Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on to a train. Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place at all. But now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm, stony, herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of a piece of orange peel scenting a beef stew. The picture flickers into focus again. Ford Madox Ford's words come back, 'somewhere between Vienne and Valence, below Lyon on the Rhône, the sun is shining and south of Valence Provincia Romana, the Roman province, lies beneath the sun. There there is no more any evil, for there the apple will not flourish and the brussels sprout will not grow at all.'
It is indeed certain, although the apple of discord can hardly be said to have been absent from the history of Provence, which is a turbulent and often ferocious one, that the sprout from Brussels, the drabness and dreariness and stuffy smells evoked by its very name, has nothing at all to do with southern cooking. But to regard the food of Provence as just a release from routine, a fierce wild riot of flavour and colour, is to over-simplify it and grossly to mistake its nature. For it is not primitive food; it is civilized without being over-civilized. That is to say, it has natural taste, smell, texture, and much character. Often it looks beautiful, too. What it amounts to is that it is the rational, right and proper food for human beings to eat.
Madame Léon Daudet, who, under the pen-name of Pampille, published many years ago a little collection of regional recipes called Les Bons Plats de France, goes so far as to say that 'the cooking of Provence seems to me the best of all cooking; this is not said to hurt the feelings of other provinces, but it is the absolute truth.' Whether or not one agrees with Madame Daudet's wonderfully sweeping statement one should on no account be deceived by the often clumsy attempts of London restaurateurs to reproduce Provençal dishes. To them Provence is a name, a symbol to display to their customers; the string of garlic hanging on the wall is something like the equivalent of an inn sign. Nor must some ostentatious meal in a phoney Provençal 'oustalou' whose row of medals stands for price rather than true taste or quality be taken as representative. Provence does not consist only of the international playground of the coast. Northern and western Provence, the departments of the Vaucluse and the Basses Alpes, are still comparatively unsophisticated, and the cooking has retained much of its traditional character, the inhabitants relying on their own plentiful resources of vegetables, fruit, meat, game and cheese rather than on the imports from other provinces and from Algeria which supplement the more meagre resources of the coastal area.
Provençal food is perhaps best considered in terms of a meal such as that described, again, by Madame Daudet: 'I know of nothing more appetizing,' she says, 'on a very hot day, than to sit down in the cool shade of a dining-room with drawn Venetian blinds, at a little table laid with black olives, saucisson d'Arles, some fine tomatoes, a slice of water melon and a pyramid of little green figs baked by the sun. One will scarcely resist the pleasure of afterwards tasting the anchovy tart or the roast of lamb cooked on the spit, its skin perfectly browned, or the dish of tender little artichokes in oil ... but should one wish, one could make one's meal almost exclusively of the hors-d'oeuvre and the fruit. In this light air, in this fortunate countryside, there is no need to warm oneself with heavy meats or dishes of lentils. The midi is essentially a region of carefully prepared little dishes.'
This was written in 1919, but these little dishes of Provence are still to be found in country restaurants where they aren't failing over backwards to provide local colour; places where you may perhaps have the routine Sunday grilled or roast chicken but with it an interesting anchovy sauce, or a mayonnaise made unmistakably with real Provençal olive oil; or a rôti de porc with pommes mousseline, the interest lying in the fact that that purée of potatoes will be good enough to serve as a separate course because the aromatic juices from the roast have been poured over it. It may be an hors-d'oeuvre of anchovies and eggs, a salad of chick peas, a pot-au-feu or a beef stew which will be different from the pot-au-feu and the beef stew of other regions because of the herbs and the wine that have gone into it, even because of the pot it has cooked in. There will be vegetable dishes, too. The haricots verts are remarkable, although of course you won't get them on the crowded coast in August. Provence is now a great market garden centre, and from Cavaillon and Pertuis come melons, asparagus, artichokes, lettuces, courgettes, aubergines, peaches and cherries to enrich our own English markets. The little town of Le Thor supplies France with great quantities of table grapes; Carpentras is the centre of a lively trade in the local black truffles. The natural eaves round about the astonishing red and ochre village of Roussillon are used for a large-scale cultivation of mushrooms; Apt provides peach jam and bitter cherry jam and most of the crystallized apricots we ourselves buy at Christmas time. It is also one of the few places hereabouts where you can still find the old traditional earthenware gratin dishes, saucepans and cooking pots of Provence.
Of course the inhabitants of Provence do not live upon aïoli and grillades au fenouil and bouillabaisse; in the hill villages of the Var and the Comtat and the Vaucluse you are lucky if you get fresh fish once a week; on the other hand nearly every village butcher makes his own sausages and pork pátés, up in the Basses Alpes their own páté de grives, too, and sometimes there will be locally cured ham, jambon de montagne. Once in the little town of Sault, on the lower slopes of the Mont Ventoux, I heard an old peasant lady getting very agitated because the shop assistant had inadvertently cut her a slice of ordinary commercial ham instead of the locally cured variety. The ham was for her dish of petits pois and that jambon de Paris would make it insipid, did Mademoiselle understand? Yes, Mademoiselle understood perfectly, and kept everybody in the crowded shop waiting while she cut the precise piece of ham required by the old lady.
In the season, in the villages of the Vaucluse, asparagus or wonderful broad beans will be a few francs a kilo, a basket of cherries or strawberries the same. Perhaps you may arrange for the bus driver to bring you some brandade of salt cod out from Cavaillon or Apt for Friday lunch; at Les Saintes Maries and Aigues Mortes and other places isolated out in the marshes the travelling market stall called the Lion of Arles sets up in the Place and sells Arles sausage, charcuterie and good butter. Perhaps a sheep farmer's wife will come down the hill with rabbits to sell, and the ewe's milk cheeses called Banons, wrapped in chestnut leaves or flavoured with the peppery herb called poivre d'âne, the Provençal version of savory.
Provence is not without its bleak and savage side. The inhabitant wage perpetual warfare against the ravages of the mistral; it takes
strong temperament to stand up to this ruthless wind which sweep Provence for the greater part of the year. One winter and spring when the mistral never ceased its relentless screaming round our crumbling hill village opposite the Lubéron mountain we all seemed to come perilously near to losing our reason, although it is, of course, only fair to say that the truly awful wine of that particular district no doubt also contributed its share. It was the kind of wine which it was wisest to drink out of a tumbler so that there was room for a large proportion of water. I often wonder, when I hear people talking so enthusiastically of those fresh little wines of Provence, how they would feel about them if they had nothing else to drink. Most of them are made by the cooperative societies nowadays, and what they have lost in character they appear to have gained in fieriness. Of course, there are good wines in Provence but finding them is not easy, and the situation is further aggravated by the growing habit of Provençal restaurateurs of serving all white and rosé wines so frozen that any character they may have had has become unrecognizable.
Then there was the tragic spring of 1956 when it was not so much the mistral which had struck Provence as the terrible frosts of the preceding winter. Acre upon acre of blighted, blackened olive tree made the Provençal landscape almost unrecognizable. Hundreds of small farmers had lost their livelihood for years to come.
It does not do to regard Provence simply as Keats's tranquil land of song and mirth. The melancholy and the savagery are part of its spell.
French Provincial Cooking
chosen by Jacqueline Korn
When I started cooking 'seriously' at the beginning of the sixties, French Provincial Cooking was the book which inspired me more than any other. The piece about Provence seems to me to show Elizabeth writing at her best, conjuring up a different, exotic world where food was colourful and full of flavour, and eating was the most pleasurable of activities.
When I went to live in Rome in 1965 Italian Food was my bible. The Italian Store Cupboard from that book sums up the whole flavour of Italian food as well as Elizabeth's talent for sharing her excitement about ingredients and place. Looking through my notes from that time I see that a favourite dinner party menu which I would produce would be Melanzane Ripiene, followed by Costolette alla Bolognese, ending up with Monte Bianco.
Copyright (c) 1998 The Estate of Elizabeth David