In this section, the insider tips are all about food. I make no apologies. Provence's food is the best in Europe. I'd hate you to miss out on any of it.
Take the typical Provençal market. Its praises have been sung so often that you might think there’s poetic licence at work. There isn’t. Have a look in Nice or Cannes or any town or village on market day. Or, best of all, in Aix-en-Provence where an army of stalls invades the old town and food takes it rightful place bang in the centre of life. Over there are the rounded forms and multi-coloured hues of the fruit and veg. To the left, the fish stalls are so packed and fresh that it’s as if the sea had just withdrawn and left the poor blighters stranded. Mountains of hams, saucissons and charcuterie find their place next to the fresh meat – not least the splendid lamb from Sisteron. Then there are the breads, the cheeses, the olives and the herbs whose aromas give way to those of roasting chickens at the rôtisserie. And that’s just for starters.
You'll be tempted to drool. Please don't. It's unsightly. But the great, and unfair, thing about this heady abundance is that it’s not only the most sensual in France. It’s also the healthiest. What with all those fish, vegetables and olive oils (not much cooking with butter here), you may tackle it with guilt-free gusto. The choice is huge, and there are a couple of traps.
How to make up a real Provençal menu
The drink should really be pastis, the anis and herb-based item born in Marseilles. The big brands are fine, but do try Henri Baudoin’s version from up-country Provence. It’s altogether herbier. To nibble, take either anchoiade or tapenade on toast, dry biscuits or as a dip. Both are pastes, the first with anchovies to the fore, the second with capers.
You might try a classic salade niçoise, though avoid resultant discussions. Every single person in Provence has his or her own idea what should be in the salad (eggs or not? Green beans? Tuna or anchovies? Tuna and anchovies?), no two ever agree and feelings run terribly high. Just tackle whichever version arrives.
Soupe au pistou is a personal favourite, the soup being thick with vegetables and pasta, and pistou being the basil-based Provençal equivalent of pesto. For me, it’s a toss up between that and soupe aux poissons (fish soup). This should be quite thick and accompanied with grated cheese, croutons and a rouille paste to spread on them. Rouille looks like a redder mayonnaise (hence the name: rouille generally means ‘rust). It’s tight with red peppers and saffron, olive oil, garlic, pimento and a bit of potato to bind the whole together.
The fish soup is particularly appreciable if it’s a prelude to bouillabaisse, the most full-frontal fish dish in the world. Essentially, it’s a scrum of some of the uglier items from the deep, served with a ‘sauce’ which you’ve just eaten as soup. Unless you’re a true fish fan, you might find it overpowering. Even if you are, you’ll struggle to finish. The dish comes from the hearty side of copious.
You might prefer something simpler, like the wonderful Sisteron lamb plain-grilled with herbs. Or, indeed, any meat plain-grillled with herbs. Provence does this very well. Meanwhile, there are few better outdoor lunches than a grand aioli. Aïoli, as you may know, is garlic mayonnaise. The grand aioli turns this into a full meal with a complete floor-show of accompanying dishes. There will be warm salt cod, carrots, potatoes, green beans, onions, artichokes, perhaps beetroot and, if you’re lucky, a few shellfish thrown in, too. Place that, and a bottle of rosé, on the table and you’ll suddenly find that you’re afternoon is booked solid.
Lighter appetites might also consider pissaladière – a sort of pizza with no tomato and lots of onions. Or barbajuan which is a big ravioli stuffed with Swiss chard and perhaps also minced meat, egg, cheese and rice. Both are extremely agreeable with salads. They’re found mainly on the Côte-d’Azur. As is the very moreish socca chickpea flour-based pancake. It should be slightly crunchy outside and mellow inside. And then there is a marked tasted for pasta dishes which grows stronger the nearer you get to the Italian border.
But Provence also has its more challenging dishes. Squid and octopus are pretty ubiquitous: look out for the words ‘seiche’ or ‘calmar’ on the menu. With a good sauce, these can be toothsome, though not everyone agrees. On the other hand, pieds et paquets might be deemed a dish too far. The simmering stew of lambs’ feet and stomachs is, I reckon, Provence’s main weapon in keeping international visitors at bay. If you need something of this ilk, I’d go for daube – beef in wine, usually with rice, and distinctly more edible.
As everywhere in France, cheese is eaten before dessert. Also as everywhere in France, there’s a pretty good range of cheeses from cow’s, sheep and especially goat’s milk. There is, though, only one stand-out star – and that’s Banon, from the hill village of the same name. It’s a goat’s milk item, dipped in eau-de-vie for conservation purposes and then wrapped in dried chestnut leaves. It really is very good, one of the best goat cheeses in France. If there’s none available, try whichever cheese is most local to wherever you happen to be. There’ll be farmers up in the hills behind who will be most grateful.
A Provençal weakness. They aren’t very good at puddings – not ones which are particular to the region, anyway. That may be because there’s so much fruit about. Given the climate, an orange, a mandarin or a simple fruit salad is, anyway, generally preferable to some sticky, calorie-stuffed cream confection (though maybe I’m just voicing a personal preference here). If fruit doesn’t do it for you, then local ice-creams can be brilliant, especially if they’re from Fenocchio’s in Nice. Otherwise, you might try local sweetmeats: candied fruit from Apt or the calisson from Aix. Go ahead. I’ll be sticking with the fruit salad.
I deal with this subject in more depth elsewhere (see my guide In the Pink: drinking your way round Provence). All we need to mention here is that the main Provençal wine is, of course, rosé. Think of Provence and, if you’re anything like me, you think of a bottle of grey-pink beaded with condensation and quite begging to be drunk. Serious wine buffs scoff. That’s because many serious wine buffs are insane and the others haven’t kept up with developments in Provence’s rosé world. These days, even cheaper bottles – three to five euros – rarely rip your throat out or give you a pounding headache. They can be a terrific accompaniment to apéritif nibbles, a picnic lunch or a light dinner. More expensive bottles will see you through a more substantial meal.
Look out for ‘AOC Côtes de Provence’, ‘AOC Côteaux Varois’ or ‘AOC Bandol’ (among others) on the label. The Bandol region, between Toulon and Marseilles, also makes the region’s finest reds. They’re not cheap but, full of the mourvèdre grape and mineral warmth, they stand comparison with any reds in the south of France. And finally, a white for the fish? Try the flinty dry Cassis, produced around the little town of the same name along the coast from Bandol. But don’t get confused. The French word ‘cassis’ with a small ‘c’ means blackcurrant. If you want the wine, go for ‘Cassis’ with a capital ‘C’. You’d look terribly silly eating your bouillabaisse with a glass of blackcurrant cordial.