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.
‘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.
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.’