No matter where you go, eating is a pleasure in the Provence. The Mediterranean climate is associated with seafood, vegetables, herbs and fruits. Regions bordering the sea have their forte in seafood. The interior will rely more on the fruits of the earth. So each region has its its distinctive personality and tradition.
Bouches du Rhône
This is the region with Aix en Provence, the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, the busy and colorful port city of Marseilles, the Camargue, land of the guardians (cowboys), ancient Arles, St.Rémy de Provence of van Gogh fame and les Alpilles, the little Alps. The rivers meet the sea here; no surprise that fish dishes are a mainstay. Most famous: the Bouillabaisse, the fish stew, which comes in many variations accompanied by aioli (garlic mayonnaise). In Provençal "Lou bouiabaisso" means: " when it boils, turn down the heat". Other popular seafood dishes are the Bourride (a thicker and more velvety fish stew), Brandade de Morue (salted cod brandade), Encornets a la Provençale (Provençal squid) and Moules à la Marseillaise (mussels). Unless you are adventurous, no need to try Pieds et Paquets (lamb trotters and stuffed lamb stomach), available at nearly every butcher in the Provence. The delicious Anchoiade (anchovy spread) and Tapénade (olive/caper spread) are popular hors d'oeuvres.
The Camargue, the Rhône delta with its pastures and rice fields, is famous for its Boeuf à la Gardiane, its Gardiane d'Agneau (lamb stew), the Quinquebine Camarguese (salt cod and leeks) and the Tellines à la Persillade, the tiny, savory wedge clams.
Callisons, delicate almond paste cookies, are a specialty of Aix en Provence.
The most elegant and most historic of all Provence départements. It is a bit like the Napa Valley of France, a land of magnificent views with vineyards, olive groves, lavender and ancient villages. Avignon, Orange, Carpentras and Vaison la Romaine are steeped in history, as are the perched villages of the Luberon and the Southern Côtes du Rhône wine villages between mighty Mont Ventoux and the Rhône. Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise, Rasteau, Cairanne..... any wine lover will recognize these village names. Cavaillon, famous for its melons, is the fruit and vegetable garden of France. The Vaucluse is also France's top black truffle region: they are harvested from November to March and sold in the truffles markets in Richerenches and Carpentras. One thing is for sure: the people of the Vaucluse know how to make wine and how to cook.
Typical dishes of the Vaucluse are Caillettes (pork sweetbreads), Blanquette d'Agneau (lamb stew), the chicken dishes Poulet à la Barthelasse, Poulet à la Provençale and Poulet aux Anchois, Daube à la Provençal (beef stew) and the Gigot a la Cavaillonnaise (leg of lamb). A special treat in late autumn and during the winter is the Daube de Sanglier à la Provençale (wild boar ragout). There are tasty vegetable dishes, like the Courgettes aux Gratin (zucchini gratin), Cèpes a la Provençale (sautéed mushrooms), Roussin d'Épinarde (spinach/egg gratin) and the Tian à la Comtadine (Provençal Potato Gratin). Two of our favorite dishes from the Vaucluse are the hearty Haricots Blancs à la Villagoise (white beans with cured pork loin) and the Tian de Carpentras (salt cod/spinach gratin).
Typical Vaucluse desserts combine local fruits (apples, peaches, apricots) with the sweet wines from Beuames de Venise and Rasteau. Examples are Pommes au Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (baked apples in muscat wine), Pêches au Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (peaches in Beaumes de Venise sweet wine), Poires au Vin Rouge (pears in red wine), Figues au Four (baked fresh figs) and Compote d'Apricots (apricot compot). The Vaucluse is known for its Nougat (almond-honey sweets) from St.Didier and Sault.
The Département Var, nestled between mountains and the Mediterranean sea, between Aix en Provence and the Nice-Cannes metropolitan area, is known for its dazzling natural beauty. To the north, historic villages perched on hilltops, where time seems to stand still. To the south, the busy Mediterranean coast, sometimes referred to as the Côte Varois or more commonly as the Côte d'Azur, albeit purists maintain that only the coast between Cannes and Menton should bear the name Côte d'Azur. A region of contrasts: the Gorges du Verdon, with its steep canyon walls, to the north and fashionable St. Tropez on the coast. Largest city is colorful and busy Toulon, famous for its mussels.
On the coast seafood dishes are dominant, such as Merlan à Toulonnaise (whiting), Moules à la Toulonnaise (mussels), Lotte à la Provençale (monkfish) and Morue en Rayte (salt cod in red wine sauce). Other well known dishes are Poulet farcie en Crapaudine (baked, stuffed chicken), Rotî de Porc à la Toulonnaise (roast pork), Civet de Porcelet (pork stew), Gratin d'Aubergines (egg plant gratin), Crespeau aux Courgettes (zucchini omelet) and the beloved Tomates a la Provencale (stuffed tomatoes).
As desserts Figue au Vin Rouge (dried figs in thyme and red wine syrup) and Clafoutis (cherry pudding) are prized.
Nice & the Côte d'Azur
This region, the Département Alpes Maritimes, stretches from somewhere west of Cannes to the Italian border at Menton and inland to the Mercantour mountains with Nice as its center. For centuries most of it was ruled by Genova and subsequently by the House of Savoy & Sardinia. A small part was and some of it still is under the rule of the Grimaldi's of Monaco, descendants of Grimaldo, a 12th century Genoese statesman. Only in 1860 was most of it (except Monaco) tied back to France. The cuisine, commonly referred to as the Cuisine Niçoise, has its own traditions and idiosyncrasies. It is at the crossroads between the Provençal and the Ligurian cuisine in Italy.
There is of course the famous Salade Niçoise, much abused by many restaurants around the globe. The sandwich version of it is called Pan Bagnat. But let's move on to the real exciting regional dishes, such as Stocaficada (salt codfish stew), Thon a la Rémoulade (grilled tuna with remoulade sauce), Ragout d'Agneaû aux Artichauts (lamb/artichoke stew), Troucha (Swiss Chard omelette) and Pissaladièere (anchoy & onion tarte). Come spring the Potage Printanier (early spring vegetable soup) is popular. Local staples are the Tian de Courgettes (zucchini gratin) and Bagna Cauda (raw vegetables with hot anchovy sauce) in many local variations.
Alpes de Haute Provence
The Département Alpes de Haute Provence is a remote, sprawling area that stretches from the Italian border to the Vaucluse Mountains and the Verdon region. It is crossed by the river Durance, a fruit growing region. The cuisine is that of a mountain region: wild herbs, spelt (the poor man's corn), goat meat, goat cheeses. A poor region with a harsh climate. For many centuries people migrated to other parts of the Provence due to a lack of jobs. It has a simple cuisine, to the north increasingly based on butter rather than olive oil.
The lamb from Sisteron is well known all over France. Local recipes which come to our mind are the Carré d'Agneau de Sisteron aux Herbes (roasted herbed lamb rack), Filet d'Agneau avec Timbales de Brocoli (lamb medallions with broccoli timbales), Ragoût d'Agneau aux Endives (lamb stew), Caillettes Gavottes (spinach dumplings) and the Charlottes de Tomates (tomato/potato gratin).