THE FOOD OF Provence
Provence (PRO-VAWNS) is the southeastern region of France on the Mediterranean Sea. Bordered by Italy on the east, Provence’s diverse topography is characterized by mountains, valleys, beautiful beaches and salt marshes. Originally a Greek colony, Provence was part of the Roman Empire and eventually became incorporated into France in the 15th century.
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 lipid 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 their 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, and another traditional Provencal concoction. Pistou is the Provencal equivalent of pesto and used as a sauce, condiment and as a flavoring agent 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. “Herbes de Provence” is an assortment of herbs containing some combination of thyme, sage, rosemary, basil, lavender, savory, fennel seed, marjoram, tarragon, oregano, and bay leaf.
With the possible exception of certain southern Rhone wines within its borders, Provence is not as famous for wine as other areas of France. Cotes de Provence is the largest wine appellation and produces reds and whites of varying quality. The star of the area is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a southern Rhone appellation partially within Provence. Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape is made primarily from the Grenache grape but with others mixed in. It is a rich, full bodied, age-worthy, and spicy wine that lends itself well to heartier fare.
1 whole bulb of garlic
1 cup extra virgin olive oil, more if needed
Salt to taste
Lemon juice, to taste, (optional).
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.
8 oz. black, pitted olives
2 oz. capers
1 can (2 oz.), anchovies, drained
5 cloves garlic
Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil as needed
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.
1 red and 1 green bell pepper, roasted, skins and seeds removed.
4 tomatoes, blanched, skins and seeds removed.
1 medium eggplant, cut into large dice
3 small zucchini, cut into half inch slices
1 large onion, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil as needed
Assorted herbs, chopped, to taste
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.