Ex Patria in Sunny Provence

Richard Olney explains France and the French through his food writing

To escape the wind, the birds were huddled in the corner of their mesh flyway. As "l'Americain" approached, they dashed back and forth like a small flock of nervous couriers.

The cold, dry north wind, the mistral, racing down the Rhone Valley to create turbulence in Provence, was in full force. It knocked flat the tomato and aubergine plants staked in the terrace garden. "The locals like it," our host said of the mistral. "They find it cleansing."

Richard Olney's eyrie is a seven-acre piece of stony hillside 20 minutes north of Toulon. He bought it in the 1960s. A ruin, it took 10 years of hard labor to make it into a rustic artist's retreat.

Olney was the oldest of eight children in an Irish Catholic family in northwest Iowa. He left home in 1951 for France. He was 24. In the years since, he has become for Americans a leading interpreter of things French - an artist who happened on food writing to explain the countryside and culture.

I'd set out to explore with him the theme of "a place in the sun" - that dream of many to locate in climes where Van Gogh's sunflowers grow, or where the light plays off Czanne's favorite rock ridge, Ste. Victoire. Today it could be Tucson, Ariz., or Provence, or Venice. And what commitment is required to live here after the tourist apartments are shuttered?

No, Olney had no plan for settling in Provence. "It was simple, really," he said. "I liked the landscape, the climate, the hillsides covered with fragrant herbs." Much as he's had no plan for the property: "I've never stopped working on it - trying to hold it together rather than to improve it." He built a large hearth for cooking in a corner of the kitchen. A heavy stone sink is set along a windowed wall overlooking the terrace garden. "Wherever I am a place looks like me," he explains. "I just build it around myself."

He has neither radio nor television: "I don't like the sound of radio people's voices. It's an interruption." And no computer: "Some people get angry with me for not using those things - as if I did not have a right

not to." He likes his fax: "I never go to the post office anymore."

Local social life? "Here I am still 'l'Americain.' Paris was a rich experience my first years in France. But in Paris I couldn't live in such a solitary way as I do now." He often visits the States to promote his books, which he finds hard work. His friends are not so much the locals as vintners and growers throughout France.

Ex patria? "The term doesn't mean much except a person living outside his own country." Five of his brothers and sisters will be arriving shortly for their annual two weeks of food and talk.

"I am totally disorganized," Olney professes. But his approach is rather that of immediacy. "I want to teach tactile sense, the tip of the finger and the tip of the tongue," he says.

"I've two goals: I want the beginner to understand French cooking completely, to know there are no shortcuts; and I don't want a three-star chef to find any fault."

Olney bought no packaged place in the sun. He built his, stone by stone, observation by observation, through many a cleansing mistral.

Away 45 years, he still searches for tomatoes that taste the way his father's did back in Iowa.

*Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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