French gastronomy in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is very distinctive from the rest of French cuisine or French cooking. A Mediterranean influence brings recipes with hot spices and seafoods. Tuck in…
Hot days, breezy nights, thin soil. When you head to the deep south of France, you can leave all thoughts of those creamy cheeses of Normandy, and delicious pates of the Dordogne behind.
When it comes to food, the cuisine of Provence is very much influenced by the balmy Mediterranean climate. The rugged landscape may be good for grazing sheep and goats, but you won’t see cattle herds munching the grass here – in fact you won’t see much grass. But there is another element at play – the abundant waters of the Mediterranean. So focus more on ‘surf’ rather than ‘turf’ and you’ll be amply, and deliciously fed.
The fruits of that poor soil, though, are punchy and full of flavour thanks to a few key ingredients that have adapted to make the most of all that sun. The earthy, almost nutty olive oil of the region, huge bulbs of sweet garlic, ruby red tomatoes, wild mushrooms and fragrant herbs such as basil, rosemary, thyme, bay and sorrel. These are the abundant “herbes de Provence” the spirit of Provencal recipes.
You’ll see plenty of fresh fish, as we’ve said, but there is meat around. Look for tender pork loin, robust mutton, and rich, goose.
Look for simple dishes such as the ubiquitous cassoulet stew of meat or sausage (Spain, just over the border, exerts its influence in the spicy sausages so prevalent here) with tomatoes, onions and haricot beans. Inland, sheep and goats are raised in the mountainous areas for meat and cheese (goat’s cheese going beautifully with the locally grown figs). Teamed with delicious local delicacies such as truffles, artichokes and asparagus they’re the building blocks for the region’s hearty and filling traditional dishes.
For s stew of a more maritime persuasion, look no further than bouillabaisse, a wonderful stew made with fish and eel – with so many varieties it’s safe to say you need never taste the same recipe twice. But if you are only going to have it once, you really owe it to yourself to take a trip to the stew’s spiritual home ground – Marseille. So proud are they of this dish they introduced a Charter in 1980 to stop restaurants serving pale imitations to tourists.
Go to the best – try Chez Madie les Galinettes, a tiny restaurant on the north side of Marseille’s Vieux Port. Here, like all the best bouillabaisse joints, they only use locally caught fish and real Provençal herbs and spices. And the views are to die for too.
Other seafood worth hunting down includes sardines, rockfish, sea urchins and octopus – and don’t be put off if all this sounds way too exotic for you. They really are delicate and delicious. With sea urchin, you’re actually eating the roe – five orange fingers of it, fanning out in a star-shape beneath that daunting spiny shell. It’s subtle, and smacks of the sea. Octopus is meaty and fresh, tasting not unlike squid. Rockfish are firm, mild whitefish similar to cod.
Other types of fish frequently found on menus in Provence are the rouget, a small red fish usually eaten grilled, and the loup, (known elsewhere in France as the bar), often grilled with fennel over the wood of grapevines. You’ll often find a good dollop of Aïoli – a thick emulsion sauce made from olive oil flavoured with crushed garlic. It often accompanies a bourride, a fish soup, or is served with potatoes and cod.
Soupe au Pistou is a popular Provencal soup is made with vegetables, pasta and beans, flavoured with a pesto sauce, while Daube Avignonnaise is a rich stew made with lamb, bacon, carrots and plenty of garlic.
And to mop it up? Fougasse, descended from a Roman flatbread, is given a Mediterranean twist in Provence – every French region has it, but none as delicious as this version, enhanced with olives, cheese and anchovies. Its tomato-based cousin, socca is known as the Provençal pizza – it’s a meal in itself, and you’ll find them sold everywhere, especially in Nice, its adopted home.
Salade niçoise, a specialty from the south, is a heavenly melange of fresh tomatoes, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, local black olives, salty anchovies and crunchy lettuce. Maybe artichoke hearts too. Or boiled potatoes. Or green beans. It’s really up to the mood of the chef on the day! Topped with vinaigrette (or simply with a good quality olive oil), the results are quite intoxicating – no wonder this humble arrangement has found its way onto menus around the world. But few places do it quite as convincingly as Sous le Soliel, at 6 allee du quai de l Epi, St Tropez.
Wash it all down with a chilled Rosé – 75% of Provencal grapes become Rosé wines, and they make the perfect accompaniment to almost every meal here. Fresh, easy, sunny and crisp, they’re summer in a glass.