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Extreme Wolfert? Mais, oui!

January 25, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Special to The Times

PRUNES that have soaked in Armagnac for six months, minimum. The blood of a freshly killed hare. Nine pounds of fresh fava beans, husked and peeled. A 6-inch-thick bed of pine needles. One dish alone -- a cassoulet -- required trips to two gourmet shops, three butchers, a farmers market and a produce wholesaler. It put 72.5 miles on my car and cost $91.13. Another dish -- salt-cured pork belly with fresh fava bean ragout -- took four days to prepare. Welcome to cooking with Paula Wolfert, which is about as far from "30 Minutes With Rachael Ray" as you can get. But once you've experienced it, there's no going back.

When the revised edition of Wolfert's 1983 classic "The Cooking of Southwest France" (John Wiley & Sons, $37.50) came out two months ago, I couldn't wait to start cooking.

I began with eclade de moules, a legendary dish from the Charentes region of France, along the Bay of Biscay. Traditionally, it's made by packing mussels tightly onto a wooden plank laid out on the ground of a handy forest clearing, covering them with half a foot of pine needles and lighting the needles on fire. When the flames die down, the ashes are brushed away and the mussels eaten with "ash-blackened fingertips."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Creamy bean soup -- A note in a recipe for creamy bean soup with croutons and crispy \o7ventreche in Wednesday's Food section said\o7ventreche was not available in the U.S. In fact, it is available online at
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 01, 2006 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Wolfert book -- An article in last week's section on "The Cooking of Southwest France" said that nine pounds of fava beans had to be husked and peeled. Although nine pounds are husked, only one cup of the beans had to be peeled.

Trying this at home seemed problematic, particularly since I live in a downtown loft, not in a pine forest.

But Wolfert's resourcefulness is catching.

It was just past Christmas. I had a gently desiccating, untreated pine tree within feet of my kitchen. So I wedged the mussels into a cast-iron pot per Wolfert's instructions, got out my handsaw and began pruning. By the time I'd hacked up my whole tree, I was having so much fun I almost forgot why I was deforesting my living room. I had piles of pine needles, more than enough to fill the pot on my stove. I steamed the mussels as the ornaments rolled unmoored across the floor.

The dish was more medicinal than I'd hoped -- clearly not the sublime evocation of the forests of Charentes that Wolfert had described. Perhaps it was because in her indoor method the pine needles are steamed rather than torched. I'll try this again next year, but outside, on my Weber grill. That way I can ignite those needles.


Exotic becomes familiar

TWENTY-THREE years ago, when Wolfert published the first edition of the book, few people outside of that region had heard of -- much less tasted or cooked -- things like cassoulet and garbure. The ingredients she listed in the introduction (duck confit, cepes, black truffles, foie gras) seemed terribly exotic. They still seem exotic, of course, but we're more accustomed to them now; then, they seemed almost magical.

Eating Wolfert's food was magical too -- as was being shown how to cook it at home. But finding the ingredients? Unless your best friend spent her summers on a farm in Dordogne shacked up with a customs official, forget about it. And even if you got your hands on the Bayonne ham and verjus, it could take days -- days! -- to make a single dish from one of Wolfert's recipes. And those were the easy ones.

Thus began the Cult of Paula, a secret handshake society for extreme cooks. These were not your weekend gourmets, but people who carved up ducks for fun, owned bacon presses, deveined and poached their own foie gras and thought nothing of spending three hours in traffic just to find Tarbais beans.

When Wolfert's book went out of print, it seemed almost fitting. Valuable things, particularly esoteric ones, become more so because of their rarity. Think black pearls. Or vintage Peralta Caballero skateboards. Food people would lend their copies of James Beard or Julia Child, but they kept this book in locked drawers or hidden under pillows. One friend even kept hers with the unpublished manuscript of her first novel -- in the freezer in case the house burned down.

So the November reissue of Wolfert's classic created no small buzz. Not only could you actually get the book now, but it wasn't stained by demi-glace; moreover, it was updated for modern times. Members of the foodie website eGullet, who had been enlisted to test Wolfert's recipes, were positively effusive, gushing at electronic length about the glories of every ingredient, every method, every dish.

A lot has happened since 1983. Truffles from Oregon! Confit at your local Whole Foods! Foie gras FedEx'd from D'Artagnan! To this end, the revised edition discusses new sources for food that's not only available now in America, but even produced here.

There are new techniques to accommodate health consciousness and advanced kitchen gadgets (like the sous-vide machine); coverage of a new region (the Auvergne) not included in the original; and 60 new recipes, either from another of her out-of-print books ("World of Food," 1988) or newly pried from the hands of the secretive Gascony matriarchs.

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