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She knows the hidden side streets of French cuisine. Food critic Patricia Wells has deftly merged pen and spoon

Patricia Wells is resplendent in the colors of the American flag - white linen jacket crisp as parchment, skirt as blue as the Mediterranean, and pimento-red pumps. They happen to be the colors of the French flag as well.

The coincidence is appropriate and becoming. American by birth and education - and for the past eight years French by palate and address - Ms. Wells is the author of ``The Food Lover's Guide to France'' (Workman, $14.95.), a follow-up to her ``Food Lover's Guide to Paris.''

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The hefty paperback is two pounds of thinly sliced, sweet and savory French gastronomic delicacies and delights, and where to find them. And not just recipes, but also restaurants.

Through these pages Patricia Wells takes you by the arm, moving you quickly through the heady fish stalls in Marseille, introduces you to her favorite cheesemakers, and points you up a side street to the best olive oil cooperative in Provence. Included, too, are the locations, times, and dates of outdoor, flower, and flea markets and a variety of fairs and festivals along the way. Province by province.

Ms. Wells knows where the truffles are buried!

Way back in third grade in Wauwatosa, Wis., little Patricia's teacher asked what she wanted to do when she grew up. ``Journalist,'' she scribbled on the blackboard. With that decided, Wells went on to get a master's degree in journalism; reviewed art at the Washington Post, and finally worked at the New York Times as editor of the paper's culture desk.

With a blue pencil in one hand, she still kept a finger in the pie.

``All along I became known as `someone who liked to cook.' I was always, always, always crazy about cooking,'' she emphasizes, folding her white sunglasses and returning them to her purse.

At the Times, two dreams came true. She met and married her second husband, Walter Wells (``He's just wonderful,'' she coos, ``and a wonderful cook, too''), and was finally offered a writing job.

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``The Times needed a food writer for their new Living section, and I thought it would be a way to get my foot in the door as a reporter.''

Only one problem: ``OK,'' they told her, ``you can have the job, but you can't be a vegetarian anymore.''

``Now, Walter refers to me as a lapsed Roman Catholic and a non-practicing vegetarian,'' Wells says with a laugh.

In '79, her husband was offered a job as news editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

``We decided to go for two years,'' Wells muses. ``At the end of two years we looked at each other and said, `We're not ready to go back yet!' It took us two years before we could sit at a dinner table and make conversation in French.''

From the start, Wells collected and tested recipes and reviewed food and restaurants while free-lancing for the Times, as well as Cuisine and Food and Leisure magazines, and at the same time served as restaurant critic of the International Herald Tribune.

The best of what she has tasted, tested, and tried is stuffed within her Food Lover's Guides.

Much of her research was done with an assistant who acted as navigator as Wells drove through each and every province in France.

The top restaurants, she admits, were saved for her and Walter alone.

``We'd go off on what we called `petit fours weekends.' Any restaurant that gave petits fours we considered `fancy.' We did a few trips like that.''

Most, though, were with her navigator-assistant, while Wells did the driving. ``Sometimes what was billed as a `great bistro' turned out to be nothing more than a Coke stand,'' she moans.

Does she have a favorite region in France?

``Provence. Unequivocally my favorite. We have a beautiful country house there.''

Wells has to think hard to come up with a least-favorite. ``I never really hooked into Burgundy. I don't know why. The other provinces seem to have so much folklore and history.... I guess I just don't get the message,'' she says with a shrug.

The region that surprised her most was Brittany: ``The food is so simple and the fish is incredible. Super-fresh! Tiny Belon oysters and grilled lobster. It really surprised me.''

In spite of eating her way through the French countryside, Wells stays surprisingly fit.

``That's because I never eat breakfast,'' she says. ``Morning is the only time of the day when I don't even think of food.''

Jogging every day helps too, she admits.

Wells is now working on a bistro guide to France and updating her Paris guide, while continuing to taste and test along the way.

The advice she gives to real food lovers is what she's come to accept herself.

``Look for `regionality,''' she says. ``Everyone comes to France with a list of the three-star restaurants. That's fine. Everyone wants a `grand buff'e' - a `big deal' in Paris - and that's wonderful. Save that for your last night in Paris. But get out in the country and find the real cuisine. Get off the main roads onto the quiet d'epartement roads. That's where you'll discover regional foods.''

Wells's file cabinets are bursting with recipes and leads on restaurants. But it's the people that she collects along the way that really stick in her mind.

``I'm always looking for the `little guy' - the last man who makes walnut oil in the country. And the little woman who is still making cheese in a copper pot. If I can't do anything to save these [traditions], I hope at least I'm documenting them.''

She sees a troubling trend among many food consumers and producers: a homogenization of taste.

``There is no question that people are moving toward blander food,'' says Wells. ``And many people making, say, olive oil, tend to produce a more bland oil to appeal to that growing market.

``Fewer and fewer people know what good food tastes like, and, correspondingly, how to prepare it. We tend to think all French people have great palates and taste. Well, they all don't.''

Regardless, touring France nonstop, discovering the very best that still exists in the unexpected bistro, out-of-the-way caf'e, and remote farmhouse, searching for the smoothest foie gras, the perfect bouillabaisse, and the creamiest Beaufort cheese sounds the most idyllic job conceivable for anyone who knows a canard from a Camembert.

But life isn't always just a bowl of cherries avec cr'eme fraise for a food critic.

``Ever since the books came out, we get calls from perfect strangers at all hours wanting to know where to eat,'' Wells says between bites of Lobster Souffl'e at the Plaza Ath'en'ee.

``I've thought of putting on my answering machine, `Hello, this is Patricia Wells, The restaurant of the week is.... It is open between the hours of.... They take the following credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard....'''


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