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A Provence of One's Own

How The James Murray Family Retired From The Restaurant Business And Started Cooking Up The Good Life.

July 18, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. — That old saying about stopping to smell the roses doesn't apply at the Andrew Murray Vineyards. Here, you stop to smell the rosemary--bush after bush of it, perfuming this hilly site along with lavender, thyme, sage and a multitude of vigorous, colorful native plants.

The carefully landscaped Provencal-Mediterranean look reflects the taste of the occupants. James K. Murray is an ardent Francophile and serious bistro cook. His 24-year-old son, Andrew, who is the winemaker, speaks fluent French and crafts his wines only from Rho^ne varietal agrapes.

They lead the good life, it's obvious, and they're still relishing the novelty of it. The winery building was finished only a couple of years ago, and their first commercial wine wasn't released until last fall.

James Murray developed the El Paso Cantina chain of Mexican restaurants that flourished in and around Los Angeles in the 1980s. He sold it in 1986 and now has time to indulge in what he liked best about the restaurant business--cooking.

The whole family was collaborating on lunch one day, just before James and his wife, Frances, left for Dijon, where they are spending July studying French, touring vineyards and poking into restaurants and bakeries.

James Murray was getting ready to roast chickens, which he had already smoked over grapevine cuttings. Frances was in her garden picking herbs and salad greens. Andrew and his wife, Kristen Battaglia Murray, had come over to help, and a chef friend, Jeff Nichols, was shaping pizza dough.

The Murray kitchen is spectacular, a huge sunlit room with a massive granite-topped center island and a dining area and fireplace at one end. A bank of windows looks out on mountainous vistas, and a bookcase holds the "short list" of James Murray's cookbook collection, which concentrates on French food. Still more cookbooks take up most of the shelves in the library.

A wisteria vine trails under the kitchen windows, and there's a swimming pool out back, hidden in the sort of bushy, drought-resistant foliage that is typical of Provence.

You're impressed--make that awed--by the giant French-made La Cornue range, which is fueled with both gas and electricity. Sprays of white morning glories decorate its white porcelain facing. Brass fittings include a plaque engraved with James Murray's name. An antique tile painting of hanging game is set in the wall above it.

The kitchen opens onto a patio, where James Murray smoked the chickens. In a stone wood-burning oven made in Marseille, he bakes his weekly batch of bread, leavened with a wild yeast starter that he has nursed for six years. For today, he has baked three loaves--one flavored with Kalamata olives and thyme, another with lemon and rosemary, and a third studded with walnuts and raisins.

Getting fuel is no problem. The Murrays simply gather up dead branches from oak trees on their property.

Walk beyond the patio and you come to Frances Murray's herb garden, with orderly beds of basil, thyme, chervil, sage, dill, marjoram and fennel. Bundles of these hang to dry from kitchen light fixtures.

James Murray does most of the cooking. After all, he's gone through formal chef's training in France--his first priority after leaving the restaurant business.

"At 48, I was the oldest student," he says of his time in the chef's program at Paris' Ritz-Escoffier, where he was in the school's first class, held in the basement of the Ritz Hotel. And he is still studying. The Murrays take occasional classes at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley.

"I think cooking is just so neat," he says. "I've got the bug, I guess. I learn something every day. It's just amazing."

His wife, a former librarian, doesn't mind playing second fiddle.

"I'm the prep cook and dishwasher," she says. "I get to do the salads because they are from my garden."

As you sip Andrew Murray Rose D'Esperance, a wine made just for the family, you watch James Murray and Nichols top the pizzas with various combinations of artichoke pesto, homemade olive paste, prosciutto, Black Forest ham, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, basil, garlic and cheese.

You eat the pizzas as soon as they come from the wood-burning oven, then move on to the winery, where a table is set next to a tall window looking out on the gardens. Frances Murray brought the rustic cherry dining table from her family's farm in Tennessee. The chairs, made in Taos, N.M., were saved from one of the Murray restaurants.

The main dish is the chickens, sliced and arranged on organic greens just plucked from the garden. The chickens have been seasoned with rosemary, lemon and pepper, and the salad dressing is based on the roasting juices combined with Andrew Murray Viognier, olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic. There are homemade pickles on the table too--black olives marinated with herbes de Provence and green olives marinated with fennel and orange juice.

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