Only superlatives can describe Provençal meals

Taking a cooking lesson in Provence helps a visitor develop an even greater appreciation for eating in the south of France.

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I know we cooked with generous quantities of onions, garlic, and olive oil, turning the chicken with a wooden spoon – never fork or knife – to avoid puncturing the skin and releasing the bird's natural juices.

I know if Madame said it once, she said it a dozen times: With a good French meal, presentation, particularly of the first course or entree, counts as much as taste.

And I know that by the time we sat down to eat at 8:15 p.m., after 2-1/2 hours of watching and smelling, my left sock might have tasted pretty good.

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But our family-style meal in Provence (cuisine familiale as our teacher, Madame Catherine Plan stressed) actually was delectable, made that much richer by the company and the setting in Madame's own dining room.

Whether I – with 10 left thumbs and a cooking résumé that ends after scrambled eggs, hamburgers en grille, and deep-fried potatoes – could re-create any of the delicious dishes Madame prepared ... well, that remains to be seen.

But for 25 euros per person, about $34, the evening organized by IS Aix-en-Provence, the international language school where we had begun our five-month adventure in France, seemed a steal.

It included the four-course meal, five hours of French conversation, nearly three hours of cooking instruction, and, of course, the opportunity to enjoy Madame Plan, who after 15 years of offering such evenings can slice and dice garlic and onions, stir a pot of chicken, mash a jar of olives for tapenade, and keep up a steady stream of advice and opinion for five foreign onlookers without so much as adjusting her apron. (When she finished cooking, the dishwasher was already loaded as well.)

The first course was a tuna salad on a bed of endive with tomatoes and a touch of tapenade (olives, capers, and just a bit of anchovies), a standard in this land of all things olive.

The second was lemon chicken with potatoes, which had been boiled earlier and then sliced and lightly roasted in thyme.

The third course: les fromages (four different kinds). And the fourth – a tart of sliced almonds soaked in honey.

Here, in case I've inspired your confidence, is what I learned about la cuisine Provençale:

1. There's a lot of chopping, and it looked awfully dangerous to me, what with the knife pointed inward. So I'll leave the cutting to someone else.

2. Buy your ingredients in the market and according to the season. Madame Plan abandoned our tarte aux fruits because the strawberries were at the end of their season, and it was a bit too early for apricots.

3. Consider quality, not just price. Madame acknowledged that tomatoes could be bought for 1.5 euros per kilogram in the market, but said these came from Morocco and were not as red or as tasty as the Provençal tomatoes that cost more than twice as much.

4. Adjust your menu to complement the main dish. Madame told us she did not put a cheese gratiné on the potatoes, as she normally might, because it didn't go well with lemon, the key flavoring in our chicken.

5. Always cook with garlic.

6. Use generous doses of olive oil – to cook with, in salad dressing, and with bread. And no meal is complete without a hint of herbes de Provence, a mélange of spices – thyme tops the list – that smells as good as it tastes. And, of course,

7. Eat what the natives do.

"Every region in France has its own food," Madame Plan said. Subregions do as well. For example, the food of southern France is not classically French but Mediterranean, she said. You'll be hard-pressed to find rich cream sauces or onion soup there.

Writes Richard Olney, in his "Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook": "Provencal cooking is home cooking ... [it] does not put on airs. Indeed, it is often dubbed ... 'the poor man's cuisine.' "

Perhaps. But it's a poor man's cuisine with mouthwateringly fresh ingredients and great variety.

The cheese of choice in Provence is chèvre, goat cheese, which comes in various levels of firmness and is everywhere – toasted on bread, melted onto meats, served hot with vegetables. Nothing beats fresh goat cheese bought at one of the roughly 40 goat farms that produce it in Bouches du Rhône, one of Provence's regions.

I can't tell you exactly how to prepare these dishes we enjoyed. But this I do know: They taste very good. We've had two kinds of meals in the cafes, brasseries, and more formal restaurants of the south of France: good and divine.

Sit down beneath an umbrella for a plat du jour and, for about 10 euros, you'll get a flavorful lasagna like none you've had at home (a combination of chèvre and creamed spinach is my favorite); a spicy ratatouille; a fresh, flavorful dish of cabillaud (cod); or perhaps a flank of beef buried in a garlic and mushroom sauce.

Buying the plat, if it appeals to you, always makes sense. It's fresh; it's the most affordable thing on the menu; it's a meal in itself; and it's the focus of the chef's energy that day.

Spring for a serious three- or four-course meal and you'll pay at least twice as much.

Of course, the best idea is to learn to cook Provençal food yourself. (Or encourage your wife or husband to do so.)

Should you speak a bit of French and find yourself with a few days in Aix, consider looking up Madame Plan. Spend an evening in one of her classes, and you'll leave with a few recipes, a few more words in your working French vocabulary, and a very satisfied stomach.

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