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Traditional flavours of Provence

Market at Aix-en-Provence

When asked to come up with a typical Provençal dish or food, many of us would mention tapenade, the ubiquitous olive spread found on every cafe or bistro table at apéro time. Perhaps some might say ratatouille, a delicious mixture of the summer produce of the region. Or perhaps the bouillabaisse of Marseille with its aioli redolent of garlic. For the more adventurous palate, the Provencal kitchen offers numerous less known options.

Authentic taste of Provence

Pissaladiere, a sort of Provencal onion pizza!

Le petit épeautre is an ancient grain, grown on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux. It has a rather nutty taste and chewy texture. It makes a healthy and tasty alternative to traditional risotto and can be used in soups, salads and as a side dish for meat or fish.

If you have ever stopped to admire the glistening array of fish at local markets, you may have seen the tiny tellines. These iridescent shellfish are the size of a small finger nail and many wonder if they are worth the effort. They’re often served steamed with parsley and garlic or as a topping for spaghetti. Every sweet morsel tastes of the sea. If you see it on a restaurant menu, it is certainly worth a try.

Pity the pissaladière, whose name may scare off many anglophiles. Topped with caramelized onions, black olives and anchovies, this pizza-like speciality is served as a light lunch or as a starter throughout the region.

Provencal street food

Socca being made in Nice

Socca, a flatbread made from chick peas, may be the quintessential Provencal street food. Sold throughout Nice by street vendors and in small shops, especially around the Cours Saleya, this thin, gluten-free crepe is served warm,. Tear it into strips and eat as a snack any time of the day.

Also from the Nice area, le pan bagnat is another popular and hearty street food. A country-style chunk of bread is rubbed with garlic and stuffed with a variety of local ingredients such as  hard boiled eggs, anchovies or tuna, tomatoes, onions, red or green peppers and olives. Then it’s drizzled with a red wine vinaigrette and wrapped in paper for easy on the go munching. Often considered a salade Niçoise sandwich, there are as many variations of the pan bagnat as there are chefs.

Something savoury

Fougasse bread of Provence

Le coco de Mollans is a white bean regional chefs consider de rigeur in soup au pistou and cassoulet. Grown in the Mollans sur Ouvèze region until the middle of the 20th century, the crop was replaced by the more lucrative viticulture. Today a handful of growers have reignited the ancestral coco tradition and harvest the bean between July and September. The coco de Mollans was celebrated at its own festival in 2022.

La fougasse is another traditional Provençal flatbread. It can be prepared savory or sweet. Savory versions may be stuffed with onions, bacon, ham or olives or simply served topped with herbs. The sweet fougasse often makes an appearance at Christmastime as one of the 13 desserts, perhaps flavored with orange water or anise.

Provence locals love their anchovies and no recipe showcases this regional speciality better than l’anchoiade. It is made from just a handful of ingredients: anchovies, garlic, olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice and perhaps some herbes de Provence. The anchoiade is served as a spread or as a dip for raw vegetables. Be sure to enjoy it with friends so you will all have anchoiade breath!

Something sweet

Navette biscuits from Marseille, shaped like ancient wooden boats

Les navettes de Provence are cookies in the shape of a small boat. According to legend, the navette was first baked in 1781 by Monsieur Aveyrous, a baker in Marseilles. He created it to commemorate the arrival by boat of the Saintes Maries to Provence. Often consumed during la Chandeleur (crêpe day on February 2), they can be enjoyed year round. The boutique Autrefois Sucré in Les Baux de Provence always displays a variety of navettes. They offer a free tasting so you can choose your favorite- orange water, anise, chocolate chip or perhaps the less traditional strawberry.

It is a fair guess that most visitors to Provence, and perhaps many locals, have never tasted the papaline d’Avignon. This pink, thistle-looking, chocolate covered confectionary is filled with Origan du Combat liqueur, made from 60 different plants and herbs. It was originally created to honor the popes of Avignon. This adults-only candy will tickle and surprise your tastebuds with one bite – which according to legend, is all that you are allowed to take.

Something spicy

Although technically a product of the Basque region, le piment d’espelette is the Provençal cook’s preferred seasoning to add spice and smokiness to grilled meats, soups and stews. It is formally recognized as a AOC product ( Appellation d’Origine Controlée). Only the pepper grown in the Espellette region can carry the name. You can find the piment d’espellette at markets and grocery stores throughout Provence. It is an easy souvenir to bring home for friends or for yourself.

Trying some – or all – of these “new” foods is an excellent way to learn more about the Provencal culture and will allow you to break your habitual meal routine.

Bon appétit!

By Martine Bertin-Peterson of Gout et Voyage, cultural and gourmet tours of Provence where you’ll make heart-warming memories and visit the most magical markets…

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