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Warmth of Provence

Daube, the hearty dish that marries wine and meat, is a slow-simmered winter wonder.

January 04, 2006|Anne Willan | Special to The Times

MARVELOUSLY rich and winy, redolent of orange zest and cinnamon, bay leaf and garlic and fennel, with meat made tender by hours of slow simmering and, yes, those wonderful olives, a Provencal daube is a beautiful thing.

It began in the south of France. Daube (pronounced "dobe") grew up in the Occitan, which cuts a wide swath across the entire southern part of the country. But it was in Provence that the dish attained its sunniest, most aromatic expression. That's what makes la daube provencale so terribly appealing to the Southern California palate.

Daube is not just a dish; it's also a method of cooking. It's taken so seriously in Provence that a daube wouldn't be a daube unless it were cooked in a daubiere, that quintessential Provencal cooking vessel. Made from the local red-gold clay, it's almost spherical in shape, with a neck just large enough to insert your hand, a flat lid, and characteristic double handles to make lifting easy. (Fear not, though -- any heavy casserole or Dutch oven does well.)

The ingredients are layered inside the pot, with slow-cooking meats -- usually beef or lamb -- at the bottom, vegetables and aromatics on top. It's not surprising to learn, then, that the word "daube" comes from adobar, which in the langue d'oc (language of the Occitan) means "to arrange" or "to accommodate."

In Provence, those aromatics and vegetables would be onions, carrots, fennel, wild thyme, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, tomatoes -- in just about any combination. Wine -- red for beef, white for lamb or veal -- is essential, moistening the layers as a marinade.

And it's a long marinade: The mix should be left in the refrigerator one to three days for flavors to blend.

Cooking is long and gentle, taking three to four hours so the heat from the oven (in the old days it was an open fire) gradually penetrates the heavy pot, warming the contents to a simmer so they marry over the hours to a glorious, aromatic, fork-tender finish. Partway through, olives and maybe artichokes are added.

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Simple but special

THIS is a farmhouse dish, using inexpensive ingredients drawn from the surrounding countryside. But it's not everyday food; a daube is special enough for a celebration. The meat needn't be a tender cut; the long, slow cooking of the stew is specifically designed to break down tough tissues and cartilage, releasing their taste. The best cuts of beef to use are chuck, blade steak, shank, top or bottom round, and eye from the leg, the muscles that work hard. I always include a chunk or two of shank in my beef daube, or some ribs in a daube of lamb. You might call it my magic charm. I think it's key in providing layers of flavor and that glossy richness that marks a fine sauce.

Many (though not all) Provencal daubes include bacon, cut into the classic chunky strips called lardons. In France it's easy to find bacon in one piece, smoked or salted, complete with rind. If your butcher can provide it, go for the smoked version, slicing off the rind to line the base of the pot, then cutting the meat into lardons. Otherwise, thick-cut bacon can take the place of a single piece.

For an adventure here in California, you might like to substitute buffalo for beef; it's the nearest match to meat from the magnificent Provencal black bulls, which is used in daubes in the Camargue, where they're raised. There, at the delta of the Rhone River, they provide sport in the bullfighting arenas of the region.

The dark, musky Rhone red wines are a perfect match when marinating the meat.

Aromatic flavorings for a Provencal daube are key. Traditionally these may include pared orange zest (bitter orange is a particular treat), whole cloves, a cinnamon stick, peppercorns and a generous bunch of the classic bouquet garni trio of parsley, bay leaf and local wild thyme, dried to unusual intensity by the southern sun.

Here is a hint of history: The orange and spices come from the Arabs who colonized this part of France, and the herbal bouquet garni is resolutely French.

In Provence, the signature seasoning of the daube is olives. They may be green or black, large or small, mild or piquant. (Watch out for salty types that can overwhelm the mix.) Here's where you can add a personal touch. The fat black olives from Nyons in northern Provence will be noticeably different from the tiny, nippy olives of Nice. Green olives are juicier, and for daube I prefer them brined. A French cook would always leave the olives whole, as the pits add flavor, but be sure to warn your guests if you leave them in!

Vegetables, the other supporting players in daube, include onions, carrots and always a bulb or two of fennel, the Provencal substitute for celery. In late winter and spring, baby artichokes, called poivrade, are another way to go; they're delicious baked slowly in a lamb daube. (They haven't arrived yet at the farmers markets, but you can get them at Trader Joe's.)

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