From Patricia Wells at Home in Provence, by Patricia Wells.

Anne McCrae is a Scottish neighbor in Provence who shares my love of simple, big tastes. She served this luscious gratin one spring evening and explained that she devised the recipe when she and her husband, John, lived in an isolated part of northern Provence, in the Drome. There were no fresh produce markets nearby, but thanks to neighboring farmers she always had plenty of fresh goat's milk cheese - known as tomme. Her larder was always filled with the meaty black olives from nearby Nyons, and wild herbs were as near as the back door.

In summer months Anne prepares the sizzling, fragrant first course with fresh tomatoes, and in the winter months she uses canned tomatoes. That evening she served the gratin in individual gratin dishes, but I suggested it might be easier to make one huge gratin and pass it around. "I used to do that," she countered, "but people got greedy and never left enough for the other guests!" So controlled portions it is! This dish lends itself to endless variations: Think of it simply as a pizza without the crust. Add julienned bits of prosciutto, a bit of cooked sausage, sauteed mushrooms, or marinated artichokes. It's also a convenient dish when you're alone and want something warm and quick. I always add fresh hyssop, for the Provencal herb's pungent, mintlike flavor blends well with the tomato-cheese-olive trinity.

Yields six servings

Equipment: Six shallow 6-inch (15-cm) round gratin dishes or one 10 1/2-inch (27-cm) round baking dish

  • About 10 ounces (300 g) soft goat cheese or a mix of rindless soft goat and cow or sheep's milk cheese, cubed
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh hyssop leaves (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary leaves
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh oregano leaves or a pinch of dried leaf oregano, crushed
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups (33 to 50 cl) homemade Tomato Sauce, at room temperature (recipe follows)
  • About 24 best-quality black olives (such as French Nyons), pitted

1. Preheat the broiler.

2. Scatter the cheese on the bottom of the baking dish or dishes. Sprinkle with half of the herbs. Spoon on just enough tomato sauce to evenly coat the cheese. Sprinkle with olives and the remaining herbs.

3. Place the baking dish or dishes under the broiler about 3 inches (8 cm) from the heat. Broil until the cheese is melted and fragrant, and the tomato sauce is sizzling, 2 to 3 minutes.

Wine Suggestions: Think of what you'd normally serve with pizza; a pleasant, vigorous red such as a young French Corbieres from the Roussillon, a dry Italian red such as a Barbera d'Alba, an Australian Shiraz, or a California Zinfandel.

Homemade Tomato Sauce
This is my idea of what a homemade tomato sauce should be: rich, elegant, smooth, and tasting of fresh herbs. I sometimes double the recipe, so there's always some in my freezer for those days I don't have time to cook.

Yields about three cups (75 cl) sauce.

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • Sea salt to taste
  • One 28-ounce (765-g) can peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice, or one 28-ounce (765-g) can crushed tomatoes in puree
  • Bouquet garni: several sprigs of fresh parsley, bay leaves, and celery leaves, tied in a bundle with household twine

In a large unheated saucepan, combine the oil, onion, garlic, and salt, and stir to coat with oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. If using whole canned tomatoes, place a food mill over the skillet and puree the tomatoes directly into it. Crushed tomatoes can be added directly from the can. Add the bouquet garni, stir to blend, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. For a thicker sauce, for pizzas and toppings, cook for 5 minutes more. Taste for seasoning. Remove and discard the bouquet garni.

The sauce may be used immediately, stored in the refrigerator up to 2 days, or frozen up to 2 months. If small quantities of sauce will be needed for pizzas or other toppings, freeze in ice cube trays.