A window in Cagnes sur Mer, France

Slowing down to the Provencal Rhythm

Last August we spent a transformative week in the historic hill town of Cagnes sur Mer, widely considered the ‘Montmartre’ of the South and long favored by impressionistic painters for its alluring beauty. Within five days we went from our hurried, busy lives to a more relaxed, slowed down Provencal pace, hopelessly seduced by incredibly fresh seafood, perfect vegetables, and daily rounds of pastis and rosé.

Bouillabaisse

On our way south, we stopped briefly in Marseille to visit family and eat the obligatory bouillabaisse at Chez FonFon, though briefly might be slightly misleading; one can never be in a rush when doing either.

Bouillabaisse is not a dish you make solely for your wife on Wednesday night, it is a robust celebration of life, an excuse to give thanks to the gods. Eating bouillabaisse is a carefully choreographed religious ceremony, usually requiring 24 hours’ notice, whose consumption is performed in two sacred rites ending perhaps with genuflexion to the sacred cauldron.

Bouillabaisse is traditionally served in two courses starting with the broth ladled into warm bowls and served with garlic croutons, shredded Gruyere, rouille and aioli. After seconds are offered, the whole fish poached in the broth are presented to the table, then filleted and served glistening in even more broth.

Everyone from Marseille is highly opinionated about the best place to eat it and are largely divided like fans of rival football teams. Chez Fonfon’s version was everything one would expect from a great bouillabaisse house that has thrived for well over 50 years. The broth was an incredible golden saffron hue with the perfect balance of complex flavors and assertiveness. The fish expertly cooked and impeccably fresh. My mother ate here as a child, and it has remained a family tradition, maybe even legend.

The futuristic Planastel

We arrived in Haut Cagnes Sur Mer, dog-tired. At first, the old fortified town seemed to repel our advance; there was no straightforward way to our rental by car; the extremely narrow streets were a complicated maze of one-way signs, ‘do not enters’ and oh my god we can’t possibly fit there’s. We circled town a few more times trying to find parking before ditching the car and making our way by foot.

The futuristic Planastel parking lot was administered by a gentleman who gave us an unexpected lesson in French bureaucracy. Most expat’s eyes will widen in terror as they recount incredible tales of their first encounter with the legendary red tape of France. You quickly learn why the word bureaucrat originated in France, and how they are the world’s undisputed champions.

The parking lot attendant circled our car, shrugging his shoulders and letting out the stereotypical French grunt as an unlit Gitane hung dangerously low from his lips. He explained why the numerous violations that our rental car presented would keep us from entering the garage as hoped. Luckily, he had a plan to save us: he unscrewed our antennae and tossed it unceremoniously into the trunk, then asked the precise weight of our rental car in kilos accounting for any additional baggage we may have left inside. I couldn’t even fathom the correct weight of my own car, let alone one I rent. As if on cue, my overtired six-year-old begin to melt down, cracking under the stress of the car inspection and ready to confess any sins. The French drivers in the queue had already shut their motors off knowing a long wait was to be expected.

After correctly answering several questions, he motioned us forward into a small chamber armed with robotic sensors that would scan our car to ensure it could fit onto the unmanned gurney to ride seven stories down, deep into the bowels of town. After several attempts to line it up correctly, and a few putains thrown in for good measure, we finally managed to leave our car and begin the long, slow climb to our refuge.

I cursed and mumbled as we trudged up the hill, dripping profusely with sweat, heavily laden like an ox carrying a full load accompanied by a mule of a child, braying in protest every step forward. I had considered selling my soul to the devil in exchange for a simple, quiet pastis in peace, but stubbornly marched forward inch by inch, bound to find our house before morning.

As we neared the 14th century Grimaldi Castle at the top, we could hear loud drunken cheers and smell beautiful listeria blooming commingled with the licorice scent of pastis flowing far too freely. It felt as though my wish had come true — had I entered Provencal heaven?

Square Boules?

I love Provence in all her gaiety.

We arrived on the night of the annual Championnat du Monde de Boules Carrées, the world’s only square boule Championship. The ingenious locals adapted the national pastime of boules to accommodate the town’s steep streets with brightly painted square ‘balls’ and a matching cochonnet that wouldn’t roll several kilometers away when tossed. The narrow streets teemed with crowds heartily drinking pastis, cheering the three hundred players on, culminating in a huge party in the town square. It was hard not to join in the revelry, but we still had to find our house.

video: Square boules in Cagnes

La Maison Cuisinier

We finally arrived at our rental, La Maison Cuisinier, and met most of our friends staying with us. Each couple looked slightly shell-shocked like they too had experienced their own hellish adventure getting there. One of our party had sent word ahead that he was trapped in the car, between the proverbial rock and a hard place, or in this case, our neighbor’s stone wall and another parked car, while trying to pry into an absurdly tiny spot on a serious incline.

A group of us wandered towards the dense blue cloud of transmission smoke to find our flustered friend on the receiving end of what probably wasn’t praise by the Cagnes Sur Mer free shuttle driver for attempting such a ridiculous move. Our friend couldn’t get all the way in without completely frying the transmission, so he had concocted a desperate plan that involved us holding his vehicle in place while he gunned the motor in reverse, enabling him to slip into the prized spot just thirty feet shy of the rental. It seemed like a crazy idea, fraught with lots of peril for the three of us holding the car in front, but we were too tired to refuse.

The event drew curious onlookers leftover from the square boule tournament who were wagering whether we would be crushed. Luckily, we disappointed them and scampered up the hill to the relative safety of the rental.

We opened several bottles of celebratory rosé wine and sat under the old olive tree on the terrace letting the Provencal night seduce us with her charm and beauty. A wave of relaxation washed over my body as the hassles of traveling faded quickly like the last flickers of light from the ochre and lavender colored sky.

Just follow the seagulls

The next morning after croissant, sheep milk’s yogurt and a few café au lait, we traveled to nearby Vieux Nice, to walk the narrow cobblestone streets and visit the famous old town fish market. Our rental had a fully functional wood burning oven which we were determined to put to good use. We walked through the pastel-colored streets passing countless socca stands and food landmarks like Charcuterie Ghibaudo founded in 1877 serving traditional porchetta, Maison Auer founded in 1820 which specializes in chocolates and candied fruits and Oliviera, an olive oil store with tastings. We stopped a local to ask where the fish market was and was told to follow the seagulls.

Home Cooked

Even when I travel, I prefer to cook at home rather than go out to eat. I often end up in overpriced tourist traps suffering through mediocre food rather than finding that gem of a local spot whose cuisine reflects the region. By cooking myself, I get to interact with locals shopping in the same markets as me who are buying the same just-caught fish and fresh vegetables. I find locals to be friendly, and happy to share recipes, proudly offering tips that help you truly learn their food.

When I was in Burgundy the week before, I stopped into a small butcher shop to buy local Charolais beef. The butcher asked what I was cooking so he could better guide me to the best choice. I ended up with the perfect cut of beef and his personal recipe for beef Bourguignonne. It was a wonderful experience that made my trip richer and more meaningful.

It’s an interesting comparison between shopping in North America and France. For example, I bought a Bresse chicken at the local Grand Frais supermarket in Beaune; the kid behind the meat counter first asked if I wanted the chicken gutted or whole, then how I was going to prepare it. The question wasn’t asked to make small conversation like you might find in America, but rather to help the clerk prep the chicken correctly so I wouldn’t have to.

Rouget

At the Nice fish market, I found beautiful red rouget just caught that morning. The fisherman asked how I was planning to cook them when I replied grilled, he quickly gutted the fish leaving the scales on. When grilling, the scales stick to the grill so the fish itself doesn’t. I ended up buying a few wild loup de mer, the freshest calamari I had ever seen and a couple kilos of local shrimp to eat with aioli as a precursor to lunch.

Next to the fish market is Boucherie St. Francois, an outstanding meat market founded in 1959 by Francois Gasiglia, where I picked up a few racks of red-labeled Sisteron lamb for grilling. These special Provencal lambs live their short life on the verdant pastures from La Crau to the summits in the Alps, feeding mostly on wild thyme, rosemary, and grass. The meat is light pink and very tender, unlike any other lamb you may have eaten. The red label designates that strict standards were followed, and full traceability had occurred along all the stops in the lamb life from pasture to your table. The lambs are milk fed for a minimum of 60 days, then left to graze for a brief time longer till reaching the ideal weight of 30 pounds. The label governs such qualities as where the lamb grew up and who its parents were. Sisteron lamb must come from one of three breeds, or a combination thereof: Mérinos d’Arles, Préalpes du Sud and Mourérous.

Socca and Cours Saleya

In the middle of the Cours Saleya outdoor market is Chez Theresa, a Nice tradition since the 1920’s serving socca, freshly made chickpea crepes cooked till crispy over a wood fire. There is better socca in town, but this seemed appropriate to nibble on while shopping for fresh vegetables and fruits on the way back to our car. I stopped at a small stand to pick up a perfectly ripe and fragrant Charentais melon, a tub of olive and fig tapenade to eat with our lamb, an assortment of fresh farmhouse goat cheeses and the most alluring, deep purple figs I had ever seen. Lunch would be brilliant.

A Perfect Lunch

The ritual experience is all about friends, fresh ingredients. Sun, sky, and moments that build memories. — Jean-Andre Charial

We arrived back in Cagnes Sur Mer, completely overloaded with food and ready to cook. After a quick pastis, we fired the wood-burning oven and started to prep lunch. I decided on wood roasted figs wrapped in Iberico ham and kataifi with fresh goat cheese; rouget and ratatouille stuffed in zucchini blossoms; Sisteron lamb roasted with fragrant herbs and drizzled with fruity olive oil from Vallée de Baux, a region where olives have been growing since 600 BC. While the food cooked we enjoyed the chilled shrimp dipped in aioli and a glass of rosé.

We ate contentedly for several hours in the warm afternoon sun, each bite a testament to the quality of lamb, seafood, and vegetables found in Provence. The counter play between the salty, aged Spanish ham and the sweet, jammy figs with the textural crunch of kataifi was out of this world. The little tiny rouget stuffed into a zucchini blossom with a spoonful of ratatouille and baked, only dressed with olive oil was a lesson in refined simplicity. Perfectly roasted lamb chops seasoned with sprigs of rosemary and thyme just picked from the terrace garden and served with a confit of ripe cherry tomatoes, paired with an older Bandol we found in a local wine shop, was superlative. After a simple green salad, we finished with a ripe Banon goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and a few variations of Epoisses left over from the first half of our vacation. It’s gastronomic moments like this that I never want to end.

The sun began to set as we lingered over our last sips of wine before embarking on a leisurely stroll through the quiet streets of Cagnes Sur Mer to the castle. It was lovely to walk past homes with their windows and doors flung wide away, allowing the exotic smells and sounds of laughter to escape into the night air. I am happily in Provencal heaven.

A RECIPE FOR ROUGET WITH RATATOUILLE STUFFED IN ZUCCHINI BLOSSOMS

The open-air Provencal markets are artists palettes for those that love food. I returned from the fish market in old Nice with shrimp, calamari, loup de mer, and rouget. Rouget is a fish hard to find in America except in big cities or from specialty fishmongers like Browne Trading who ship nationwide. You can substitute red snapper, or any other small fish weighing roughly 4 ounces each that you encounter.

HERE THE COMPONENTS YOU WILL NEED

Tapenade: An olive and caper spread delicious on anything, especially fish.

Ratatouille: When I was a small child my mother used to keep a jar of ratatouille in the refrigerator at all times. It scared me to death, I thought eggplant was a plant made from chicken eggs. My mother would eat it by the bowl load; cold, hot it didn’t matter. I could never understand her love for it. Now it is something I keep on hand during the summer months when all the ingredients are at their peak flavors. It’s fantastic with poached eggs served on top, rolled into a creamy omelet or just eaten alone.

Rouget stuffed in Zucchini blossoms with tapenade and ratatouille.

Provencal Rouget with Tapenade, Ratatouille and Zucchini Blossoms

A dish I made for friends during a Culinary Adventure in Southern France using local ingredients and roasted in a wood-burning oven.

Servings 4

Ingredients

  • 1 recipe tapenade
  • 4 each rouget or small red snapper remove head and bones
  • 1 recipe ratatouille
  • 4 each zucchini blossoms
  • 3 tablespoons great olive oil

Instructions

  1. Put one tablespoon of tapenade between the two fish filets.
  2. Stuff one tablespoon of cold ratatouille into the zucchini blossom.
  3. Stick the fish into the zucchini blossom.
  4. Drizzle with olive and bake in 450-degree oven for about ten minutes.

Recipe Notes

This may seem a long and complicated recipe to some. To me, this is a quick and easy dish utilizing components I usually have already made. Both tapenade and ratatouille are great dishes to have laying around at all times. If friends stop by unexpectedly you can put a spoonful of tapenade on a cucumber slice or tartine and have a quick snack. Ratatouille makes a great light dinner or omelet mixed with goat cheese.

About the me

François de Mélogue grew up in a very French household in Chicago. His earliest attempts at cookery began with the filleting of his sister’s goldfish at age two and a braised rabbit dish made with his pet rabbits by age seven. He eventually stopped cooking his pets and went to the highly esteemed New England Culinary Institute where he graduated top of his class in 1985.

Chef François de Mélogue has over 30 years of cross-cultural culinary experience and brings an impressive culinary history and a unique Mediterranean cooking style. After graduating top of his class from the notable New England Culinary Institute, Chef François began his career in a number of highly acclaimed kitchens across the country, including Chef Louis Szathmary’s restaurant The Bakery in Chicago, Old Drovers Inn, a Relais and Chateaux property in New York and Joel Robuchon Gastronomie restaurant in Paris, before opening award-winning restaurant Pili Pili in his hometown of Chicago, rated in the Top Ten new restaurants in the World by Food and Wine magazine in 2003.

While staging with Robuchon, Chef François began to shape his personal culinary philosophy of “Cuisine Actuelle,” which showcases the natural flavor of the ingredients used to create his dishes. In line with his belief that food should be prepared without unnecessary distractions or alterations, François creates honest, healthy and delicious cuisine that is approachable and always delightful. Chef François specializes in simply prepared Southern French-inspired cuisine enhanced by his appreciation and knowledge of fine wine, craft beer, charcuterie, and cheese. He is a fervent student and strong advocate of regional French cuisines, specifically the rustic cuisines of Lyon and Provence.

Chef François resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife Lisa and seven-year-old son Beaumont, who has proclaimed himself the family saucier. He has written his first cookbook about Provence, simply entitled ‘Cuisine of the Sun’, and conducts highly personalized, insider culinary adventures of Burgundy/Lyon, Provence and the Pacific Northwest.

My earliest attempt at cookery began with the filleting of my sister's goldfish at age 2 and cooking my pet rabbits by age 7. Life has been downhill ever since.