Provence evokes images of sun-drenched fields, fragrant lavender, and rustic villages. Famous for dishes such as bouillabaisse and ratatouille, this serene region of southern France is also a food lover's paradise. With it's strong emphasis on fresh ingredients from the countryside such as olives, tomatoes, zucchini eggplant, and lemons, Provencal cuisine has earned the nickname "la cuisine du soleil" (cuisine of the sun). One bite and you'll understand why.
As with every section of France, the culinary profile of Provence is influenced by its climate, geography, and proximity to neighboring cultural influences. The warm weather, coastal location, and impact of other Mediterranean culinary forces produce a cuisine at odds with the stereotypical conception of French food. For example, the fat of choice is not butter or cream, but olive oil. Moreover, there is greater reliance on fresh vegetables, herbs, and seafood, (particularly cod and anchovies) than most other parts of France. Although the Greek influences are evident, Provence's gastronomy is more akin to neighboring Italy than the rest of France. Tomatoes, garlic, herbs, eggplant, artichokes, and almonds are just some of the cast of regulars.
There are a number of dishes that Provence is famous for. Bouillabaisse is the classic seafood stew made with an assortment of fish and shellfish, tomatoes, garlic, saffron, herbs, wine and olive oil. Bourride is similar to bouillabaisse except that it does not have tomato and is thickened with aioli, a garlic mayonnaise, another traditional Provencal concoction. Pistou is the Provencal equivalent of pesto and used as a sauce, condiment and as flavoring in soupe au pistou, Provence's version of Minestrone. Another famous appareil is tapenade, a ground mixture of olives, anchovies, capers, olive oil and lemon juice. In the fall and winter, a variety of daubs, or stews are produced from various meats and wild game.
Olives were introduced to Provence by the ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago and today accompany the traditional Provençal apéritif of pastis; they appear in sauces and salads, on tarts and pizzas, and mixed with capers in a paste called tapenade to spread on bread or biscuits. They are also used in traditional meat stews, like daube Provençale.
Olive oil is the starting point for most Provençal dishes; spiced with chillis or Provençal herbs (wild thyme, sage, rosemary, basil, lavender, savory, fennel seed, marjoram, tarragon, oregano, and bay leaf), it's also poured over pizzas, sandwiches and, of course, used in vinaigrette and mayonnaise with all the varieties of salad. The ingredient most often mixed with olive oil is the other classic of Provençal cuisine: garlic. Whole markets are dedicated to strings of pale purple garlic.
Vegetables have double or triple seasons in Provence, often beginning while northern France is still in the depths of winter. Ratatouille ingredients - tomatoes, capsicum, aubergines, courgettes and onions - are the favorites, along with asparagus. Courgette flowers, or fleurs de courgettes farcies, stuffed with pistou or tomato sauce, are one of the most exquisite Provençal delicacies.
Sheep, taken up to the mountains in the summer months, provide the staple meat, of which the best is agneau de Sisteron, often roasted with Provençal herbs as a gigot d'agneau aux herbes. But it's fish that features most on traditional menus, with freshwater trout, salt cod, anchovies, sea bream, monkfish, sea bass, and whiting all common, along with wonderful seafood: clams, periwinkles, sea urchins, Oysters, spider crabs and langoustines piled into spiky sculptural plateaux de fruits de mer.
Cheeses are invariably made from goat's or ewe's milk. Two famous ones are Banon, wrapped in chestnut leaves and marinated in brandy, and the aromatic Picadon, from the foothills of the Alps.
Sweets of the region include chocolates, notably from Valrhona in Tain L'Hermitage and from Puyricard near Aix, almond sweets called calissons from Aix, candied fruit from Apt and nougat from Montélimar. As for fruit, the melons, white peaches, apricots, figs, cherries and Muscat grapes are unbeatable. Almond trees grow on the plateaux of central Provence, along with lavender, which gives Provençal honey its distinctive flavor.
Some of France's best wine is produced in the Côtes du Rhône vineyards, of which the most celebrated is the Crozes-Hermitage appellation. Once past the nougat town of Montélimar and into Provence, the best wines are to be found in the villages around the Dentelles, notably Gigondas, and at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Huge quantities of wine are produced in Provence, many of the vineyards planted during World War I in order to supply every French soldier with his ration of a liter a day.
Traditional aioli is made only with olive oil and garlic via a mortar and pestle but you can use a food processor. Peel the garlic cloves and puree them in the processor. Then add the oil in a very thin stream until a smooth paste is achieved. Season with salt and lemon juice if you like. Modern versions puree the garlic with two egg yolks to make a thicker and more America-grocery-store mayonnaise. Either way Aioli can be used as an accompaniment to meat, fish or vegetables, served on toasted bread, or used as a flavoring agent.
Puree all the ingredients in a food processor except the olive oil first. Then add the olive oil in a thin stream until a spreadable paste is achieved. Other additions to the tapenade include sun-dried tomatoes and various herbs. Like aioli, it is served with meat, fish, vegetables, or on toasted bread. Tapenade can also be used as a filling. Take a paillard, (a thin slice of meat), such as a cutlet or a chicken breast that you've pounded thin, roll it with a tapenade stuffing and then sauté.
Ratatouille is a Provencal vegetable stew that is popular all along the Mediterranean coast. It is a summer dish, best when the vegetables are in season and at their peak.
Slice the peppers into half-inch strips and roughly chop the tomatoes. In a large Dutch oven sauté the onions, peppers, zucchini, and eggplant separately, in olive oil until each vegetable browns. If you do them all at once the pan will be overcrowded and they will not sauté, they will steam and not brown. After all the vegetables are browed, combine them in the Dutch oven, add the tomatoes and garlic, a squirt or two of olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low to medium heat for 30 minutes or until very tender. Add the herbs at the end and check for additional salt and pepper. You can use any combination of herbes de Provence but basil, thyme, oregano, and marjoram are common selections.