As the book Lunch in Provence so clearly conveys, the ritual experience is all about friends, fresh ingredients, sun, sky, and moments that build memories. It’s not much about dining alone, though I could actually imagine a tranquil solitary lunch at a café, or a picnic savoured on the top of a mountain after a long morning’s hike. The meal need not be grand but the experience can surely be. All the possibilities are there: the freshest of fish and shellfish from the Mediterranean, fruit and vegetables from nearby farms and markets; wines from vineyards that hug the Rhône River valley; breads made from locally grown and ground épeautre (poorman’s-wheat), which grows so happily in the hills outside Nyons; lamb that grazes on the sides of Mont Ventoux. Add to this recipe friends, sunshine, the great outdoors, and you have a good chance of creating an unforgettable experience.
Lunch in Provence should almost always be preceded by a morning visit to one of the region’s outdoor markets – open-air festivals that take place weekly. In our town of Vaison-la-Romaine, I anticipate the Tuesday market day as if it were Christmas morning. Hundreds of merchants stream into the village before 6am, setting up market stalls that will offer the freshest seasonal produce.
Come summer we’ll find shiny purple eggplant; all manner, colour, shape, and size of heirloom tomatoes; sleek and firm zucchini in hues of green and yellow; mountains of summer salad greens, ranging from pungent arugula or roquette, to the local multicoloured salad mix known as mesclun. For lunch, there is always an endless shopping list of prepared foods: olive and pork sausage from the local butcher, a crispy rotisserie chicken, fresh spring rolls and tiny fried nems from the local Loatian, all manner of fresh goat’s-milk cheese from the varied farm stands, and fresh Mediterranean anchovies and sardines ready for a quick cure of local extra-virgin olive oil and coarse sea salt for an instant first course accompanied by a sip of icy, chilled, and refreshing rosé wine. One’s eyes are almost always bigger than one’s stomach and, inevitably, we always end up with way too much food. But all these can go into a quickly concocted lunch in Provence, eaten alone or in tandem, savoured in the welcoming outdoors.
My very first lunch in the South of France – a picnic by a cooling stream in some quiet corner of the Drôme – followed not a market visit but a marketing visit. We’d been invited for a long weekend in that rugged département to get away from the kinds of city pressures that had trailed us from New York to Paris. It’s very hard to imagine feeling a need to flee Paris, but apparently we did. Our hosts knew of a farm on the southern edge of that département, the area known as the Drôme Provençale, where the owners cured the tangy black Nyons olives harvested from their own trees, made an array of fruit confitures and jellies, and produced a full selection of honeys. There was also a hearty, heady vin de pays from the property. We were interested in the full bounty. But buying meant sampling first.
We sat on the terrace with the owner and his wife, tasting their olives, sampling the goat’s-milk cheese that she sold at the festive markets in nearby villages, and, of course, trying their wine. It was a captivating moment – truly, because a short time later we bought our own Provençal farmhouse with a vineyard and olive and fruit trees. And now beehives, too.
Sitting on our west-facing ‘sunset’ terrace one afternoon in July, surrounded by good friends, with honey bees passing above, visiting the purple butterfly bush one moment, the lavender in bloom the next. We were grateful that the pesky mistral wind was not blowing, but rather a slight breeze from the east brushed our cheeks ever so gently. The sky was blue as blue can be, and the light had that Impressionist’s glow. We feasted on my friend Rolando’s creation of the day, a dish we call ‘Provence on a Plate’, a colourful layered affair of fresh-from-the-garden eggplant, black olive tapenade from home-cured olives, heirloom tomatoes in red, yellow, and green, and a thin layer of local fresh goat’s-milk cheese, all garnished with tender leaves of fresh basil. Homemade sourdough multigrain bread came from the wood-fired bread oven that morning, and our peppery red Côtes du Rhône, carefully decanted, joined us through the long and languid lunch. Best of all, there was the sound of laughter and good times, friendships were strengthened, and we knew that if these moments did not exist, we might try to make them up. Though not at all planned, that lunch lasted until six o’clock in the evening. That’s just how grand lunch in Provence can be!
In Provence, we have the chance of dining outdoors at lunchtime 365 days a year. Even in the winter months of November through March, the blazing sun might decide to shine warm and bright, and that’s when we happily take out our crisp, white, monogrammed linens, ceramic knife rests, silver cutlery, and fine wine glasses, and construct a culinary celebration. The meal may be simple but the pleasure grand, with a local farm chicken, roasted in the bread oven, anointed with a mild olive oil from the ripe and wrinkled tanche variety of olives from nearby Nyons. A wintry fennel and tomato stew will go with it, along with a trio of local goat’s-milk cheeses from our local cheesemonger. Dessert might be a seasonal fruit, a few bunches of grapes that have been left on the vines after harvest, some welcoming tart Corsican clementines, or a fig purée (simmered and preserved in August) topped with a fromage blanc (white cheese) sorbet.
Whether it is a restaurant meal, one you prepare and share with friends, or one at which you are a guest at someone else’s home, lunch in Provence always offers the potential of bringing you new levels of happiness, discovery, contentment. The possibilities are endless. Hope for a touch of serendipity, surprise, and renewal.
Recipes from Lunch in Provence (by photographer Rachael McKenna and chef Jean-André Charial, with an introduction by Patricia Wells)
Mussel gratin (Moules gratinées)
4 1/2 lb (2kg) mussels
2 glasses white wine
1 shallot, chopped
1/2 cup (100ml) whipping cream (30% fat content)
pinch of powdered saffron
2 tablespoons (30g) butter 1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 360°F (180°C).
2. Put the mussels in a large saucepan with the wine and shallot.
3. Cook until the mussels are open, then drain them, keeping the liquid.
4. Remove half of the shells from the mussels, and place shell-side down in a gratin dish.
5. Strain the liquid then put it back in the saucepan with the cream and saffron.
6. Cook rapidly until the liquid is reduced by half.
7. Add the butter, pour the sauce over the mussels.
8. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs, and bake in the oven for about 5 minutes.
Hazelnut clafoutis with cherries and raspberries
1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
generous 3/4 cup (70g) ground hazelnuts
1 3/4 tablespoons cake flour
2 large or 3 small eggs
3 egg yolks
1 cup (250ml) whipping cream (30% fat content)
4-5 cups (500g) cherries (leave the stones in, to retain their flavour)
raspberries to garnish
fresh cherries to garnish
confectioners’ sugar to garnish
almond or pistachio ice cream to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 360 ?F (180 ?C).
2. Mix all of the dry ingredients together. Gradually stir in the eggs and egg yolks, then the cream.
3. Divide the batter among 4 or 5 small ovenproof dishes and bake in the oven for 2 minutes.
4. Remove from the oven, place a layer of cherries on top, and bake for a further 20 minutes.
5. Remove from the oven again, garnish with raspberries, fresh cherries, and confectioners’ sugar.
6. Serve immediately with the ice cream.
Originally published in the August-September 2013 issue of France Today. The book, Lunch in Provence, is published by Flammarion. 232 pages.