Thought for food: Provence’s new identity

Chefs prepare gastronomic cuisine at the Fête de la Gastronomie event, Provence Chefs prepare gastronomic cuisine at the Fête de la Gastronomie event, Provence Jean-Philippe Garabedian
09 Oct
2015
French food is formally recognised by UNESCO as World Intangible Heritage. However, the southern region of Provence is using gastronomy to bolster its own identity

Food is essential, but as France continually reminds us, it can also be a means of identity. The country’s regional cuisines are growing in importance as a way to resist the globalisation of how food is sourced, farmed and served. Andrew Tompkins, historian of Modern Europe at the Humbolt-Universitat, says ‘the most widely recognised and fundamental marker for these regional identities is language,’ as many French regions have their own dialects. ‘However, each of these regions also has a particular cuisine associated with it. Among the representations of French culture, food stands out as the one that most frequently affects the lives of the French.’

Provence, the region of wine terraces, sylvan olive groves and lavender, is easily romanticised. Van Gogh could not help himself, as the mistral blew (northern winds that gust at up to 100km an hour during winter) he captured Provence with the crisp, primary colours of its countryside in the iconic Starry Night. Artist Paul Cezanne and writer Émile Zola are also known to have graced the region’s fields and market towns.

However, despite what we already know about the region’s star-studded heritage, Provence continues to surprise. By tweaking classic Provencal dishes  and bringing local specialities to the fore, chefs in the south are busy forging a new angle to the region’s culture and are hoping to bring Provence into the gastronomic spotlight.

Christophe Chiavola, chef at the Hôtel de l'Image in St Rémy-en-Provence, stresses the importance of the region’s specific climate to the growing of unpretentious but rich ingredients. ‘In Provence,’ he says, ‘we have three characteristics that determine the quality of our produce: the sun, the sea and the dry Mediterranean countryside.’ Chefs are raising the profile of what are often considered basic ingredients such as tomatoes, olive oil, goats cheese and aioli (a sauce made of garlic, olive oil, egg yolks and lemon juice). More and more, these ingredients are being considered ‘heritage produce’ that tap directly into Provence’s regional identity.

food2
Children test their palettes with mystery ingredients from Christophe Chiavola, left (Image: Jean-Philippe Garabedian)

‘In Provence we are lucky to have really good gastronomy, but this is really thanks to the artisans who make and grow the ingredients,’ says Chiavola. ‘At the base we have good products. Customers are beginning to expect good Provence specialities instead of imported ones.’

This emphasis on local skill marries well with the ‘Locavore (or ‘going local’) concept, where only seasonal fruits and vegetables are sourced in order to contribute to sustainable development. While Locavore is not exclusive to Provence and possibly reflects an ongoing trait in much of western cooking, it particularly lends itself to Provencal restaurants as they have so much at their disposal. For example, Chiavola only sources products from a 200km radius which, fortunately for him, encompasses most of Provence and the sea. Meanwhile in Marseille, world renowned chef, Gérald Passédat, is trying to remind the south of France of its ‘forgotten fish’ by serving tub gurnard, rockling and dentex with simple recipes.

bouillabasseTraditional bouillabaisse (Image: HLPhoto)

However, just being closer does not always mean it is cheaper. Glenn Viel, a chef with two Michelin stars, says that this can be a point of contention among customers looking for a good bouillabaisse,  the one-pot fish stew once eaten as a peasant’s dish. ‘While langoustines may from Scotland may cost €18, from the Mediterranean they could cost €60. Although you can not see the difference visually, the taste is completely different and  worth the price. That is not appreciated yet.’

He goes on to say that the region’s wider public are beginning to notice gastronomy. ‘In Provence we know how to drink wine, now many people are gaining a palette to appreciate good food too. It is an obligation.’

Railbookers offer trips to Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Saint Rémy-de-Provence, Arles and Marseille via the Eurostar. 

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Explorers

New evidence suggests the historic Antarctic expeditionary may have been…

I’m a Geographer

Regina ‘Gina’ Lopez, an environmental activist, former Environmental Secretary to…

Development

As the global supply of water comes under increased strain,…

I’m a Geographer

Bonita Norris is an adventurer, public speaker and television presenter, who…

Explorers

Ten women, ten days, two very different matriarchal groups. When…

I’m a Geographer

Clive Hamilton is an Australian author and Professor of Public Ethics…

Development

Cambodia has stopped selling its sand overseas, a move that…

Explorers

Charles Stevens explores the landscape, history and peoples of the…

I’m a Geographer

Rodrigue Katembo risked his life to expose the corruption behind illegal…

Cultures

Of the approximately 7,000 languages thought to be alive, the…

Cultures

After years of debate, the German alphabet has got a…

I’m a Geographer

Kerstin Forsberg is the director of Planeta Océano, a marine…

Explorers

Conrad Humphreys was recently part of the team that re-created…

Cultures

Traditional crafts and cultural tourism are visible symbols of the…

Development

Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one…

Development

Almost two billion people around the world depend on imported…

Explorers

Hiking and exploring Zagori, northern Greece, reveals more than just…

Development

For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about…

Cultures

The conflict in Syria has focused attention on the ‘war…

Explorers

In 2015, Rod Rhys Jones, Chairman of the British Antarctic…