The best way to get to Paula Wolfert’s house is to start out by the duck pond in the Sonoma town square. Drive east through a neighborhood of beautifully maintained Victorian and Craftsman-style homes. After a couple of blocks, you’ll hit vineyards. Turn north and drive through more vineyards. Follow the winding road up the mountain. The vineyards give way to expanses of rolling hills dotted with California oaks. Eventually you turn onto another small road and then a long driveway. You’re there.
Wolfert hollers through the screen door to come up. It’s a modern structure, all unlikely angles and walls of windows looking out onto uninterrupted vistas of gorgeous hillsides. You can’t see another house; it’s a neighborhood rule. She’s in the kitchen, which seems to occupy half of one floor. There’s a tile-faced wood-burning fireplace, double ovens, a six-burner range with grill and a central island that seems as big as most living rooms, topped with rough marble tiles.
It’s an idyllic spot Wolfert has found, an isolated bit of Sonoma heaven that, even with all the twisting and turning and climbing, is only about a 10-minute drive from town. The only catch is that Wolfert doesn’t drive.
Welcome to Paula Wolfert’s World, where a little inconvenience means next to nothing -- whether it’s an obscure ingredient, a time-consuming technique or being stranded halfway up a mountain -- as long as there is sufficient payoff.
“It’s like the line from ‘Streetcar,’ ” she laughs. “I depend on the kindness of strangers.”
That could be her motto. Wolfert has spent the last 45 years wandering into unfamiliar kitchens from Marrakech to Istanbul and emerging with recipes that her new friends have entrusted to her. “You kiss each woman on each cheek, and you touch your heart. Then she’s at ease,” she once said.
It’s not quite that simple, of course. After the rough sketch has been collected, each recipe takes on a life of its own. Wolfert doesn’t rest until it has been honed to its best possible version, thoroughly annotated with every possible bit of advice that could make its preparation easier, and then credited to everyone who contributed to it.
Through seven books, her readers (an ardent if somewhat obsessive bunch) have delighted in following Wolfert every step of the way, even if that means making couscous from scratch, putting up quarts of duck confit or tracking down sources for the newest dried pepper from Aleppo.
Compared with that, what’s a little ride down a mountain?
Tomorrow Wolfert is cooking lunch for a few friends, who just happen to include Bob Sessions and Jean Arnold Sessions, of Sonoma Valley landmark Hanzell Vineyards, and Wolfert’s old pal Judy Rodgers, chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, and her husband, mystery writer Kirk Russell.
Most of the preparations are already finished and tucked away in her beloved food-saver bags in the refrigerator and freezer, waiting for finishing. But there is still some last-minute shopping to do, so off we go.
If you know Wolfert’s recipes, you probably can guess a lot about her personality. She’s alternately bossy and generous, scholarly and gleeful, and always passionately involved and obsessively consumed with getting things just exactly right.
It must be said that Wolfert is almost as bad a passenger as she is a driver, given to apparently spontaneous emergency braking maneuvers even on deserted country roads. But you get used to the sudden flailing of arms and the stomping of feet on where she imagines the brake pedal might be.
And you get used to that peculiar sense of direction -- or lack thereof -- that comes with being a constant passenger. On a tour of her Sonoma, Wolfert never can seem to pin down whether the place you’re going is to the right or the left, ahead or behind.
But somehow you always get there, and it’s always worth the trouble. There’s the Friday farmers market, where she picks out some early tart-sweet Bing cherries. This is her stopgap market. The big one is at the Sonoma town square on Tuesday evenings.
“It’s really a wonderful thing,” she says. “Everybody turns out for it. There’s music and food, and people eat on picnic tables or just spread a sheet on the ground and drink wine.”
This works out well because Tuesday is also Wolfert’s day to meet with her collection of fellow East Coast expatriates for vodka tonics on the porch at the Swiss Hotel. (“Their pizza is very good, and the bartender gives a very generous pour; they know better than to give me more than two.”) A friend in the neighborhood gives her a ride.
A New Yorker relocated
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Wolfert shocked her friends by moving to California nine years ago, following her husband, bestselling crime writer William Bayer, who had always been fascinated by San Francisco. Six years ago they bought the place in Sonoma. She fell so deeply in love with it that now he lives and works in the city during the week and drives up on the weekends to join her.
From the market, it’s on to Ramekins, an extremely well-appointed cooking school where Wolfert teaches hands-on classes twice a year. After decades as a touring teacher, she is slowing down now, and these are among her few appointments left. She stops in to say hi and is greeted like a visiting celebrity.
But there’s still shopping to do, and right around the corner (after a few wrong turns) is the Sonoma Market, one of those neighborhood food shops that could only exist in the wine country. Wolfert prowls the aisles, pointing out the eight kinds of butter, the bread from Bouchon and Acme bakeries, the old-fashioned meat counter and the very good cheese selection. (“We may not have very many good restaurants, but we must have a lot of good cooks, because somebody is buying this stuff,” she says.)
For lunch we stop at LaSalette, a little Portuguese place off the town square run by Azoreans. Wolfert lusts after the recipe for their rolls, but they won’t let it go. Just give her a little more time. “I know it’s got cornmeal and flour, and there’s a spice mixture in it,” she says, pulling it apart and taking a taste.
Then it’s one last visit at the Cheesemaker’s Daughter, a carefully edited store owned by Wolfert’s friend Ditty Vella, a third-generation cheesemonger whose dad just happens to be Ig Vella, the legendary maker of Monterey Dry Jack. To go with the cherries, Wolfert selects a cave-aged Gruyere, a perfectly runny L’Edel de Cleron and a chunk of a Manchego she sampled the week before.
Along the way she squeezes in a stop at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art for another look at the collection of digital photographs by John Paul Caponigro, from whom she recently took a master class in Photoshop software. “I’m 67 years old,” she says. “By the time I’m through with my next book, I’ll be 70. I don’t want to have spent my whole life writing cookbooks. I think it’s time I tried something new, don’t you think?”
At 10 the next morning, Wolfert is already up and working. Bayer has driven up from San Francisco and is alternately playing host and setting the table on the porch, under the screening branches of an oak.
They have been together since 1970. He took the photos for her first book, “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco,” and, by her account, helped raise her two kids from a previous marriage while she was off doing research. Four of her books are dedicated to him.
She stands at the counter peeling fava beans from a stack of small bags. Acknowledging that preparing favas is one of the more tedious tasks in cooking, Wolfert has come up with a solution: She buys them a few at a time throughout the spring, then shucks them into bags that she seals with her Tilia FoodSaver Professional II, a machine sold on television infomercials that sucks the air out of the bag and then seals it tightly -- just like the sous-vide machines so beloved of chefs these days. She freezes the bags and then, when the recipe calls for them, takes out the required amount of favas. After freezing, they peel easily even without blanching.
Wolfert loves her FoodSaver with an awesome passion. Her freezer is stocked full of goodies preserved this way, and in the manner of a true zealot, she constantly finds a way to drop this into conversation.
She also prepared the confit using the machine -- she sealed seasoned duck legs in a bag, then poached them slowly in hot water so the fat gently rendered. It’s a radically easier way to make confit; she is including full instructions in her completely revised “The Cooking of South-West France,” which will be available this fall.
She’s got duck stock in the freezer too, and pork belly and even pigs’ ears. If you want, she says, she can make a salad of them in no time. There are apples braised in orange flower water as well, and she quickly volunteers to prepare a little croustade to go along with the other two desserts she’s serving this afternoon. “It will take me three minutes, really.”
“Between this machine and the Internet, I’m taken care of,” Wolfert says. “You have to do this when you live on a mountain and don’t drive.”
In fact, most of today’s menu was prepared well in advance. Bayer baked the madeleines earlier in the morning. They’re denser than most and less sweet, more cakelike than airy, like the difference between a great doughnut and a Krispy Kreme.
Wolfert made the stuffed grape leaves, plump with bulgur and bits of chopped dried figs, a couple of days ago and kept them in the refrigerator. The delightfully peppery, piquant green herb jam, a coarse puree made with spinach and herbs and black olives that will be spread on crackers, was put up a couple of weeks ago.
“Look at my books and you’ll see I’m always telling people when they can stop and put things in the refrigerator or in the freezer,” she says. “That’s the only way I can cook. I can’t do it all in one day because I’m such a crazy person. I have to take it a little at a time.”
The duck confit was put up three months ago. Now she steams it and then, because it is nearly falling apart, browns it under the broiler before adding it to the favas. She pulls off a piece and peppers it liberally. The flavor is amazing, so deep it’s almost bottomless. This is to most confits what an old Bordeaux is to a young Cabernet. “This is good, but when you get to five months, it’s out of this world,” she says.
The other dessert is caneles, which are baking in the oven. Wolfert is particularly proud of this recipe, from her most recent book, “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen.” Though it’s all the rage in France and among au courant pastry chefs in this country, she insists that no one else has the real thing.
The story, as she relates in the book, is that 20 years ago, the mother of her friend Ariane Daguin (proprietor of D’Artagnan, the East Coast foie gras producer), sent her the recipe from a friend who was a baker. Wolfert filed it away and forgot it. Then when it began to become popular several years ago, she pulled it out. In the meantime, members of the bakers’ guild in Bordeaux, where the recipe comes from, had joined together and agreed to keep the technique a secret -- a vow that they have apparently held to, leaving her in sole possession of the true recipe.
She dropped everything else and spent the next three months perfecting it. The secret is in mixing the butter and the flour at the beginning, she says. “Nobody else has gotten that right. I know [pastry chef and cookbook author] Pierre Herme knows to do that, but he didn’t put it in his book.”
Indeed, they are superb, crisp on the outside and almost custardy on the inside. “Like a creme brulee you can eat out of your hand,” Wolfert says. “Thomas Keller called to ask me if he could use my recipe. Can you believe that? Thomas Keller!”
Besides the FoodSaver, Wolfert’s favorite kitchen equipment is almost startlingly primitive. She’s got good French copper pans and carbon steel knives but doesn’t seem to use them. For cutting, she prefers paring knives and scissors, the way women in the Middle East do.
For cooking she prefers clay. No, wait, “prefers” isn’t nearly strong enough. Wolfert believes passionately in the singular qualities of foods cooked low and slow as only these pans can do.
The working title of her next book is “Confessions of a Claypot Junkie,” and the walls of her kitchen are lined with evidence of her addiction. There must be dozens of pots of all shapes and sizes -- gratins, tagines, daubieres, triperies and couscoussiers, made of earthenware and ceramics and glazed in nearly every color and finish imaginable. The best are tucked securely into their own cubbyholes like art objects; others are stacked in piles.
The table is set
It’s noon, and lunch is just about ready. The ramps and asparagus are braising in cream; the favas and duck are marrying in a warm pan. The table outside is set in Provencal tones of dark red and gold. Wolfert frees the caneles from their molds by firmly rapping on them with a granite pestle.
As the guests arrive, they gather in the kitchen, sipping wine, helping cook and generally milling about. “I wrote all my books in tiny little kitchens,” Wolfert says, “and when we moved here, I thought, why not have a big kitchen so I could entertain in it while I was cooking, since that’s where everybody seems to end up anyway?”
Eventually everyone gets to the table. Conversation ambles on the way it does on sunny afternoons; everyone talks of friends and food and murder mysteries. (It tickles Wolfert that she and Rodgers are married to crime writers.)
Of course there is much oohing and aahing over the dishes and the wines (the Sessionses bring Hanzell’s current 2002 Chardonnay and 2001 Pinot Noir, and the 1989 Pinot from their cellar). But Wolfert isn’t entirely comfortable with praise. It’s not enough that her food is enjoyed; she wants to make sure her intentions are understood.
“Cooking this food is not a matter of showing off; these recipes are not trophies,” she says. “I love to cook them. Otherwise, what have I been doing with my life? I mean, was I just collecting recipes and publishing them?
“These are dishes that are meant to be cooked and shared. And this is the kind of food that restaurants don’t take the time to do anymore. This is something special I can do for my friends, and at the same time, I feel like I’m helping to keep this food alive.
“This is what I do.”