Lulu Peyraud, the Cooking Queen of Provence

David Tanis on the tireless home cook and her storied vineyard

Lulu lunch
A Lulu-inspired lunch (from left): stuffed squid; quail grilled over vine cuttings and served with tapenade toasts; a spring vegetable stew; a tian of eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini.Justin Walker

When Lulu Peyraud invited me to lunch with her family one fine sunny Provençal afternoon, the welcome was genuine. From the first moment, I felt cared for and at ease, as though I had never really experienced true hospitality before. Lulu immediately struck me as a generous soul. Then in her late 60s, she was vivacious and charmingly down to earth (as she still is).

I had already been impressed with many tales of the extraordinary Peyraud family and their vineyards and fabled winery, Domaine Tempier, located near the town of Bandol, a half-hour drive from Marseille. I'd seen photographs of the domaine and sampled a goodly amount of their wines, but in California. Alice Waters had given them pride of place on the wine list at Chez Panisse, where I worked at the time. Alice fell for the Peyraud treatment in the early 1970s and established a lifelong bond with Lulu. She still visits at least once a year. The Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch was so smitten, he bought a house near Bandol and now spends half the year there.

The late Richard Olney, the influential American expat food writer, was also part of the extended family. The much-admired author of several cookbooks on simple French cooking and wine, he was persuaded by Alice to write a cookbook that would capture Lulu's food and style. Drawn from a series of interviews intended to translate her words into written recipes (Lulu herself has never relied on them), the result was Lulu's Provençal Table, published in 1994.

Lulu and Lucien
In 1936, Lulu and Lucien (pictured here in 1974) received Domaine Tempier, a working farm, as a wedding gift from her father. Together, the couple turned it into a revered winery.Courtesy of Domaine Tempier/Bruce Fleming

But the lunch I describe here took place in 1984. We were a party of eight: Lulu and her husband, Lucien, their two winemaking sons and their wives, and a mutual friend.

We began in the garden with a glass of cool rosé, a bowl of radishes, and little toasts topped with inky black tapenade. This radically elemental aperitif was pure Provence.

In the old dining room, Lulu constantly flashed a mischievous and knowing smile, presiding over the simple but sumptuous lunch she had prepared, which kept us happily at the table for hours.

Simply put, Lulu's food embodies the best of French home cooking, marked by Provençal simplicity and elegant restraint.

The menu—still ingrained in memory—was perfectly conceived. The vintage white linens, the old silver and glassware, and the heavy antique chairs looked fittingly natural and echoed the age of the solid Provençal farmhouse. Yet the meal wasn't in the least formal. Lucien, the family patriarch (and the driving force behind the winery), poured the wine as Lulu passed a salad of roasted yellow peppers and rice dressed with fruity olive oil and vinegar. We lingered while Jean-Marie, the elder son, stepped outside to grill the quail over a fire of vine cuttings. Upon his return, knives, forks, and fingers gleefully attacked the grilled birds, the smoky aroma of thyme and garlic perfumed the room, and the Bandol Rouge flowed. But the meal was far from over. There would still be local goat cheeses, a fruit tart (maybe apricot) for dessert, coffee, and little glasses of marc de Provence, the fiery local variant of grappa. The afternoon was punctuated with lively stories, earthy jokes, and a genial, relaxed intimacy. Afterward, everyone retired for a postprandial nap.

This was the first of numerous ad hoc lessons learned from Lulu. They weren't so much instructions in cooking as demonstrations of how to live. More than anything else, Lulu has reinforced for me how life and food—and wine—are intertwined. And how, more often than not, the most satisfying food is the least complicated and the best cooks are not necessarily found in restaurant kitchens.

Simply put, Lulu's food embodies the best of French home cooking.

Since the quails were grilled outdoors, it hadn't been necessary that day to use the enormous fireplace that spans one wall of Lulu's kitchen. On future visits, there would be saffron-and-garlic-perfumed bouillabaisse simmering in a copper cauldron over a crackling live fire. Or a leg of lamb turning slowly on a spit, or grilled stuffed squid.

Lulus kitchen
To cook in Lulu Peyraud's Provençal kitchen is to cook not just in a centuries-old room but also with centuries-old traditions. Electricity is shunned in favor of a fireplace, antique iron tools, marble mortars, and wooden pestles.Peter D'Aprix

The kitchen, amazingly, has not changed much since the house was built more than two centuries ago. Among the very few nods to modernity are a tiny fridge and gas cooktop stuck in a pantry closet, and a few well-used but seemingly out-of-place electric conveniences: a coffeepot, a blender, a mixer. (Well, and of course electric lights.) Aside from the fireplace and its well-worn iron tools, there are a few heavy mortars, a large wooden worktable, and a collection of earthenware cooking vessels and colorful pottery from the region. Sitting together with Lulu peeling garlic or chopping wild herbs from the surrounding hillside feels so utterly peaceful and calming. With the brilliant morning sun pouring through the kitchen windows, it seems almost like a Provençal postcard cliché.

Lulu cooks with straightforward Provençal simplicity and elegant restraint. When I think of her kitchen, I picture marinated sardines, grilled eggplants and peppers, basil-infused vegetable soupe au pistou, home-cured anchovies and olives—and olive oil, naturally. I see fresh melons, juicy figs and ripe tomatoes. Vegetable tians of every sort. Small violet-hued artichokes, tender enough to eat raw.

Of course, this kind of cooking depends on daily visits to open-air markets. To accompany Lulu on one of these shopping forays and see her in action is inspiring. She knows what she wants and goes after it, whether it is skinny haricots verts or fresh shiny mackerel. Her smile seduces even the grumpiest merchant.

Lulu has always been remarkably self-reliant. She still hasn't given up her solo afternoon swim and has been living in this house, in which she raised seven children, for more than 75 years. Only recently has one of her daughters moved in to help. Her other grown children live nearby, and there are flocks of doting grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

At 98, Lulu is a bit too advanced in years to climb the stairs, so she depends on one of those electric Easy Climber chair lifts, un monte-escalier. Now, if you're having after-dinner drinks with her in the salon and she's ready to retire for the evening, there is a new routine. Perched in the chair, she pushes the button and slowly ascends. The lift faces you as it moves so you see her smiling broadly as she floats upward.

Get the recipe for Provençal Stuffed Squid »
Get the recipe for Quail Grilled over Vine Cuttings with Tapenade Toasts »
Get the recipe for Black Olive Tapenade »
Get the recipe for Provençal Vegetable Tian »
Get the recipe for Spring Vegetable Stew (Estouffade Printanière) »

The Wines of Domaine Tempier

The first Peyraud family wine I drank was a stunning 1974 Bandol Rouge, and after one sip, I knew I had to import it. The next time I traveled to France, I made an appointment to visit the Peyrauds at their vineyard in Bandol, a small appellation in Provence. It's probably best known for its rosé, but in fact it produces some of Provence's most impressive red wines. I showed up at a nearby hotel and was informed I no longer had a reservation. "You're the American?" the concierge asked. "Lulu canceled your room. You're supposed to stay at Domaine Tempier." That's the kind of person Lulu is—everyone's a friend. And once you get into wine, you'll see that the personality of the makers goes right into the personality of their wine. Domaine Tempier wines are gutsy, sunbaked, meant for partying—and party we did! I fell in love with the area and bought a house about five minutes away from the Peyrauds. I now see Lulu whenever I'm in town. To this day, when she's thirsty, she reaches for a glass of wine, not water. "I don't want to rust," she says. — Kermit Lynch

2011 Classique
$109, leduwines.com
A personal favorite because it is so lively and fresh on the palate—I call it rambunctious. Drink now or later.

2013 La Miguoa
$55, lawineco.com
A big vintage for the reds. Dense, firm, meaty. I'll hold off about 10 years before digging into my stash of bottles.

2015 Bandol Rosé
$45, vintryfinewines.com
Lots of fruit, flesh, and flavor—not at all your little summertime quaffer. You'll enjoy the 2015 year-round. It will sell out, so order quick.

WATCH: How to Prep Squid