Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The Last Time I Saw Richard
A serendipitous click can send you to some interesting places. In this case, my friend, W., ended up here. Immediately he recognized the spot as Richard Olney’s cave in Souliés-Toucas, near Toulon, where he had been sent on numerous occasions to retrieve a bottle of wine for one of the many pleasant meals shared together at Richard’s home. The email in my inbox entitled Wine Never Drunk spoke of an immediate recognition of the cave and a touching reflection on a past connection with someone I had only known through the pages of my Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook. As I read W.’s message, there was a bit of life being breathed into the pages of my cookbook connection. Then he mentioned the extensive wine collection in that cave: two or three cases of Romanée Conti that Richard had received from their estate after he published a book about the legendary wine as well as several cases of Château d’Yquem, part of a tribute he received annually for the book d’Yquem.
So I began reading Mr. Olney’s Romanée Conti. As I sat in a café in Aix sipping hot chocolate, he may as well have been speaking to me from across the table. History was coming alive with precision and humor and my curiosity really began to poke at me. Following my muse, I wanted to learn more about this fellow. I wanted to know this Mr. Olney.
Perhaps I could relate to him because he was a longtime Francophile...or because he left the US and headed to France to pursue creative interests...or because he believed that "food and wine must be an essential aspect of the whole life, in which the sensuous - sensual - spiritual elements are so intimately interwoven that the incomplete exploitation of any one can only result in imperfection." (How’s that for summing up the Holy Grail for a foodie?!) In fact, he was so seduced by French food and wines that he abandoned his painting to take up a career of writing about the stuff, always intending to get back to painting...after the next book...or perhaps the next great meal.
How could I have missed this guy?! He was at the root of California Cuisine. Alice Waters was one of his disciples, for goodness sakes! I wanted to know more. And I knew exactly where to go: Chez N. and W!
W., a Harvard economist, California Boy (Long Beach) bodysurfer and lifelong Francophile who first came to France in the early 50’s working for the Marshall Plan in Paris and his wife, N., a Minnesota Girl, have enthusiastically co-created quite an adventure through their years together. Serious gourmet souls, these two have plenty of delightful stories to illustrate their culinary explorations. (In fact, when I learned that while writing her dissertation in Social Psychology, N. would reward herself for work goals completed with a 30-minute segment of Julia Child’s cooking program, I knew we were going to be friends!)
Theirs is a remarkable story in many ways, for their romance, their travels and their shared love of France brought them here years ago to make a life. They used their innate curiosity to continue their academic research and to make connections with very interesting people along the way. One of them was Richard Olney.
N. had told me of the "Little Red Riding Hood Dinners" that they would deliver with a knock on the door chez Richard Olney in the years before he died. I can only imagine the stories shared over those times together.
That muse of mine had me planning a “Little Red Riding Hood Dinner” of my own to take chez N. and W. to find out more about Mr. Olney...fill in some blanks and do a bit of catching up. I had clearly missed something in simply preparing recipes from his book without reading between the lines...or even reading the lines that are there with more attention.
The wine had to be something close to a Romanée Conti, I had decided. But that being waaaaay outside of my budget, I went with a shared recommendation from a couple of trusted wine consultants and ended up with another Burgundy: a 1998 Vosne Romanée, Premier Cru – Les Gaudichots, which is from a vineyard that is apparently just next to the fabled Romanée Conti...okay...so we were close! And the aforementioned wine consultant that owns my local cave (wine store), whether by simply being a really nice soul or being caught up in the whimsy of my plan for this wine (or due to the fact that my muse could be seen whispering in his ear as he emerged from the cave with the bottle of 1998 instead of the 2003 that he thought he had tucked away), he gave me a very, very good deal on it.
Relaxing over aperitifs, I began to learn more about this Ex-pat/Food Writer/Artist including the fact that he didn’t drive...that after studying painting at the University of Iowa, he trained at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, then headed for Paris to continue his artistic development...and that once in Paris, he counted the American author James Baldwin and the American economist Mary Painter (married to Georges Garin, noted to be one of the best chefs in France) as close friends...in fact, somewhere there are portraits of each of them painted by Olney.
Along with cooking, writing and painting, he raised exotic birds at his small cottage in the village of Souliés-Toucas, not far from here. Rooms were added to his little abode over the years to accommodate visiting family and friends. In fair weather, meals were outdoors under the lavender-blue Provençal skies, surrounded by olive trees...and in summer, the hum of cigales, no doubt.
Known to have a rather “prickly” personality, he warmly welcomed N. and W. and never once said a critical word for any of N.’s cooking. (Although I can safely say that there would be no reason to be critical about her cooking...but imagine: cooking for Richard Olney!)
Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, the Edible Schoolyard Program and a significant influence in the Slow Food movement, considered Mr. Olney to be one of her mentors and in fact, met another fine artist in his kitchen: Elizabeth David. (It is said that they lingered for hours together over a lunch of truffles.)
According to the New York Times, Mr. Olney once spoke of working toward "a sort of convergence of all the senses, an awareness of food not only through touching but also through smelling, hearing, seeing and tasting." Yup...this was my kind of guy. (I'm thinking 9 1/2 Weeks...or Big Night.) He was onto something here.
And to top it off, his first meal in Paris reminds me of my own: it was all about the potatoes! His was taken at "a glum little dining room" in the Sixth Arrondissement. He recalled years later that the potatoes were the best he had ever eaten, “pushed through a sieve, buttered and moistened with enough of their hot cooking water to bring them to a supple, not quite pour-able consistency -- no milk, no cream, no beating. I had never dreamed of mashing potatoes without milk, and, in Iowa, everyone believed that the more you beat them, the better they were." (New York Times, August 4, 1999) This is someone who spoke my language...(and I'm not talkin' about French!)
He had always hoped to stop writing and get back to his painting. In fact, he had built a studio at his home – an indication of his intent.
And so, it was over a few grilled sausages fresh from the marché, a batch of those Paris Potatoes, (Mouseline au Gratin from Mr. Olney’s Provence the Beautiful) and a mâche salad, we poured that lovely burgundy and I learned about this fellow...this Richard Olney. I would have liked to have known him. Given what I've read about him, we might have actually gotten on well. You never know...I can see the potential.
On a summer evening in 1999 he died in his sleep...dreaming, perhaps, of a painting project...or another book...dreaming, perhaps, of the best potatoes he had ever had...
...or perhaps...something with a bit more spice.
(Many thanks to N. and W. for indulging my curiosity...and my muse! What a lovely evening.)
Mouseline au Gratin (Gratin of Mashed Potatoes and Garlic with Cheese)
Richard Olney in Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook
In his words: A perfect accompaniment to grilled sausages of any kind – andouillettes, blood sausages (black pudding), link sausages.
In my words: I am intrepid when it comes to trying new recipes on company! Sometimes it works...sometimes it needs work. This will be delicious...next time!
It needs a bit more salt than I gave it and I think my idea of “not quite pour-able” and Mr. Olney’s idea of “not quite pour-able” are just a bit different...mine needed some extra baking time...so just a word of caution on the points that tend to call for a bit of your “cook’s intuition”.
2 lb. potatoes, peeled and quartered
8 cloves of garlic
boiling water as needed
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
freshly ground pepper
Preheat an oven to 400ºF. Combine the potatoes and garlic in a saucepan. Add a pinch of salt and enough boiling water just to cover. Cover and cook at a gentle boil until the potatoes are just done, about 30 minutes.
Drain, saving the cooking water, and pass the potatoes and garlic through a fine-mesh sieve with the help of a wooden pestle. Using a wooden spoon, stir in enough of the cooking water to form a loose, not quite pour-able purée.
Smear a 6 cup gratin dish with olive oil. In a small bowl combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, half of the cheese, the eggs and a little of the cooking water. Grind over some pepper, scrape in some nutmeg and whisk together.
Stir the oil mixture into the sieved potatoes. Pour into the gratin dish, sprinkle with the remaining cheese and dribble with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Place in the oven and bake until swelled and golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot.