A summer in Provence – The Quest for the Perfect Ratatouille

“As high as the sun was hanging in the sky it was still managing to drench with blinding luminosity and intense heat the entire world around me. I was crouched in the middle of the sand road under a tiny bit of shade provided by a tree branch, captivated by a huge black shiny beetle I had just found. I’d never seen anything like this bug in my entire life. Actually, I didn’t even know it was a beetle… Armed with a sturdy twig, I was trying to observe everything about this bug, flipping it, nudging it but staying far enough away as to ensure it wouldn’t jump on me. Its legs were thin and fuzzy jotting out crookedly from very hard black shell. I thought this bug was definitely the ugliest and the biggest one I had ever encountered in my entire seven years of existence. After a while, I lost interest in the ugly black bug and felt a bit of a tug in my stomach. It must be near lunchtime I thought. I straightened up and pushed off strands of damp long hair away from my face. I could feel the heat of the day catching up with me: my eyes were starting to feel the heaviness of the sun, begging me to succumb to a blissful afternoon slumber… But before the siesta, which I would resist as much as I could for fear of missing out on any minute of this gorgeous day, a healthy plateful of food may be in order, right this minute! As I made my way back to our campsite, I stopped again, just for a moment, closing my eyes to enjoy without distraction the eerie song of… What was it called again? Oh, yes, the cicada… What an intriguing sound: a crescendo of a pure single note, starting out clear and crisp, getting louder and louder for what seemed like an eternity, as if hanging to its chant until the very last little bit of breath was available only to die off abruptly in a raspy choke. Incessant. Starting again, and again, and again… Beautiful… I had seen pictures somewhere of this musical creature but I had yet to see one up close and personal. I guess the cicada was far more timid than that ugly bug that I had seen lazily crossing the road! Maybe the ugly bug was trying to compensate for its lack of musical talent by showing off its glossy black iridescent blue turquoise shell? Because even though this bug was ugly, its shell’s colour was pretty to look at. Come to think of it, the cicada was pretty ugly to look at as well but such a wonderful singer. It must be the right thing to do then, to show off your best attribute…
As I pondered the question of beauty and ugliness in insects, secretly wishing I would never find one in my bed or in my hair, I strutted back all the way to our campsite. There was no denying lunch was about to be served: my nostrils were instantly impregnated with a wonderfully intense aroma of garlic, tomatoes and herbs… I recognized it immediately: ratatouille! Oooo, I was starting to feel that hunger in the pit of my stomach as my mouth filled with anticipating saliva. I sure was hoping that this time, it was my mother, and not our campsite neighbour, who had been cooking all morning and who would serve me up a big bowl of that ratatouille…”

(The ratatouille recipe follows this text…)

My family lived in Lahr Germany from August 1969 to August 1972. My father was not in the military but had been hired by the Canadian Army as a teacher at the high school on the Canadian Base. In order to make the most out of our three years living in Germany, my parents purchased a Volkswagen Camper (also known as Westfalia) which gave us the freedom to gallivant pretty much anywhere in Europe, on a whim and on a trim budget. Weekend trips were customary and longer treks the norm during the summer months and extended school vacations. My sister and I loved, loved, loved that camper! My bunk was perched up high, in the rooftop bellow shaped pop-up tent: it was magical, my very own little space where I would spy on the outside world through the screened windows. In the era of flower power, our baby blue camper was joyfully decorated with those hippie style 60’s colorful flower stickers; we were definitely the cool family!

The summer of 1971 was one of the best and most life changing summers of my entire childhood. It was the summer my father landed a teaching contract at the University of Aix-en-Provence. My mom, my younger sister and I followed in tow for 6 blissful weeks of southern France living and my life has never been the same since. Provence is by far the area of France I would move to permanently. It has captured my heart in many ways: the sun drenched white washed stone homes adorned with red tile roofs, the endless undulating lavender fields, the white jagged edges of rocky mountain dotted with patches of tortuous weathered evergreens, the deep milky blue rivers flowing at the bottom of deep crevasse canyons, the pull to-be-lazy chant of the cicada… And the azure blue of my Mediterranean sea: yes, yes, yes! My sea because no other sea has ever captured my heart quite the way this beautiful big blue has! Oh how I long for a glimpse of my Mediterranean. Oh how I wish I was there again, and again, and again…

I vividly remember that amazing summer of 1971 in Aix-en-Provence. We settled our bohemian home in one of Aix’s campgrounds, close enough to the university where my father held tenure. While my father commuted to the university everyday on a little moped, my mom, sister and I took to the lazy days of campground living. When my father was off work on weekends or for a few days, we would go on exploring missions. I never tired of road trips… Eyes glued to the window, discovering unfamiliar scenery as the camper burned rubber on highways and small country roads. The rolling vistas were as good if not better than watching any movie or television show: Marseille, Toulon, Camargue, Château d’If, Grasses, Moustiers Ste-Marie, les Gorges du Verdon… Oh the irresistible sites of Provence, how I long to be enveloped by your charms again…

The beauty of Southern France’s landscape was not the only love affair I had with this part of the country. The fragrant Provençal dishes awoke my taste buds in a way few other cuisines ever had. As a child, I was rarely put off by food. Lucky for my parents and lucky for me… I was bold! From trying sea urchins freshly plucked from the Mediterranean to squid, fried smelts and winkles, my gastronomic discoveries fluttered from one delectable offering to the next. I dove into bouillabaisse like it was nobody’s business and savoured the sweet earthy flavours of Calisson d’Aix: diamond-shaped confiseries of melon and almond paste artfully nestled in paper-thin wafers. Pan Bagnat purchased seaside were the perfectly cool, refreshing sandwich to enjoy as the sun hit its zenith before begging everyone to lie down for a nice little siesta. Yes, the flavours of Provence have haunted my life and my kitchen ever since that blissful summer of 1971… Pizza Margherita, stuffed courgette flowers, gelato, salade Niçoise, pistou, tomatoes with basil… And ratatouille niçoise! That one dish standing majestically above all, oozing essence of Mediterranean fare. Yes. Simple. Humble. Ratatouille! Oh how I adore that rich vegetable stew! Years later, during the short Canadian summers, when all the stars line up properly and the produce is as sun-drenched here as it is in the gardens of le Midi de la France, I transport myself back to my beloved Provence by cooking up a big batch of ratatouille.

At the Aix campground, our next door neighbour often cooked huge batches of ratatouille using a pressure cooker set on a little Coleman style stove. Her ratatouille days were the most powerfully scented days I had ever experienced! Lunch traditionally being served in France as the big meal of the day, preparation often starts early on in the morning. Even though we were on a campground, our neighbour was no exception to the rule and got on to preparing her lunch as soon as the last bit of baguette dunked in café au lait had been devoured. Nearly every morning, she tantalized us with her perfumed concoctions. But none were as insanely amazing as when she made her ratatouille! When the steam vent of that pressure cooker started to whistle, the fragrance of everything Provençal permeated the air: eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs… OMG that smell still rocks my world! Oh that smell… I will always remember the aromatic steam escaping in angry short burst from the pressure cooker… Sadly, we never had the pleasure of tasting her infamous eggplant and courgette stew (she was not the socializing type…), but we sure ate it as often as we could in restaurants and from small charcuteries. It would come then as no surprise that my mother, upon our return from Aix, invested in her very own pressure cooker, a cocotte Seb… Need I say more? I think I was not the only one who fell under the spell of the ratatouille! Over the years, she attempted to recreate ratatouille numerous times, it never quite tasted like the one we devoured in Provence. As I grew older and started to dabble in the culinary arts myself, I tried, just like my mother, to cook up the ultimate ratatouille. Alas, the flavours never really quite pulled through… Nevertheless, at least once a summer, year after year, sun-kissed eggplants and tomatoes would cast a spell on me and I would try once again to unlock the secrets of the ever elusive taste of my childhood…

I must admit though that I have been blessed by life and even if I live a huge ocean away from Provence, I have had the opportunity to return to the land of Marcel Pagnol on several occasions, rekindling a passion as poignant in adulthood as it had been in childhood. I was 23 years old when I returned to Provence. Would you be surprised to read that I feasted several times on anything and everything that featured ratatouille? The first mouthful (and second and third…) was as explosively and as blissfully delicious as I had remembered. Why then couldn’t I recreate this back home? What was I doing wrong? Upon my return, and armed with new resolve, I vowed I would master the ratatouille if it killed me! I tried every recipe I could put my fingers on and still yet, I faced disappointment. Then one day, I unlocked the secret code: someone finally told me my problem lay with how I was handling the eggplant! Dear lord could it have been that simple? Really? All I really, really needed was to show this oddly textured vegetable a little bit extra tender loving care, by letting thick slices sweat off the bitterness with salt??? Eureka! Not only did this new-found trick permit me to finally master the best ratatouille I had ever made in my entire life, it also elevated any other eggplant dish to the next level. My Ottawa ratatouille finally tasted like Aix-en-Provence! In all my attempts and recipe searches, why on earth could I not have found one recipe, one cookbook offering the proper technique of preparing eggplant? That fact is beyond me… And to this day, eggplant based recipes seldom point out that this vegetable needs to be sliced then gently sprinkled with coarse salt and left to rest over a colander for a few hours. Only then will the bitterness dissipate, cook properly and expose its sweet silky texture. It is not complicated… It is not even labour intensive: all it needs is to sit for a bit while the salt works its magic. Simple. Easy. Life changing. Well, in the world of eggplant that is!!! Removing bitterness and excess moisture is not the only role salt plays: it also changes the texture slightly, allowing eggplants to brown better while absorbing less oil and rendering a flesh that is as smooth as silk.

The produce is bountiful again here in my little corner of the world. For such a short period… I am enveloped with nostalgia, trying to bring the Mediterranean back to me by capturing the flavours of Provence in my Canadian kitchen. And so yes, you have guessed it, I have been making big batches of sun drenched ratatouille! Ok, ok: this obsession of mine may border on insanity… Like seriously, it is really just a simple, silly eggplant and zucchini stew after all! Who writes a few thousand words on such a lackluster subject except for maybe a slightly lunatic cook like me? Well maybe lunatic, maybe even insane! But most definitely a nostalgic cook!!!Because writing this text has allowed me to put into simple words a very spectacular summer from a long time ago. It is a story that pops up in my head when my hands reach out for shiny aubergines, firm zucchini, perfectly ripe tomatoes, peppers and garlic… I know then that I won’t be just making a rustic ratatouille. Nope! It is far more than that… It will be like being magically transported to Provence, if only for a meal, to feel once again its intense sun, strident chants of the cicada and some incredibly sweet moments of my childhood…So excuse me for I must leave: there is a bottle of rosé chilling and a certain purple vegetable that has sweated just enough. And if I am lucky enough, I might toss a few boules just before supper…

Ratatouille «almost» Niçoise

I say almost because I have swapped the green peppers for red (in my household, not everyone can tolerate green peppers) and I omit the onions. Most recipes call for onions but I prefer the overall taste and texture without them. You may add 1 large sliced onions and swap the red peppers for green if you really want to stay authentic!

Reserve a few hours of «standing» time to let the eggplants sweat it off. Just like marinating meat: 3-4 hours is plenty.

Cooking each vegetable separately first is the key to a perfectly balanced stew…

What you need
1 large regular eggplant*
Coarse salt
4 medium zucchinis
1 large red pepper
5 large and very ripe tomatoes
5-6 cloves of garlic
A few twigs of fresh thyme
Your favourite olive oil
Fresh basil, freshly chopped for garnish (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
* swap with 2 medium or several mini ones.

How to make it

1. Cut the eggplant in 1/2 inch thick slices. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt on both sides. Arrange standing up un a colander. Set the colander on a deep dish to collect the juices. let sit for at least 3 hours and up to 6 (thicker slices require a bit longer sweating time). Once this step is completed, rinse each slice under cold water to remove all the salt and pat dry. Discard the accumulated liquid.



2. Chop the eggplant, zucchini and pepper in approx. 3/4 inch pieces. Keeping all the vegetables separate.
3. Peel the tomatoes* and chop coarsely. Set aside including all the juices and seeds.
4. Add a few generous tbsp. of olive oil to a large and deep heavy bottom pot such as a heavy cooking pot or an enamel coated cast iron Dutch Oven. Place on stove top and set to medium-high heat. Add half the eggplant and sauté quickly until the edges start to brown. Transfer to a plate using a slotted spoon, shaking as much excess oil as possible. Repeat, in batches, with the zucchini and pepper, adding oil and reducing the heat as necessary. Proceed with the onions If you are using.


5. Once all the vegetables have been browned and set aside, add a bit of extra olive oil and the tomatoes to the same pot. Bring to a quick boil the reduce heat to simmer a few minutes. At this point, you can add a splash of white wine, maybe a half a cup, to loosen up the sauce. I purposely omitted the wine in the ingredient list. It is not necessary but I find it adds a little «je ne sais quoi» which I really enjoy. You can use water instead if the tomatoes thicken a bit too much.
6. Add the minced garlic and the leaves from the thyme sprigs. Let cook for 5 minutes until the garlic has completely softened.
7. Now add all the vegetables to the tomato sauce. Stir gently to coat well. Bring to a soft boil then turn down heat to a gentle simmer. Let the ratatouille cook slowly, stirring occasionally. I usually let it simmer for about one hour to let all the flavours  develop really well. It can simmer longer… If it thickens too much, you can add a bit of water. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
8. If using, add the freshly cut basil just before serving

*Dunking the tomatoes in boiling water for about a minute then shocking in a cold water bath with help the skin peel of easily. Or, if you are anything like me and hate to dirty more pots than I need to, you can invest in a small serrated vegetable peeler especially make for delicate and thin skin produce such as tomatoes. This is what I use and I hardly ever use the boiling water method unless I have huge quantities of tomatoes to peel.

It tastes even better the next day! Hot or cold. It can be used as a side, with pasta, over meat, as a sandwich spread, stuffed in an omelet, on top of a Quiche…
It keeps well in the freezer too. Although for some odd reason, mine never makes it there!

Final note: having sold you on the virtues of sweating the eggplants, I must tell you that I apply this technique to the large common deep purple aubergines. For as long as I can remember, this was the only variety of eggplant we could find here in Ottawa. Now, the landscape of the produce world is changing rapidly and for the better in our markets. Many different types of eggplants have become increasingly accessible: small Italian, baby Italian, Japanese, speckled, light purple and even white eggplants… And like with any other vegetable, the taste and texture varies slightly from one to the other. Japanese eggplants and baby Italians have nearly zero bitterness, allowing cooks to chop and cook right away, happily leaving behind the sweating process. I still like to use the good old big bitter eggplant. I enjoy its transformation from bitter to sweet, at a fraction of the price! It is still the cheapest by far, often overlooked for the more «cook friendly» varieties… But let’s face it, don’t we all love the story of the ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan?


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