I spend my summers in our home near Sainte-Maxime, a commune in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France. It is fair to say that food is an important part of my life here, as it is traditionally for French people. I take great pleasure in preparing meals, using fresh produce from the local shops and markets, and fruits, vegetables and herbs I grow in the garden. The dishes I create here… it always seems to me that they taste better, especially when eaten outside on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.
Provencal cuisine is rooted in the warm climate of the region, which is great for growing olives and fruits like cherries, grapes, melons and peaches. The climate creates a rugged landscape that is ideal for keeping sheep and goats, and lamb and goat often feature on menus, along with wonderful goats’ cheeses. The sea, of course, provides a rich offering of fish and seafood, from sea urchins and crayfish to sea bass and sardines, and many more besides.
One of Provence’s most well-known dishes is bouillabaisse, which originates from Marseille. Each chef has their own twist on this, but essentially it is a soup made from five or six types of Mediterranean fish, like red scorpionfish and sea robin, and seafood, like sea urchin and crab – whatever is fresh off the fishermen’s boats. The traditional accompaniment is bread and rouille, a spicy sauce flavoured with garlic, saffron and cayenne or sweet peppers.
On the subject of sauces, aïoli is a Provencal staple: a strong garlic mayonnaise that is served with fish. Tapenade also comes from this region of France; it’s a paste or dip made from black olives, anchovies and capers – delicious spread on a slice of baguette for an hors d’oeuvre.
Another famous dish that has its origins in Provence (Nice, to be precise) is ratatouille, a vegetable stew. This is one of my favourites to cook, because I am able to use vegetables from my own garden. Again, recipes differ widely, but the traditional ingredients are tomato, onion, garlic, courgette, aubergine and bell pepper.
The Provencal flavour in ratatouille, and indeed other dishes, comes from using herbs that are native to the region. Outside of Provence, you can easily pick up a jar of ‘Herbs of Provence’ in supermarkets; the herbs include thyme, basil, rosemary, tarragon, savory, marjoram, oregano and bay leaf.
Sometimes lavender is included as well; of course, lavender grows abundantly in Provence, and this herb, of the mint family, is popular in Provencal cooking. You can even try lavender ice cream.
Lavender field, Provence
What of salade niçoise, famously from Nice? Well, you’ll find all kinds of variations on this dish, but according to Henri Heyraud, chef and author of La Cuisine à Nice, written in 1903, the authentic salad contained artichoke hearts, raw peppers, tomatoes, black olives and anchovy fillets dressed in olive oil, seasoning, mustard and herbs. No tuna, green beans, lettuce, eggs or potato, which are commonly served in the dish.
You may have come across fougasse, a bread from Provence that’s a little like an Italian focaccia. There are variations across Mediterranean countries, since the bread originates from Roman times, and in Provence it’s traditional to add olives, cheese, nuts, anchovies and/or garlic. La pissaladière is another bread, this one from Nice. It looks a bit like a pizza, and is topped with caramelised onions, black olives and anchovies. Another bread is the speciality socca, a flatbread made from chickpea flour and olive oil; it’s served hot as an appetiser.
For those with a sweet tooth, the fresh melons of Provence are simply amazing – and this taste is captured, along with almond and orange, in the traditional sweet, the calisson. They originate from Aix-en-Provence but are sold in patisseries across the region. You may also enjoy olives de Provence, which are almonds dipped in chocolate tinted green or black to make the sweets resemble olives.
And to drink? Well, wine is a natural choice. Provence has a history of winemaking dating back to the times of the Ancient Greeks and the Romans. Today, the Côtes de Provence rosés are particularly fine. You may also like the liqueur pastis, a mixture of anise and herbs which is diluted and served with ice.
Whatever food or drink you consume in Provence, it is all about flavour, and with such wonderful local ingredients, the flavour is fine indeed. Here, it is as Peter Mayle wrote in his bestselling book A Year in Provence: ‘It [is] like eating sunshine.’
Picture credits: hlphoto/Shutterstock; 2) Maria_Usp/Shutterstock; 3) Léonard Cotte/Unsplash; 4) Anna_Pustynnikova/Shutterstock.