and come fall you'll find her in the countryside watching old-fashioned presses crush bitter black olives into liquid gold. And should you happen to find yourself in some little village off a back road in France, chances are that Wells knows the best bistro in town.

So when Patricia Wells invites you to spend six days in France with her, eating in all her favorite places, it's a little like winning the lottery. Throw in Paula Wolfert, cookbook author extraordinaire (her recent "The Cooking of Southwest France" is the bible on the subject) and James Villas (author of "American Taste" another bible), and it starts to sound like food heaven.

At least until the schedule arrives, and the pace becomes apparent. We are, it appears, to dine in a different town each day. For a finale we will fly to Strasbourg in time for dinner and depart the next morning at dawn. Do sane people behave this way? Will I survive the foie gras express?

Poudenas (Gascony)

Wells and Wolfert have been greeted with little cries of pleasure while Villas stood off to one side, looking slightly annoyed. Three hundred and nine people live in this old stone village, which is 17 kilometers from Nerac in the heart of Gascony; most of them, it seems, were standing by the side of the road to wave us in. But now Marie-Claude Gracia, chef and owner of La Belle Gasconne, is standing in the shade of a huge chestnut tree, stroking a dead duck. "Feel this," she says, pushing down toward the tail of the duck. "Can you tell where the foie gras stops and the harder fat begins? This will be a very nice foie ."

You can, in fact, feel that point where the liver ends. Still, it is a surprise when Madame Gracia cuts the bird open and exposes the enormous fatted liver that fairly fills the cavity. She sets it off to one side and begins to cut off the magrets , the breasts. Picking the duck up, she inhales and says, "I love the smell of the fat." It has a fresh, almost buttery scent. In two strokes of her knife the duck is nothing but a carcass. "I wish I could do it that simply," says Wells, looking wistfully at the bare bones and adding that, simply grilled, this is among her favorite foods. "Ah yes," says Gracia, "I'd like to serve grilled carcass, but it is not a restaurant dish. It must be eaten with the fingers, with a big napkin tied around the neck." She sniffs and adds, "I wouldn't serve it to people who would eat it with a fork."

The meal she does serve us in the cool, ancient stone restaurant is strictly fork food, but it is quite incredible. To begin there is foie gras --more foie gras than I have ever seen in one place--scooped onto the plates and served with grilled country bread. The terrine is unctuous, almost painfully delicious, and so generously served that for the first time in my life I am faced with too much foie gras . "Stop me," says Villas, "before I hurt myself." It is served with a cool local Jurancon wine. Then there is Chateau de Gueyze, another local wine, to drink with the civet de canard , a homey stew of duck cooked in its own blood. With it are little cornmeal cakes called armottes , which have been sauteed in lots of butter, and zucchini cooked in nothing but cream. The zucchini is soft and rich and filled with flavor.

Then there is fromageon , fresh soft goat cheese mashed with sugar and splashed with Armagnac; it is like a grown-up version of the petit suisses favored by French children.

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