Remembering Lulu Peyraud, a Quiet Legend in the World of French Food and Wine
Marc Lanza looked at his watch. “I hope they haven’t forgotten me,” he said, although it was not yet ten minutes to noon.
The dining room table next to us was set with an unfussy, candlelit care. In a shallow marble basin, like a sort of altar, a decanter of brick-red wine sat next to the bottle from which it had been poured.
Marc wore his hair, black like marinated olives, pulled back into a tiny bun. A man steeped from the cradle in the traditional cooking of Provence. Standing straight, I could tuck his massive head under my chin, but he had a burly topheaviness that suggested a wrestling match would likely go his way.
Since the death in 1999 of its legendary former owner, Marc had been the caretaker of the modest Provençal mas, or farmhouse, just across the courtyard from where we stood, where Richard Olney had lived, painted, celebrated the pagan joys of existence, and written some of the most sublime cookbooks in the English language. My very public love for Olney had led to a friendship with his brother and sister-in-law (and fellow Minnesotans) Byron and Marilynn, and their generosity had led us here—my wife, myself, and our teenage son, who might someday understand his colossal good fortune—to meet Lulu Peyraud for the first time.
Lucie Tempier Peyraud. The proprietress of Domaine Tempier, revered Bandol winemaker, collaborator and inspiration behind my favorite cookbook, Lulu’s Provençal Table, friend, protector, and muse to Olney, sainted mother figure to a generation of Olney acolytes, and a quiet legend in the world of French food and wine, was stopping by to eat her favorite lunch, pieds et paquets, which only Marc cooked to her satisfaction. I was the kid who had grown up worshipping Mickey Mantle and had just gotten a call asking if I could fill in at shortstop for the Yankees.
Marc returned to the kitchen, and I wandered over to the decanter, lifting it reverently to my nose. The nearly illegible label on the adjacent bottle of Domaine Tempier was rasped with age and humidity. But Richard Olney was nothing if not rigorous about the wines in his cellar. And across the shoulder of the bottle, in indelible white ink, was written a single number: 93.
“Les voilà!” called Marc.
She appeared in the glass door at the far end of Marc’s kitchen. She wore a pink wool coat against the mild January chill, and walked slowly, in clogs, leaning a tiny bit to either side with each step. She held a cane in one hand and Marc’s arm in the other. She stood an imposing four foot eight, and was made up, with pearl earrings, pink lipstick, and a subtle flare of rouge on each cheek. She was smiling beneath her understated crown of white hair at something Marc had just said.
Just the previous month, she had turned 99.
We made a delicate bustle around her, taking turns greeting her and her daughter Laurence with double cheek kisses. When it was my turn, Lulu looked up at me and said, “Steve?” I said, “Yes, Steve,” and leaned way, way down to peck her on her chilled left cheek and then her right, and she held my face for a second and said, “I’m so glad to finally meet you,” as if this minor satellite in front of her were somehow a major planet in her personal solar system.
To be delightful is in some sense to be delighted. To be interesting is to be interested. Lulu did not allow you to feel awestruck or intimidated by her somewhat world-historic presence. She was beloved because she loved. She insisted in some vibratory but unmistakable way that what she expected of you was simply to return the loving warmth she so visibly felt for your valuable being.
She set off again with Marc, totting slowly through the kitchen on his arm, navigating the step up into the dining room as he worriedly held her hand and slipped a protective arm behind her back, and then perched, like a bird, on a dining room chair.
I took a seat across from her in the dining room, and we started to talk.
She asked, “Do you know how I met Richard [pronounced ree-SHARR]?” And as the others filtered into the room and took their seats, she told me how the two of them had been seated together at a dinner in Paris because they came from the same backwoods corner of France, down there somewhere near Toulon—as when a party host grabs two strangers and says, “Hey Jim. Dave here is a CPA too.”
In the sweep of 20th century gastronomic history, it was perhaps a minor event, this meeting over dinner in Paris sometime in the 1960s. But it’s also possible to view it as a kind of consummation, the offspring of which include Alice Waters, Kermit Lynch, Jeremiah Tower, Jim Harrison, Chez Panisse, Lulu’s Provençal Table, the beatification of Domaine Tempier wine, California Cuisine, and Slow Food.
Such a list represents a channel wandering off to the side of the main current of Western food in the last century. It slips through quiet country, mostly out of earshot of televised cooking, monetized social media feeds, and the annual trumpet blasts of Michelin stars granted and withdrawn. But it is a channel that passes through my country in a vital and life-giving way. The meeting of Lulu and Richard, like the meeting of my own parents, holds a significance for me that is not just personal and emotional, but constructive, at least in part, of my identity.
Marc keeps a small flock of chickens, as Olney did before him, and three of them were loitering just outside the dining room window, aware that around here, lunch hour’s aftermath often resulted in good things being placed before chickens.
Lulu glanced over, and interrupted herself to remark, in her distinctly enunciated French, “Ces poules sont méchantes. Elles nous montrent leurs culs.”
It took me a second to replay this and make sure, but yes. Lulu Peyraud, 99 years old and sporting pearls, had just interrupted the story of her first meeting with Richard Olney to announce, “These hens are naughty. They’re showing us their asses.”
She took a sip of Bourgogne Aligoté, and tucked into her mussels gratin.
“Il faut toujours rigoler,” she declared. “Rigoler, et ne pas faire attention à tous ceux qui vous emmerdent.” Lulu’s credo: You must keep laughing. Laughing and ignoring all the assholes.
The mussels came and went. Then the pissaladière, each slice topped with crosshatched anchovies and a limp black olive.
And then Marc was at the sideboard where he had set a low earthenware dish, and I got up to look over his shoulder.
Pieds et paquets is a canonic Provençal dish, made of lamb tripe pockets like agnolotti, stuffed with salt pork and garlic persillade, cooked with lamb’s feet for a day or more in a tomato, thyme, and garlic sauce. Marc had been tending this one for about 18 hours.
“The key is to make it the night before, like a daube, and then reheat it,” he said. “Even better: Reheat it again.” Lulu agreed from her place at the table.
Delicate tendrils of steam rose from the roasted-red surface of the sauce, which was pocked like a Bolognese that has cooked down all day, and crusted to almost black around the rim. Marc fished out several paquets, then lifted a dripping, steaming foot and set it on a plate, spooning sauce over everything, including two boiled potatoes, and served this to Lulu.
As I placed my face over the dish and inhaled the smell of garlic and tomato and the muffled but unmistakable organ scent of lamb tripe, Marc asked me casually if I would pour.
I looked at him, and over at the decanter, and felt a surge of anxiety. I felt suddenly sure that to prepare properly for such a moment, I should have lived my life quite differently.
But the main course had arrived. It was the point in the meal when one switched from white to red.
So I half-filled Lulu’s glass, a little shakily, then everyone else’s, with Domaine Tempier La Tourtine from Richard Olney’s cave, wine that Lulu had overseen the making of some 23 years earlier. Our glasses met musically above the decanter in the middle of the table, and the conversation resumed—conversation being so much more the point of all of this than the solemnity of a carafe of old wine, no matter how symbolic or good.
In Provence, sandwiched between resinously aromatic hills and the rotting sea, it has been decided that stronger smells and flavors most often equate to better food, resulting, among other manifestations, in the peculiar form of dumpling on the plate in front of me—chewy-tender pyramids of the stomach linings of lambs wrapped around aromatic pork. You have to be willing to chew a little, and you have to be unafraid of the faintly gamy essence of the tripe, which the French tend to love in their organ meat, and love equally in their wild game, which they hang for days in order to accentuate the intestinal smell of early decay.
And if you’re going to drink wine with such a dish, it should not be a wine that holds its nose at the joyful reek of garlic, or a certain intimate pungency of animal flesh. It should be well built and bulging with muscle, and it should leap into the ring with a happy shout, to contend with the strength of such a partner and competitor as pieds et paquets. A bottle of Domaine Tempier serves nicely, was in fact conceived to perform this exact function—not to be timidly sniffed and sipped, but to war amicably with flavorful food.
Amid appreciative grunts and groans, and the clicking of knives and forks, Lulu asked if we knew the secret of her longevity.
“One should only drink wine,” she said. “Water makes one rust.”
She spent a moment working on the lamb’s foot on her plate with a knife and fork, and then shook her head.
“The things one says to sell one’s wine,” she chuckled, and took a forkful of the tender, cartilaginous meat she had expertly removed from the lamb’s complicated foot.
She took a sip from the glass of wine in front of her—her wine in every conceivable way—and decided that “he was very good.” And for the next half an hour or so, she more or less held the floor, ending with this story.
When she was a young girl in Marseille (“and remember, I was born in 1917!”), during the annual sailing ship festival, they used to line up cauldrons along the wharf in the Old Port, each cauldron hanging from a strung wire that ran from post to post. And in the morning everyone would put carrots and leeks and garlic and onions in the bottom of the cauldrons, then lay the bigger fish on the vegetables, and finally scatter the smaller fish and crabs on top. Someone would walk along the row with a hose, filling each cauldron with water. They would light fires all along the wharf with scrapped ship’s wood, and by lunchtime, when the ships had returned, the old port smelled like woodsmoke and cooked fish and saffron broth and everybody’s bouillabaisse was ready.
Lulu always cooked her bouillabaisse in her fireplace, over wood, a dish of sufficient renown that, as Laurence reminded us, Francis Coppola’s wife had once come out to film it.
A cheese course followed, and Lulu’s gaze, for the first time all day, began slipping. She looked at Marc, and Marc leaped up from his chair and asked if he could propose to her a little siesta in the house on Richard’s couch, and she nodded her acquiescence. With one hand in Marc’s crooked elbow, and a cane in her other, she walked slowly among the chickens, under the leafless persimmon tree still decorated with ornaments of winter fruit, past the door to Richard’s cave stocked with last century’s Domaine Tempier, through the front door into the mythical Olney kitchen. And then Lulu Peyraud took a nap.
Once anybody has reached age 102, it is understood that the bad news may come at any moment. And yet arriving at such an age implies a kind of talent for living, a thumbing one’s nose at the oddsmakers.
Lulu Peyraud recovered from a broken leg in her 90s, took 50 swings on her swing set every day into her second century, and advocated a glass of her own red wine at midday and another with dinner as her personal longevity regimen. She led some of us to cross our fingers, in secret, rooting for her, wondering if her inimitable collection of gifts—her immense personal warmth, the intensity of the fire in her dark eyes, her mulish stubbornness, her masterful Provençal cooking, her mischievousness, her hospitality, her total and earthy embrace of the sensual pleasures of life, her talent for filthy jokes—might just unlock the door to eternity.
Thus when I learned of her death last week, two months shy of her 103rd birthday, I felt unaccountably taken by surprise, stricken as if by the death of a child. This was not how the universe was supposed to work.
The first person I contacted was Marc. He reassured me that Lulu was fine, having some trouble walking but in good spirits.
“No, my friend,” I said. “We lost her yesterday morning. I just found out.”
“Non,” he said.
“I feel sick,” I said.
There was a long pause, and then an infuriated, anguished, “Putain de merde!”
And we were silent together, contemplating the world that was left, now that Lulu was gone.