Cooking, eating and drinking in Provence
It’s Sunday. After a day’s rest, the mistral has woken back up and is disturbing various parts of the town’s market. We wander through. There’s saucisson flavoured with things like ceps, roquefort, truffles. A fishmonger sells dozens of types of fish, almost all of which are sold out by midday. Grocers sell mountains of aubergines and courgettes stacked like the Grand Luberon. Melons all look up invitingly. They’d suit a little provencal dish with jambon or perhaps on their own for breakfast. Elsewhere calissons, the local sweets, are being sold in overpriced gift boxes to English tourists. We stop to drink espresso and take a midday biere at Cafe de France. The town square seems to have caught the worst of the mistral today, but we brave it anyway. And what a day it is, the final day of our little mini-break to the Luberon, to Provence. To the only place outside of London, I feel I can call home.
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It was fantastic as usual. I’ve now been to this little corner of France once a year, for four years. Even without French Provincial Cooking, I think I would have come to the same conclusions. It is a place I want to return as often as I can, and one which continues to provide me joy each time I do.
This time we stayed in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Keith Floyd ran a bistro here in the 70s. I often seem to read pieces in Dish or the Guardian Food Monthly, about Englishmen setting up shop in France. But back in the 70s, I’m sure the locals would have found it odd indeed.
That Provence, the one you read about in various old food books and pieces is in part still exactly the same.
The produce which defined the region is still as incredible as ever. The tomatoes, even in the gargantuan hypermarkets, are gloriously sweet and succulent. It is only here you’re reminded of why tomatoes are actually a fruit. The anchovies are not merely earthy and salty but delicate and complex little fish, waiting to enrich a roast or a stew. And the grapes which grow in abundence just miles from our temporary home create what I consider to be the best roses and reds in the world.
And yet Provence is now a country defined by tourism. For every local resident, Provence sees six tourists visit a year. I always worry that the effect of that is one that creates a kitsch and homogenised experience.
In part that definitely is the case. Most restaurants offer a variation on a theme. Foie gras as the de facto starter of choice, followed by a big piece of either beef or lamb served with a jus. The shops all cater for tourists, with one shop in nearby Gordes advertising that it was English speaking on the door. And the antique markets which the town is known for are priced in a way that reflects the affluent tourism trade that arrives every Sunday for market.
Determined not to experience casual bistro food that we could find in London — or cook ourselves — the four of us in our party took a punt on a restaurant. Le Viver was awarded a Michelin star back in 2010 when food writers all the way from neighbouring Menerbes through to the New York Times were raving about its cooking.
The restaurant is out of town, situated at the end of a long exiting road, after a takeaway pizza place, a petrol station and a lonesome looking sushi bar. We opted for the tasting menu, which featured eight tasting dishes paired with different wines for each course.
Here, we ate a Hendricks, cucumber and Granny Smiths amuse-bouche, which reminded me of England. A foie gras and smoked eal dish that was a strong contender for standout of the night. Frogs legs, which I loved but my three companions found underwhelming. Turbot served with pickled/cured vegetables that reminded me of cooking of Tare in Bristol — a negative for me, a huge plus for my better half.
Veal like I’ve never tasted before. Then cheese, a surprise extra dessert paired remarkably with a sweet cherry, and then a chocolate finale. It was extravagant. The wine was paired beautifully, albeit very light on glass sizes. It was good — and a real step away from everything else we were seeing on menus, but ultimately probably wouldn’t eat again.
Of the four times I’ve now visited Provence, I keep returning to the notion that eating at home is where it’s really at. In Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking she says of Italy, ‘there is no such thing as haute cuisine because there are no high or low roads. All roads lead to the home.’ The same has to be said of my best experiences of Provence.
It was at home where we started with a first night supper of artichoke vinaigrette — chosen because the artichokes looked so inviting. Followed by a slow roast leg of lamb: stuffed with the local anchovies and garlic, and served with a ratatouille.
It was at home, where we prepared a picnic of saucisson, seasoned tomatoes, pate, leftover lamb and artichokes, and anchovies marianted in garlic. And after a drive up through the Mistral-cleared air to Saignon, we sat on top of the world and ate the glorious feast.
And it was at home where we fried prawns in butter and garlic, served with yet more leftovers, along with some buttery new potatoes.
Drinking in Provence
After our final meal, we all took ourselves out for one last jaunt. Almost everything seems to close on Sunday around one or two o’clock. It’s hard to imagine that just a few hours earlier thousands had descended on its tiny cobbled streets for the largest market outside of Paris.
Our two target cafes, both art deco: Cafe de France and Chez Stéphane, were both closed on Sunday evening. The latter we bought incredible Chateauneuf du Pape and another local Luberon red at that afternoon. But for a end of trip drink we struggled.
Instead we ended up at bar 17. One of four or five places open at 9pm on a Sunday. Here we drank through another Luberon local: a bit rougher than the reds not so far away in the Rhone, but very quaffable nonetheless. Then after we drank armagnac before our final goodbyes.
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My love for Provence provokes odd things. “You seem to have been very anti-tech,” one of my friends said in astonishment as I tried to shun the workings of the modern world. Here, it feels natural to do so. Provence is at its most eponymous when having a leisurely stroll through a market — without so much as a recipe in mind.
On Sunday evening, as our food was on the stove simmering away, we wandered through the narrow streets. By chance, our Airbnb was just a minute or so away from where Floyd ran his bistro in the 70s.
As we turned the corner past his old house, which is now an unassuming house, rich smells of thyme perfumed the air. The streets were almost silent if it were not for the windows open and the sounds of families and friends cooking together. The odd smell of herbes de Provence or garlicky chicken roasting into the street.
The whole place invites you back to a simple life where companionship and gastronomy rule the roost. For it is not just about food, but about the way food brings us all closer together. It’s why the spirit of Provencal food cannot be contained to a few recipes in a book, or even a walk through a market. Provence is about bringing together loved ones, sharing stories, and enjoying life in only the way that food and wine can do. That is why after all these years I’ll be coming back again and again and again. Welcome home.