The food and drink of Provence

The food and drink of Provence

by Nancy Anne Harbord 22 December 2015

The varied landscape of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur yields sun-soaked fruit and vegetables, olives, truffles, flowers and herbs, lavender honey, rosé wine, craft beer and liqueurs, to name but a few local treats – which is why this area of south east France still stands out as a top culinary destination.

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Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, in the south east of France, spans the sunny beaches of the Mediterranean Riviera, the dramatic southern Alps, the bustling coastal cites of Marseille and Nice as well as the varied villages and plains of the interior. Although part of France for the past 400 years, Provence retains a distinct cultural identity and local language, particularly away from the coast. With the Italian border close by, these lands have changed hands repeatedly over the centuries and the food displays a clear Italian inflection – fresh, flavoursome, Mediterranean cuisine that deliciously span the two nations. I spent a sunny November week in this incredibly varied landscape, sampling, tasting, experiencing and breathing in the delights that Provence has to offer.

And the delights are many. Gorgeously fresh fish and shellfish feature heavily in the local cuisine, but as a vegetarian, for me the greatest joy was to be found in the food shopping. Bakeries piled high with crafted breads, savoury pies and delicate pâtisserie. There are cheese shops at every turn, displaying the nation’s wonderfully varied output, as well as raw dairy products that have all but disappeared from British kitchens. Fruit and vegetables, with flavours and aromas rarely experienced in northern climes, grow abundantly in the sunny south. Oils and vinegars, herbs and spices, honey and preserves – all beautifully packaged – constantly tempt. There are wines for which the country is rightly famous, but also artisan liqueurs that rarely make it abroad. The land’s wild bounty is treated with reverence and each new seasonal wave is celebrated. Traditional methods of production, though niche in France as elsewhere in the industrialised world, are still highly prized. In this we can learn a lot from the French.

Lavender fields
Wild peppercorns from Madagascar

Herbes de Provence

The floral, resinous fragrance of herbes de Provence, one of the region’s most characteristic exports, wafts from the marjoram, savory, rosemary, thyme and oregano bushes that grow wild almost everywhere. Colourful herb blends, flavoured salts, dried flowers and spices are widely available by weight and these seasoning mixes gently scent all manner of local dishes.

A particularly exciting find for me was wild peppercorns – not grown in the area, but imported from Madagascar, an ex-French colony, via the Provençal port of Marseille.

Stunning purple lavender, harvested in summer to fuel the local soap and perfume industries, also lends a delicate touch to high-end Provençal desserts, flavouring ice creams, sorbets and custards, although this is not traditional in rustic home cooking. Lavender too feeds the bees of Provence, who in turn produce the most elegant of honeys – rich, smooth and perfumed – when the flower buds are at their aromatic peak in July and August.

Wild thyme liqueur
Wild thyme liqueur
Craft beer made in the mountains

Beers, wines and liqueurs

These wild herbs make their way into other produits artisanaux, that with a little digging can easily be unearthed from specialist shops and producers. This pink-hued liqueur, made with the colourful buds of mountain thyme is particular to the valley where it was made, but the joy of food shopping in France is that such unique offerings are available everywhere, if not in the supermarché.

Beer has never been a huge draw for me in France, displaying little of the craft and variety of the nation’s wines. But high in the Alps, in the Ubaye Valley, I found a real gem. After a fifty-year hiatus, traditional beers are once again being brewed in the mountains. La Brasserie des Hautes Vallees, France’s highest brewery at more than 1500 metres, is producing a range of bière sauvage – wild beer. Unpasteurised, unfiltered and bottle-fermented, they are made with local organic ingredients and pollution-free spring water for flavours that are unique to this wild mountain land.

Wine has been made in Provence for the past 2600 years and the oldest wine region in France is located here. Rosé accounts for nearly ninety percent of production, a focus that is unique to Provence, and the region sets the benchmark for this type of wine. Striking differences in climate, altitude, soils, rainfall and flora create a huge range of individual terroirs across the area’s nine protected AOCs, each with their own special characteristics. Les Baux de Provence, for example, is particularly suited to organic production due to its endless hours of hot, bright sun and strong Mistral winds. Palette is the smallest Provençal AOC, yet it is home to over twenty-five grape varietals; dedicated to the preservation of Provençal wine traditions, all its grapes are hand-harvested.

The southern Alps
A tree laden with ripe persimmons
Pink shallots

Fruits, vegetables, mushrooms and truffles

Meat has traditionally been eaten sparingly in the region; instead, vegetables play a key role. The Durance and Rhône valleys are found in Provence – two hugely fertile areas known as The Garden of France – and beautifully flavoured Mediterranean vegetables like tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, courgettes, fennel, artichokes, onions and garlic, as well as pulses like chickpeas, feature strongly. Some of the best food I had in Provence came from bakeries and street food stalls – hearty chunks of pie stuffed with courgettes and local cheese; pastry pizza topped with ripe, juicy tomatoes and socca; a hot, creamy chickpea pancake baked in huge round pans with plenty of olive oil.

Fruits – berries, figs, melons, persimmons, apples, citrus – are central to desserts, with the excess processed into all kinds of preserves. There are jams and spreads, but also pâtes de fruit – delicate set fruit purées in rainbow colours with a sparkly sugar coating.

Truffles also grow well in the area, loving, as they do, the same soils as vines. More than two-thirds of French truffles originate in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region and both the prized black Perigord truffle and the more common Burgundy truffle can be found here. An autumn or winter visit is the perfect time to enjoy this culinary treat, as the season ranges from November to March. Other wild mushrooms that grow abundantly in the varied landscape of Provence are also at their best as the days start to cool.

Wild blewit mushrooms
Provencal olive tapenade
Unripe olives
Unripe olives growing in the sun

Olives, olive oil and tapenade

Olives are a feature of Provençal cuisine, piled high in markets and puréed into the region’s famous tapenade – a deeply flavourful blend of black olives, capers, anchovy, garlic and olive oil.

Olive oil is also an important regional product, although today’s producers are a different breed to the generations that preceded them. New to the art but dedicated to artisan production, they are reviving and modernising ancient traditions, creating complex, nuanced oils with a strong emphasis on production values and terroir. The limits of Provence’s crop means these oils are rarely found outside the region, so they are well worth seeking out.

There is so much more to discover. The wood-fired ovens found throughout the Alps, making smoky, charred pizzas and roasted meats. The huge range of seafood and the classic Provence dishes that showcase it – bouillabaisse, a fish stew served with rouille; fruits de mer, a plate of strikingly fresh seafood drizzled with fresh lemon; salad Niçoise, a joyful plate celebrating the best of land and sea. The speciality chèvre cheeses, only found within a few miles of the farms that makes them. There are producers with a long history of traditional production, but also a new generation who are remaking old recipes and reviving new skills. But to find out more about them, I guess you’ll just have to visit.

The limits of Provence’s crop means these olive oils are rarely found outside the region, so they are well worth seeking out.

Nancy Anne Harbord