I was convinced to move to France by my British francophile man. Always a foodie, I fell in love with Europe during my fine art studies in Florence, where I also gained considerable weight… Although I miss my native Montreal, now that I’ve gotten used to the food culture – thank goodness I’ve found a whole nation with my same obsession – wandering the markets and buying direct from producers here in Provence, I don’t think I could ever move anywhere else.
In France, there is a picnic culture that continues to amaze me even though I’ve been living here for almost 3 years. The French turn picnicking, and as it can be argued everything else, into an art. You’ll see whole families set up on the sides of roads seemingly in the middle of nowhere with tables, chilled wine and all sorts of delicious homemade goodies.
photo by Jan de Haas via flickr
The food in Provence is quite simple. The produce from the area is so delicious that it doesn’t need hours of cooking time or long lists of ingredients to make it spectacular. Visiting expensive restaurants is unnecessary here. I would argue the best way to see Provence is to taste products bought from the local market surrounded by the rows and rows of olive trees, craggy limestone hills, almond trees and grape vines that make this region so breathtaking.
Other than a baguette bought at the local boulangerie, these are the things you must buy at a Provencal market in order to have a perfect picnic. Perhaps this picnic can be located in a vineyard or an olive grove with a bottle of rose always close by. There is even the tradition of planting at least one almond tree within an olive grove so that the workers can sit in it’s shade for their lunch and afternoon nap.
But now, let’s get down to business. This is how to crack the art of the French Picnic and six essentials you need to buy at a market in Provence.
photo by Drew Coffman via flickr
At the Olive Stalls
The olive stall sells all manner of tasty delicacies. Many have their own specialties of different spreads but these are the basics.
Oh, tapenade. Salty deliciousness. I thought I knew this product well before I moved here. The black tapenade that you find at a Provencal market is bursting with flavour. Tapenade is a mixture of olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil. The tapenade you find at markets is without preservatives, and has a lot more olives in it than the prettily packaged jarred varieties. The vendor will most likely also have a green and red tomato tapenade as well. Black tapenade, in my opinion, is the best.
Of course, if you’re in Provence, you’ll have to buy an assortment of olives for your apero. A lot of olives in supermarkets are treated industrially with chemicals to speed up the marinating process. Buy the local olives at the market. You’ll taste the difference. Lucques are large green olives from the South of France that have a very particular flavour. Make sure to get some brine with them as they are delicate and discolour easily. In the Alpilles, the biggest olive producing region in France, picholines are the king olives used for oil production. They’re a green olive often marinated with wild fennel. If you’re in Les Alpilles in the Autumn, you’ll see a number of families and older ladies at markets, and even in the supermarket, selling their home marinated olives. Also, try the black olives with herbs de provence. The best are the really strong ones.
Fear not! I had been going to weekly markets for months before I was forced to try preserved garlic. I am indeed a garlic lover but this seemed daunting. The first clove I tried was so delicious that I ended up popping them like candy! They don’t have a strong garlic taste, they’re more like eating olives. The garlic cloves are cooked in a vinegar and water solution and left to marinate with spices. They can also be cooked in olive oil. Each stall has their own recipe so don’t be shy to try before you buy. I tend to go for the cloves that are less vinegary and more sweet.
At the Rotisserie (spit-roast)
I can smell the rotisserie from quite a distance. I feel like a sniffing dog when approaching a market. The smell of roasted chicken and the sight of the juices dropping onto the roast potatoes below is enough to drive me wild! At the rotisserie, in addition to roast chicken, you’ll also find roasted and slow cooked meats and veggies.
Perhaps this is a blond moment, but I happily ate andouillette sausage several times before I knew what exactly it was. I just thought it was a rather meaty sausage. Well, it is a rather meaty sausage indeed. It’s delicious. That’s all you need to know. Buy it.
Simple, yes. However, here you’ll find heirloom varieties that are incredibly flavourful even into the later autumn months. I tend to go for the coeur du boeuf variety which for me, are symbols of Provence. Buy a mix of the yellow and dark red for their gorgeous colours. The yellow ones are sweeter but more delicate in flavour.
Goat cheese is not what you think it is, if you buy your cheese at the supermarket in any country not directly bordering the mediterranean. It’s cheap, it’s fresh, it’s sweet and does not have that ‘goaty’ flavour. Look for the small stand at the market with someone selling little round disks of goat cheese. Producers often sell each for only 2 euros and you can choose between cheese made the day before or more aged varieties. Don’t even bother with the herbs on top. I find they overpower the cheese.
Now you have everything you need for your lazy lunch. Make sure to procure a hammock somewhere in the shade for afterwards so you can drift off to sleep with the sound of cicadas surrounding you, or in the unlikely event that you haven’t had too much rose, read a book.
On my blog Curious Provence, I am telling you more about my favourite Provencal markets of the area as well as the best farmer’s markets. Check it out!
This is a guest post by Ashley Tinker.
Ashley is a Montrealer that moved a small village in Provence, France with her British man 3 years ago in search of the French Joie de Vivre or way of life. She writes about her passion for the local markets and festivals, the struggle of assimilation, their village house renovation and lots more on her blog CuriousProvence. Ashley is a photographer; she also offers itineraries and guided gastronomic tours of her area of Provence. Life is good!