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Paula Wolfert's Pursuit of Flavor
By Peggy Knickerbocker

    For over a quarter century, food writer Paula Wolfert's quest for flavor has drawn her across the Mediterranean, from Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the plains of Slavic Macedonia, from the far reaches of the Ionian Islands and Sicily through southwestern France and Catalonia. She has knocked on hundreds of back doors in obscure towns, searching for the cook who best executes a particular dish. Her adventures and findings are compiled in five (now six) serious and sensuous cookbooks filled with scholarly information about unpretentious food and regional folklore.

     Moroccan tagines, Lebanese kibbeh and French daubes were not always part of Wolfert's repertoire. In fact, when she married her first husband, she literally could not boil water.  Following a few unsuccessful attempts at recipes from Glamour Girl After Five, a wedding gift from her mother, she signed up for cooking classes at Dione Lucas's Cordon Bleu cooking school and immediately found her calling. Wolfert ended up leaving her college studies to work full time with Lucas in return for classes.

     In 1959 her husband's job took the couple to Morocco, the beginning of a 10-year sojourn abroad. It was an exotic and exciting time for this young woman from Brooklyn. They socialized with co-expatriates Jane and Paul Bowles, William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams; and little by little Wolfert became fascinated with the richly flavored local dishes and Mediterranean ingredients.

      It wasn't until more than a decade later that she decided to write a Moroccan cookbook at the urging of her second husband, the Edgar-winning crime novelist William Bayer. They moved to Tangier in 1971 and stayed for five years, during which time she wrote Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (1973) and Mediterranean Cooking (1976). Both books were enthusiastically received by an entire generation of curious cooks who were hungry for unfamiliar ethnic fare. The year that the Moroccan book came out, Williams-Sonoma did a brisk business selling couscous cookers at Christmas.

     Although Wolfert was criticized early on for including hard-to-find ingredients in the name of authenticity, she's remained relentlessly adamant about their use. "Ingredients from a given region have amalgamated gracefully over the years, and if you change them, you simply won't get an authentic taste," she says. "When people return from their travels they want to replicate what they have tasted. It is my job, as a food writer, to explain how to integrate unusual tastes. Most of the ingredients are now readily available, at least by mail order. But you have to be romanced into searching them out. That's part of the fun."

    No matter how unusual or common a recipe may be, Wolfert's criteria for including it in a book have always been brutally simple: "Would I like to eat this dish again? Am I absolutely in love with it?

    "My life seems to revolve around finding new recipes---food with plenty of flavor that lingers in the mouth," she says. "Such food appeals to all my senses; every nuance has a meaning. To me, good food is memory. One time or another, I've had a fling with each of the recipes in my books."

France Beckons
   Wolfert set out to write The Cooking of South-West France  (1983) in the late Seventies after traveling around the region in search of the perfect cassoulet and discovering "a magnificent peasant cookery in the process of being updated." Wolfert explains that "southwest France is very much part of the Mediterranean. Most French food isn't very forceful; it's delicate, complex and built on subtlety. But the southwest employs robust ingredients ---truffles, peppers, cepes and chicken and goose fat; hardly subtle ingredients. "It's Wolfert's style of cooking: country food with layers of taste, simple dishes that showcase the natural affinities of ingredients (as opposed to the wild experimentation that she disdains in certain restaurant dishes and fusion foods).

    In order to convince readers not to be put off by the region's reputation for high-fat dishes. Wolfert describes how to use animal fats as a flavoring agent, the way one might use a cinnamon stick in a red wine fruit compote. If she uses good, duck or pork fat in a stew, she simmers it  all very gently so that the fat mingles with the wine and juices but does not bid with them; then she chills the stew in the refrigerator and skim off all the fat, leaving behind just its flavor, soluble in liquid, to impart what she calls big taste.

A More Healthful Way to Eat
   Without ever sacrificing flavor or changing the nature of a dish, Wolfert has been addressing current concerns about the benefits of a balanced, healthful diet. In fact, in the revised edition of Mediterranean Cooking (1994), she replaced 60 of the heavier or overly complex dishes with over 75 new, more health-conscious recipes.

    Wolfert claims to have had a culinary epiphany at a conference in Spain sponsored by OLDWAYS PRESERVATION AND EXCHANGE TRUST, an international food-issues think tank. In the midst of dissertations on the healthful aspects of the Mediterranean diet, she realized that the hearty meat-driven meals needed to be rethought.

    "I turned my plate around: I magnified and minimized it." Wolfert explains. In doing so, she expanded her repertoire to include more greens and grains and diminished the use of meat, cream and butter. She traveled across the Euphrates and came back with a new daily routine that even gets her eating vegetables in the morning in what she calls her Biblical Breakfast Burrito.  As a result, she's lost over 30 pounds, slowly---a pound a month over the past couple of years. At 57, Wolfert looks amazing, especially for a woman who would rather eat wood chips than exercise.

    "I've reversed the emphasis, but I haven't really given up anything." Wolfert explains. " The ingredients I use are still delicious. It doesn't take extra work to eat 5 to 10 servings of vegetables and fruits a day, and I get so many compliments I must be doing something right." (Don't worry: Wolfert has hardly become a smug abstainer. She still indulges in a good cassoulet and was even seen eating a juicy hotdog on the Fourth of July.)

     In her first book many recipes called for half a pound of meat per person; in her latest book, The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean (1994), and in the forthcoming Mediterranean Grains & Greens (1998), most call for far less and in many cases none at all. When meat is used, Wolfert is full of tricks to maximize its flavor while cutting fat. Many dishes use inexpensive lamb parts, particularly shanks and neck bones. "These cuts give intense, incredible flavor. I run after dishes that use inexpensive meat not because I'm cheap but because I think less expensive meats cook better and taste better in the stew dishes of the Mediterranean."

     Recently, Wolfert has found a new talent as a television personality; she sold thousands of cookbooks ont he QVC channel in just 12 minutes. But despite her success as a salesperson, she'll probably continue to follow her muse around the Mediterranean.

    "I'll spend the rest of my life doing this, and I will never finish," she laments. "I'll probably do a book on garlic and olive oil and maybe another on fruits and vegetables of the Mediterranean. There are so many more villages to explore, each with a great cook with a great undiscovered secret."  



Peggy Knickerbocker is a freelance writer living in San Francisco, where she goes to the market weekly with Paula Wolfert. She is the author of Olive Oil From Tree to Table

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