Sharing good food and wine with someone you love is perfection.
— Jean-Andre Charial
It is absolutely no secret to anyone that knows me well that I am in head over heels in love with Provence, land of my ancestor. It’s heaven on earth; land of the golden sunshine, peopled by a population that is joyous, defiant, independent with a playful spirit, and best of all, they really love to eat. The cuisine is simple, rustic, and reflects the seasons on every plate.
What I love about southern French cooking is that it is very approachable, unpretentious and yet at the same time diverse and alluring. A food deeply rooted in a regionality carved out by conquest, invasion, and geography. Yet at the same moment, it is an artist’s palette of beautiful colors, textures and sensuous flavors.
The foundation of great food lies not only in the provenance of ingredients and simplicity of preparation but in emotion and passion while enjoying it. My perfect meal is a lovely, outdoor makeshift lunch where just-picked vegetables and fruits from the farmers market, fish caught that morning and local pastured meats were served to a gathering of friends.
Shared meals are so much more than simply food, they become life experiences that celebrate through laughter, friendship, and communion with the natural world. They provide meaning and context to our busy lives and enrich our souls. Charial advises “the meal need not be grand, but the experience surely can be.” As I read those words, I closed my eyes and could begin to smell the nearby lavender in bloom. I listened carefully to the cicadas singing softly in the distance as I lifted a spoonful of soupe de poissons to my lips. The briny aromas of the sea carried me to the Mediterranean and made me think, it is time to visit Provence again, even if only through a meal.
My Top Three Provencal Dishes
The joy of living, I say, was summed up for me in the remembered sensation of that burning and aromatic swallow, that mixture of milk and coffee and bread by which men hold communion with tranquil pastures, exotic plantations, and golden harvests, communion with earth.
— Antoine de Saint Exupéry
The premise behind my menu was simple: prepare a comforting meal that would transport us all back to the south of France. I settled on a few favorite, rural dishes more likely to be found on your maman’s table than in some upscale restaurant. Limiting my favorites to a select, top 3 list was hard, but this is what I came up with:
Pistou, Provencal Vegetable, Bean and Pasta Soup: No other soup, except for bouillabaisse which technically is not a soup, clearly defines Provence more aptly than Pistou. It’s the edible history of the ‘arrière-pays’ or hinterlands of Provence where farmers have long tended their fields of vegetables and fruits. There are several versions of Pistou ranging from ham and bean to purely vegetable. This one is based on what my maman taught me, though she might roll her eyes at the very thought of canned beans and San Marzano tomatoes being used.
Gui Gedda’s cuisine is very simple and approachable, anyone with a basic understanding of cooking can reproduce it without sacrificing taste and authenticity. Here is my adaptation of Gui Gedda’s lamb daube, a brothy, slow-cooked lamb stew best made the day before and reheated gently before serving. This classic Provencal dish will soon become a favorite of yours.
Daube of Lamb: Gui Gedda had become a mythical character in my unrelenting search for pure, unadulterated Provence cooking. I heard his name mentioned in several publications, always spoken with absolute reverence, but could never really find out a lot of details about him. Chefs referred to him as both the Pope and the Marcel Pagnol of Provencal cuisine. Finding Gui Gedda’s book ‘Cooking School Provence’ was a major find; it felt a bit like finding the holy grail.
Chocolate Mousse with Cocoa Nib Brittle: This is an adaptation of Jean-Andre Charial’s chocolate mousse for American home cooks. Not much could be more comforting and more French than this.