We've Always Had Paris . . . and Provence: A Scrapbook
of Our Life in France

By Patricia and Walter Wells

HarperCollins. 317 pp. $27


Reviewed by Karen Heller


Perhaps Patricia Wells lives in your kitchen. Our

Bistro Cooking

is splattered with grease, not surprising as almost every recipe calls for copious amounts of pork or butter, and sometimes, fortunately, both.

What's not to love about a cookbook that has nine recipes for potato gratin? The only quandary is whether to make Madame Cartet's that calls for one cup of Gruyere, Madame Laracine's that asks for two, or the

Pommes de Terre Comtoises

that requires an almost illegal three.

Wells, the author of 10 accessible, never-intimidating cookbooks, has had the enviable life of residing in France since 1980 and serving as restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune, where her husband, Walter, was a top editor until 2007. She's the only American to be a reviewer for the Parisian weekly L'Express, heady praise from the French.

Alas, if you suffer from Mayle malaise, the fatigue induced by reading yet another book about the discomforts of living in France launched in 1989 by Peter Mayle's

A Year in Provence

, then this book is not for you.

Even the Wellses' title,

We've Always Had Paris . . . and Provence,

is too precious for its own good. And this is a shame, and a wasted opportunity, because Patricia Wells, like her friend Ina Garten, has always seemed a homey, welcome guide without any of the hauteur that might come from her success.

Wells and her husband, who write in alternating sections, remain likable enough, but their seamless good luck does drone on. Unlike the entertaining Bill Bryson and Anthony Bourdain, they fail to tell engaging stories of interesting chefs, farmers and craftspeople, a crime in a country with such a rich history, exacting gastronomy, and enough characters to fuel Balzac.

Curiously, the Wellses have done the one thing I thought impossible: They've managed to make the French seem dull.

Really, does anyone want to hear about the problems of installing a new kitchen in an 18th-century farmhouse, especially one with a wood-fired oven? "I do know that being abandoned by a workman in the middle of a job is as crippling as being abandoned by a lover," Patricia Wells writes. "And it may be harder to find a replacement."

Get out the smallest violin, or cheese grater, in the world.

Patricia's largest struggle? How to take off those 30 pounds she gained eating so much foie gras, fat and cheese. She does so by going to the exclusive Golden Door, which currently charges $8,000 a week. She trains for a marathon. Good for her. But nothing induces sleep more than reading about running in a book ostensibly about French food. Another crisis? Falling out of love with Paris' Right Bank to decamp to the Left.

At this point, the reader becomes as angry at the Wellses' indulgent editor - who allowed this madness - as at the writers themselves.

We'll Always Have

is subtitled "a scrapbook," which is telling. A scrapbook is not a book, and this doesn't add up to one, though the recipes are inviting. The "Lemon Chicken With Roasted Onions" is quite nice, and I'm looking forward to making the "Almond Macaroon and Fresh Berry Cake."

But this is another case of a book that isn't particularly handsome. The Wellses are fetching enough - and if you believe their musings, they never fight and life is always perfect - but why picture them on the cover when, to paraphrase them, you always have Paris and Provence?

We'll Always Have

is filled with amateur photos of the handsome couple, which seems misguided. It would be better to depict food or wonderful stores or all those great characters missing from the book. I would have preferred additional secrets about France's gastronomy, but, perhaps, after 10 cookbooks, Wells simply has no more secrets to share.

Our Lemon Chicken With Roasted Onions

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 fresh farm chicken (3 to 4 pounds), with giblets, at room temperature

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed, dried, quartered lengthwise

1 bunch fresh thyme

2 tablespoons unsalted

butter, softened

6 onions, halved, not peeled

1.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Have ready a roasting pan slightly larger than the chicken and a roasting rack.

2.

Generously season the chicken cavity with salt and pepper. Place the giblets, lemons and thyme in the cavity. Truss the chicken. Rub the skin with the butter. Season all over with salt and pepper.

3.

Put the onions cut side down in the pan, put the rack over the onions and the chicken on its side on the rack.

4.

Add about 1/2 cup water to the pan and place it mid-oven, uncovered, to roast for 20 minutes. Turn chicken to other side; roast 20 minutes more. Turn chicken breast side up to roast another 20 minutes, by which time the skin should be a deep golden color. Reduce heat to 375 degrees.

5.

Turn the chicken breast side down, preferably at an angle with the head end down and tail end up, allowing juices to flow down through the breast meat. Roast until juices run clear when thigh is pierced, about 15 minutes more. Turn off oven. Transfer the chicken to a platter.

6.

Season generously with salt and pepper. Cover loosely with foil. Keep warm and let rest in oven with door open and platter tilted with chicken's head end down.

7. Meanwhile, prepare the sauce:

Remove onions to a platter. Put the pan over moderate heat, scraping up any bits that cling to the bottom. Cook, scraping and stirring until the liquid is almost caramelized, 2 to 3 minutes. Do not let it burn. Spoon off and discard any excess fat. Add several tablespoons cold water to deglaze pan as needed. (Hot water will cloud the sauce.) Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes.

8.

While sauce is cooking, remove the lemons, giblets and thyme from the chicken cavity. Carve the chicken into serving pieces and transfer to a warmed platter. Chop the giblets and add to the platter. Squeeze the lemons over the chicken. Place two onion halves on each plate with chicken.

9.

Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve and pour into a sauce boat. Serve at once with chicken.

- From We've Always Had Paris. . . And Provence

by Patricia and Walter Wells (HarperCollins, 2008)

Per serving: 487 calories, 54 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 209 milligrams cholesterol, 285 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Read her blog at http://go.philly.com/populist