There are many reasons to visit Provence not least the superb food and drink that is on offer. The wonderful Mediterranean climate produces a vast range of temptations… fabulous fruit and vegetables bursting with flavour, delectable wines, seafood from its shores and gorgeous local delicacies make this a veritable foodie heaven!
Fruit and vegetables
Markets abound, you just can’t miss them! Every town, big or small, will have a weekly market. Although there are the inevitable large commercial stalls, which will offer a similar range to the local supermarket, look for the small “producteur” stalls. These are generally smaller stands normally offering quite a limited range of products which are grown/produced by the stall-holder, and normally harvested that morning. So, you may find just garlic and onions on one, and only strawberries on another.
Tomatoes will take on a whole new meaning as you look at the amazing, succulent selection on offer and, in “peach” season, you will find stalls with a whole range of peach varieties to choose from. Indeed, proud stall-holders will love to select the best fruit and vegetables for you, handling each item with reverent care. With such enthusiasm, it’s difficult not to find a new passion for these most healthy of food supplies.
Cafés and boulangeries
Having strolled the market, refreshment beckons, so treat yourself to one of those ultimate French temptations, “gateau” or “tarte” or even freshly baked croissant or pain au chocolat as you sip your coffee in the sunshine. French baking is invariably as light as air with confections whipped and curled out of crème patisserie, fruit or chocolate twirls and those found in Provence are no exception.
Many boulangeries now serve coffee in house, although they are generally a less atmospheric haunt for your coffee fix. However, although cafes and bars are generally less likely to have something sweet and tempting to offer alongside their coffee, fear not!! Generally, if patisserie isn’t available, they will be more than happy for you to buy a sweet treat elsewhere and eat them while you drink your coffee. For those addicted to tea, you’ll discover it is not just an English passion and you will be happily surprised by how many “Salon de The” you will find. These bijou French tea shops offer a staggering variety of specialist teas for you to choose from, normally with gorgeous cakes on offer too. And don’t forget the bread… racks and racks of scrumptious loaves deck the shelves of any boulangerie. Look for the sign “artisan boulanger” to find the best of the pick.
Treats from the Sea
With the Mediterranean never far away, and with so many little villages and ports to visit, seafood has to be high on the list of temptations in Provence. All along this southern coast you will find gorgeous, scenic ports such as Cassis nestled in the inlets. And, where you find fish, in Provence, you will also find Bouillabaisse. This quintessentially Provencal dish is essentially a fish and vegetable stew.
Originating in Marseille, the recipe was originally devised by fishermen wanting a way to use up the bony pieces of fish they were unable to sell at market. These days, it has become something much more grand, normally consisting of white fish, prawns or lobster, mussels, Provencal vegetables and, of course, herbs, and is normally served with a “rouille” (a sauce similar to mayonnaise) or Aioli (garlic mayonnaise), another famous Provencal invention. Whatever your budget, you’ll find Bouillabaisse on menus at restaurants ranging from those with Michelin stars, right down to little local bistros.
Meat and veg!
Even with the (sometimes) enormous divide between the demands of meat-eaters and those who are vegetarian, Provence won’t disappoint. For those of carnivorous tastes, don’t miss Daube, particularly if you are in Provence during the cooler months. This deep, rich dish is a slow cooked melange of beef, vegetables and fragrant Provencal herbs… once eaten, never forgotten.
However, if vegetables are your passion, then feast on Provence’s most famous of dishes, Ratatouille. This vegetable casserole is a heady mix of courgette, onion, peppers and aubergines, cooked in a thick tomato sauce and, again, flavoured with Provencal herbs. Although frequently served as a side dish with pork, it is certainly worthy of being a meal in its own right and is delicious mopped up with chunks of wonderful fresh French bread.
Little things with big flavours
Olives, olives, olives everywhere…you won’t escape them in Provence. Even if you don’t like to eat them, the grey-green shimmer of olive trees growing under the sun is a captivating sight. However, if you enjoy nibbling these little morsels with a glass of wine, then you couldn’t be anywhere better than Provence. Choose from a number of varieties, large or small, green or black, many of which are cured in different ways. Each grower will have his own recipe and family secrets for producing their olives and you’ll find fabulous selections in both delicatessens and markets.
Tapenade is another taste of Provence not to be missed. The basic recipe mixes pureed olives with capers, olive oil and garlic, but there are multiple variations such as the addition of anchovies and sun-dried tomatoes. These wonderfully intense purees are glorious for hors d’oeuvre on little biscuits, combined with local cheeses or seafood, but also make a wonderful base for pasta sauces too.
The other “big” flavour of Provence is Truffle. These little earth-bound fungi can be either a black or white variety, depending on the season. Very much a locally produced delicacy of world renown, Truffles can be enormously expensive but pack a huge kick of flavour even in very tiny quantities. Look out for both fresh truffle and truffle oil on menus at many restaurants.
Les boissons (…in other words, something to drink!)
Alongside the olive groves you will also see fields and fields of vines. Not surprising then that Provence is also famed for its wine. Hot summer sun produces grapes which, in turn, produce a little bit of magic in a wineglass. Cassis, of fishing port fame, is also an established wine growing area, particularly producing white wines perfect for sipping with your Bouillabaisse. Bandol, another world-famous wine growing area, produces both deep, rich reds and also crisp whites. Provence is also, of course, readily identified with those pale coloured, dry, rose wines which no-one can resist.
“Degustation” is an established part of the wine trade in France, so be sure to visit local vineyards to sample and admire the wine and buy a bottle or two of your favourite.
….and, not to be overlooked, Pastis! Much beloved, the French drink almost as much of this anise flavoured aperitif as they do wine. Again, family recipes have been handed down over the generations and are fiercely guarded, but the core ingredients are anise, liquorice and, yet again, those Provencal herbs.
You will be served the Pastis in a glass, accompanied by water which you add yourself. As the Pastis is diluted with water, it will turn cloudy. Definitely not to be missed if you really want to embrace the flavours of Provence.
Su Stephens is Owner of Olives & Vines. Olives & Vines is a luxury holiday company based in the South of France offering stays at their beautifully designed holiday house and boutique hotel in Le Castellet.
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