December 06, 2021
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French connection Hancock chef carries on her mother’s Provencal cooking tradition

The moment you step into Le Domaine in Hancock, it becomes clear that authenticity is Nicole Purslow’s strong suit.

From the clean scent of lavender that perfumes the air to the richly patterned tablecloths and matching plates in the dining room, everything at the inn and restaurant is a testament to Purslow’s Provencal heritage. On the tables, little ceramic “cigales” or cicadas, hover to the right of the plates. The cicada is the symbol of Les Baux, the village in Provence where Purslow’s mother was born. Though they have a sentimental significance, the cicadas serve a function as well – they keep buttery knives off the tablecloths.

“I take extreme attention to detail,” Purslow said while walking through the dining room on a recent morning. “They have knife rests because they don’t use bread plates [in Provence].”

She could’ve just bought little dishes, but that’s not Purslow’s style. Instead, she tracked down the knife rests during one of her annual trips to the French countryside that her relatives call home.

Purslow either does things the right way or doesn’t do them at all. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she won’t have a special Bastille Day menu Saturday at her restaurant. Though magazines often present lavish spreads on French cooking to mark the country’s independence, that’s not the way people in France celebrate. At least not in Provence.

“Bastille Day in France is no more and no less than the Fourth of July here,” Purslow said.

Though Purslow plans to serve her usual menu of feastworthy Provencal cuisine, in France, people are more likely to celebrate Bastille Day, the 14th of July, with a simple picnic.

“In France, they’d probably have a large aioli, of course handmade with a mortar and pestle, served with any multitude of vegetables … washed down, probably, with a lot of ros?,” Purslow said. “The aioli is typical of Provence [Southern France].”

Aioli (pronounced eye-oh-LEE) is a thick mayonnaise made by hand from egg yolks, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Though it is easier to make in a food processor, aioli is traditionally ground together in a mortar and pestle until the mixture forms a thick paste, much denser than store-bought mayonnaise. It is served much like a dip with a selection of steamed baby vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, desalted salt cod, or escargots.

“You just slather a dollop of this garlic mayonnaise on everything you eat, in the afternoon, under a nice shade tree,” Purslow said, smiling.

And though the amount of garlic varies depending on the cook, Purslow said, “Trust me, over there it’s strong.”

Garlic is an integral part of Provencal cooking, which has a distinct Mediterranean flavor. Though some people think French food means rich, creamy and buttery, the meals that Purslow prepares at Le Domaine have a lighter feel, bursting with the flavors of the countryside.

“They cook a lot with garlic, black olives, tomatoes, olive oil and fennel – these are the five ingredients that I use quite a bit in my cooking,” Purslow said. “Provence is very much geared to garlic and especially olive oil. Olive oil is the key. They use olive oil in place of butter.”

Purslow’s menu includes such offerings as Soupe a l’Oseille, or the essence of fresh sorrel soup; Cassolettes d’Asperges, a paper-thin pastry filled with asparagus, mushrooms and beans in a light broth cream sauce; and Navarin d’agneau, spring lamb and baby vegetables served in a casserole.

“I’m not saying I don’t use things that aren’t fattening, because it wouldn’t be any fun if you didn’t, but I try to keep things healthy,” Purslow said, laughing.

“When I do create a sauce I try to create a sauce that brings out the essence of the product,” she continued. “Further, I try to use as many of the local products, be it fowl, eggs or produce, that I possibly can.”

She incorporates many homegrown herbs and local produce into her cooking, and in the Provencal tradition, she uses baby vegetables whenever possible.

“Provence is known as the garden of France,” Purslow said. “They try to get things small because they’re more flavorful. Bigger is not better in France.”

For Purslow, 55, Provence is her home away from home. She travels there once a year, spending anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Though she is the only child in her family who was born in the United States, she calls herself the only Francophile of the group. Since she was a young girl, the traditions of her mother’s homeland have enchanted her, and she has re-created a bit of Provence at the inn and surrounding property that she inherited from her mother.

“I consider myself as much French as American in many of my habits,” Purslow said.

Though she was born in Ellsworth, her ties to France run deep. Purslow’s parents met after her American grandparents traveled to France and stayed at her French grandparents’ hotel. In time, her mother took over the hotel in Les Baux and her American-born father joined the French Resistance during World War II. The couple hid Jews in the basement of their hotel as part of a “human chain” that led them over the Pyrennes to Portugal, where they would be safer. Before long, the couple’s involvement in the human chain was discovered and they took their three children and fled to the United States.

“When it was time for my mother and father to escape, they came to Hancock, Maine,” Purslow said. “That’s where my grandfather was from.”

In 1946, the year before Purslow was born, her mother opened a small tearoom that evolved into a restaurant. Each summer, she fed the students at the nearby Pierre Monteux School. The former conductor was Purslow’s stepgrandfather. Her mother could usually be found cooking, and Nicole was always nearby.

“I was literally brought up at my mother’s side in the kitchen,” Purslow said. “I was 3 years old, standing on a stool, cooking omelets.”

She started working in the restaurant when she was 13. When she was 16, she went to France for the first time with her mother, Marianne, whom everyone affectionately called “Mano.” Nicole and Mano were extremely close, more like best friends than mother and daughter. When Mano took her daughter to France, she wanted Nicole to see her hometown at first light, when it looked most beautiful.

“It was wonderful, and I was frustrated because I couldn’t understand one word they were saying,” she said wistfully, recalling the way the sunrise looked from the archway that led to the village of Les Baux. “That’s when I realized I had to make it my effort to learn all I could.”

When she turned 18, she went to France to study at Le Cordon Bleu, and apprenticed at a bakery in Switzerland, where she made chocolates and pastries. When she returned to Hancock, she officially took over the restaurant.

In the years that Purslow’s mother ran the restaurant, she often had a hard time getting the ingredients she needed. She bought most of her food at the grocery store, and at the time, even garlic and fresh parsley were considered exotic. And assembling a wine list was nearly impossible.

“It was unheard of for a woman to go buy anything,” Purslow said.

Purslow’s aunt would bring her mother into town to buy staples, but she wouldn’t take her to the package store so she could buy wine.

“Her sister would say, ‘Mano, I’ll leave you here at the corner, but you’ll have to get that yourself. I can’t be seen going in there,'” Purslow said.

When Purslow took over, it wasn’t much easier.

“It’s not like it is today,” she said. “I would depend on distributors coming up from Boston … or make do with what was here, and often that was the case.”

Over time, things changed. Purslow developed relationships with local farmers and a wider range of ingredients became available through food distributors. In 1977, the year her mother died, Purslow expanded and opened Le Domaine as an inn.

“It’s evolved in the last 15 years tremendously,” Purslow said.

In the past year, it’s evolved even more. Last summer, Purslow did a total overhaul of Le Domaine, renovating the inn into a luxurious, comfortable space with bright floral cushions and guest rooms that are named after villages in Provence.

“People’s taste evolved,” she said. “They wanted more and expected more and that’s when I decided to get out or stay in. But that’s a big jump to take when you’re 55.”

She decided to stay in, because Le Domaine is her home. She expanded the dining area and she and her sister decorated the space to make it feel more like Mano’s homeland.

“We still want to make our mother proud,” she said.

And she would be.

Aioli

8 large cloves of garlic

1 or 2 raw, room-temperature egg yolks

1 cup olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

salt and pepper, to taste

2-3 teaspoons warm water

The recipe typically calls for two large cloves of garlic per person, though you can vary this according to your taste.

The secret is to keep things moving the whole time. Mash together the garlic cloves and a pinch of salt in a mortar or food processor. Add egg yolks and beat until the mixture is creamy and light yellow. Drizzle in olive oil very slowly until the mixture thickens. Add the lemon juice and 1 or 2 teaspoons of warm water, and slowly add the rest of the olive oil until the mixture thickens again.

Serve with any combination of dipping foods. In Provence, aioli is traditionally served with steamed baby vegetables, including turnip, eggplant or zucchini, desalted salt cod, hard-boiled eggs or escargots.

Makes 4 1/4-cup servings.

The restaurant at Le Domaine serves dinner from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For reservations (recommended) or information, call 422-3395 or 422-3916.

Correction: Clarification: The phone number for Le Domaine was omitted inadvertently in Wednesday’s Style section. For reservations or information, call 422-3395 or 422-3916.

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