If there's one thing you'll take home with you from your time in France, it's food memories – whether it's feasting on bouillabaisse in Marseille, savouring pissaladière in Nice, trying olive oil in St-Rémy de Provence, munching calissons in Aix or just sipping a shot of pastis while watching a game of boules on the village square.
In most areas of Provence and along the Côte d'Azur, it's generally wise to book a table, especially in summer. Most establishments close a couple of days a week.
- Restaurants Options range from simple village restaurants to fine-dining Michelin-starred establishments.
- Bistros & brasseries Most towns and villages have at least one brasserie that's halfway between a restaurant and a bar. Food tends to be simple, cheap and regional.
- Cafes Where would France be without its cafes? They're the cornerstone of everyday life in France, and Provence is no exception. Come here for coffee, drinks and snacks.
Where to Eat & Drink
Dining à la provençal can mean anything from lunch in a village bistro to dining in a star-studded gastronomic temple. Irrespective of price, a carte (menu) or ardoise (blackboard) is usually hanging up outside, allowing you to check what's on offer before committing.
Bookings are always advisable in summer, particularly if you'd like a table en terrasse (outside).
- Auberge Inn serving traditional country fare, often in rural areas. Some also offer rooms.
- Bistro (also spelled bistrot) Anything from an informal bar serving light meals to a fully fledged restaurant.
- Brasserie Very much like a cafe, except that it serves full meals (generally non-stop from 11am to 11pm) as well as drinks and coffee.
- Cafe Serves basic food (cold and toasted sandwiches), coffees and drinks.
- Restaurant Most serve lunch and dinner five or six days a week.
Olive oil is the keystone of Mediterranean cuisine. It moistens every salad, drizzles over croutons and cheeses, fries fish and onions, and generally finds its way into every dish in some form.
There are dozens of varieties, many of which are protected by the Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP), a label protecting regional products. There are seven AOPs for olives and olive oil across Provence–Côte d'Azur: Nyons, Baux-de-Provence, Nice, Aix-en-Provence, Nîmes, Haute-Provence and Provence.
Each oil has a distinctive colour, flavour and texture, which can be attributed to the olive variety but also the pressing techniques and maturing processes used.
Olives are picked from November to February. Table olives are harvested first; olives destined to be pressed come last. Black and green olives are used; on average, it takes 5kg of olives to yield 1L of oil.
Bread & Cheese
Just like everywhere else in France, bread and cheese have pride of place in the Mediterranean diet.
Local cheeses are predominantly chèvre (goat's cheese), which can be eaten frais (fresh, a mild creamy taste) or enjoyed after they've matured into a tangy, stronger-tasting demi-sec (semi-dry) or sec (dry). Fromage de Banon, which comes wrapped in chestnut leaves, is a Luberon speciality.
The region's signature bread is picnic favourite fougasse, a flat bread stuffed with olives, pancetta or anchovies.
Unsurprisingly for a region that takes up much of France's Mediterranean coast, seafood is a huge highlight of Provençal cuisine.
The region's pièce de résistance is bouillabaisse – a copious fish stew, generally served for two. Lots of places claim to offer it, but for the real thing, you'll have to head to one of the renowned seafood restaurants in Marseille or Nice, where the bouillabaisse nearly always needs to be ordered a day in advance to give chefs time to prepare it. Ironically, it was originally a humble fishermen's dish that was designed to use up all the odds-and-ends left over after filleting, but now it's among the priciest dishes you'll try.
Another fishy speciality is soupe de poissons – a rich fish soup, often served with spicy roüille (saffron-garlic sauce), grated Gruyère cheese and crispy croutons.
Other typical fish to look out for on the menu are St-Pierre (John Dory), daurade (sea bream), rascasse (scorpion fish), turbot, galinette (tub gurnard), merlan (whiting), and especially loup (sea bass, also known as bar or loup de mer). The local speciality is to cook it en croûte de sel (in a salt crust); the result is surprisingly unsalty.
Shellfish is another delight: crevettes (prawns) and gambas (king prawns) are plentiful, as are oysters, mussels, oursin (sea urchin, a delicacy) and coquilles St-Jacques (scallops). They're often served in grand-looking plateaux de fruits de mer (seafood platters), which make for a truly decadent meal with a bottle of crisp white wine.
The meat offering of Provence–Côte d'Azur is as diverse as its seafood: beef, pork and lamb are staples; rabbit is very popular in stews; and game meat (wild boar and pheasant especially) is a winter favourite.
Preparation follows the seasons: stews in winter, grillades (grilled meat) in summer. Favourites include sauté de lapin aux olives (rabbit in a tomato sauce with olives) and daube (a beef stew from Nice).
Fruit & Vegetables
Vegetables form the backbone of Provençal cooking. Staples like onions, tomatoes, aubergines (eggplant) and courgettes (squash or zucchini) are stewed alongside green peppers, garlic and various aromatic herbs to produce that perennial Provençal stew favourite, ratatouille. Other seasonal wonders include asparagus and artichokes (spring) and courgette flowers (summer).
In summer, the tomato is king. There are more than 2500 known varieties in the region, and they come in all shapes, sizes and colours. They are outstanding in salads (with basil leaves and chunks of goat's cheese and drizzled with olive oil) or farcies (stuffed).
Provence also produces marvellous fruit: sun-ripened strawberries, cantaloupe melons, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and cherries all grow in abundance and are a riot of flavour (not to mention colour on the market stands).
Herbes de Provence
Authentic herbes de Provence mixes are protected by an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) label, meaning that only herbs grown in Provence can use the official term. The exact mix is governed by law: it must contain 26% rosemary, 26% savory, 26% oregano, 19% thyme and 3% basil. They tend to be used on grilled meat and fish in Provençal cooking.
Vegetarians & Vegans
In a country where viande (meat) once meant ‘food’ too, it comes as no surprise that vegetarians and vegans are not well catered for. Here are some tips to help you make the best of Provençal cuisine:
- Starters are often vegetarian, so order two or three starters instead of the usual starter and main.
- Dishes that can easily be customised include pasta, pizza and salads, all very common across Provence–Côte d'Azur.
- Small restaurants serving just a few daily specials will find it harder to accommodate dietary requirements, so opt for larger establishments instead.
- Note that most cheeses in France are made with lactosérum (rennet), an enzyme derived from the stomach of a calf or young goat.
- Larger towns often have a restaurant bio (organic restaurant). These tend to have a better choice for vegetarians, but even here you'll often struggle to find anything without dairy or cheese.
Condiments & Sauces
Garlic gives Provençal cuisine its kick, and it's a key ingredient in several of the region's dips and condiments.
- Anchoïade is a strong anchovy paste laced with garlic and olive oil and is delicious served with bagna cauda (raw mixed vegetables).
- Tapenade is a sharp, black-olive-based dip seasoned with garlic, capers, anchovies and olive oil.
- Aïoli, or garlic mayonnaise, is an essential component of aïoli Provençal – a mountain of vegetables, boiled potatoes, a boiled egg and coquillages (small shellfish), all of which are dunked into the pot of aïoli.
- Fiery pink rouille, a saffron-flavoured aïoli, is served with soupe de poisson (fish soup), bite-sized toast and a garlic clove. Rub the garlic over the toast, spread the rouille on top, bite it and breathe fire.
Sweets & Treats
There is plenty to keep sweet-tooths happy. Anise and orange blossoms give navettes (canoe-shaped biscuits from Marseille) and fougassettes (sweet bread) their distinctive flavours. Almonds are turned into gâteaux secs aux amandes (snappy almond biscuits) around Nîmes, and black honey nougat is everywhere.
Nice and Apt excel at fruits confits (glazed or crystallised fruits). Even more decadent is St-Tropez' tarte tropézienne, a cream-filled sandwich cake christened by Brigitte Bardot. A popular dessert in the Vaucluse is cantaloupe melon doused in Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a local dessert wine.
The 13 Desserts of Christmas
December in Provence sees families rush home after Mass on Christmas Eve for Caleno vo Careno, a traditional feast of 13 desserts, symbolising Jesus and the 12 apostles. At least one bite of each is consumed to avoid bad luck in the coming year. Among the culinary delights are pompe à huile (leavened cake baked in olive oil and flavoured with orange blossom), sweet black and white nougats (made from honey and almonds), dried figs, almonds, walnuts, raisins, pears, apples, oranges or mandarins, dates, quince jam or paste and calissons d’Aix (marzipan-like sweets).
Prized by chefs and connoisseurs alike, la truffe noir (black truffle, Tuber melanosporum) is the most illustrious ingredient of Provençal cuisine. Growing wild on the roots of oak trees, these mushrooms were traditionally snouted out by pigs but these days are mostly hunted by dogs. It's a lucrative business: depending on their quality, black truffles can fetch as much as €1000 per kilo, so it's no wonder they're often known in France as la diamant noir (black diamond).
Peak truffle season runs from November to March; truffles also grow in summer (when they're known as truffes d'été) but fetch lower prices, as they're thought to lack the fine flavour of their winter cousins.
Olive Oil Baptism
From the 5th century AD until the French Revolution, the kings of France were baptised with olive oil from St-Rémy de Provence, a symbol of peace and prosperity.
Provence through the Seasons
It was through the humble rhythm and natural cycle of the land that a distinctly Provençal cuisine – laden with sun-filled tomatoes, melons, cherries, peaches, olives, Mediterranean fish and alpine cheese – emerged several centuries ago. Nothing has changed. Farmers still gather at the weekly morning market to sell their fruit and vegetables, olives, garlic plaits, and dried herbs displayed in stubby coarse sacks. À la Provençal continues to involve a generous dose of garlic-seasoned tomatoes; while a simple filet mignon, sprinkled with olive oil and rosemary fresh from the garden, makes the same magnificent Sunday lunch it did a generation ago.
March: Olive-Oil Shop
Drink water first. Pour a drop of oil onto a plastic teaspoon, raise it to your lips and taste it. It can be sweet or acid to varying degrees, be peppery or fruity and ‘green’, or be clear or murky (which means the oil has not been filtered). Once opened, consume within six months, don’t cook with it and keep out of direct sunlight.
The secret behind many Provençal dishes, olive oil is a key ingredient in every Provençal sauce. It is also essential for socca, the Niçois chickpea-flour pancake; and is a sheer delight tasted in March with asparagus (the month’s seasonal speciality): steam the slender green tips, sprinkle with fleur de sel (salt crystals) and drizzle with oil.
March is the last chance to shop for that season’s huile d’olive at the moulin (mill), by far the most interesting place to buy it. Most open soon after the winter harvest and stay open until March or April. Sold in glass bottles or plastic containers, olive oil costs around €20 per litre and dégustation (tasting) is an integral part of buying.
In the Vallée des Baux and Les Alpilles, oléiculteurs (olive growers) adhere to a rigid set of rules to have their bottles stamped with a quality-guaranteed AOC mark. Generally, 5kg of olives yield 1L of oil. Markets and olive-oil shops sell oil year-round and several restaurants serve olive-oil menus.
April: Spring Cheese
Take a round of fresh chèvre, drizzle it with local olive oil or honey and bite into what is said to be the finest goat's cheese of the year – the fresh grass is said to give the milk its extra-tangy taste.
Instantly recognisable by the five autumnal chestnut leaves it comes wrapped in, Banon cheese has been protected by its own AOC since 2003, the strict rules of which require goats to graze for a minimum of 210 days on the prairies; their milk to stay unpasteurised; and the cheese produced from it to ripen for at least 15 days after being pressed into delicate rounds 7cm to 8cm in diameter.
May: Lambs & Bulls
Sprinkle fresh garlic, rosemary and wild thyme over a gigot d’agneau (leg of spring lamb), pour over three tablespoons of olive oil and bake in the oven. Or try pieds et paquets, sheep trotters wrapped in tripe and cooked with wine and tomatoes.
In early May the traditional transhumance sees sheep farmers move their flocks to higher mountain pastures to fatten up on summer’s cool, lush grass under the watchful eye of a shepherd. Sheep graze on the mountain for around 120 days, usually returning in October before the first winter snows. Some meats are protected by their own quality marques – such as the 'Lamb of Sisteron' Label Rouge, which requires lambs to be slaughtered when they’re 70 to 150 days old.
It is a bullish affair in the Camargue where three- or four-year-old bulls who have failed to prove their worth in the arena are slaughtered for their meat to make guardianne de taureau (bull-meat stew) and saucisson d’Arles (air-dried bull sausage). Bull calves reared specifically for their meat are born in early spring, fattened all summer and packed off to the abattoir in October.
June: Red & Green Garlic
Provençal cuisine just wouldn't be what it is without the taste (and aroma) of copious amounts of garlic. It's used in nearly every dish, including the region's trademark garlicky mayonnaise, aïoli. A local tip: crunch a few coffee beans or parsley stems after eating it to prevent garlic breath.
June is a prime month for harvesting.
July: Yellow & Black Tomatoes
A stroll through the Provençal market in July is a particularly succulent affair: July is the month for melons, apricots, pomegranates, the first fleshy black figs of the year and the last of the cherries.
Tomatoes in this fertile neck of the woods are not all red. Of the region’s 2500 known varieties, some are white, some are burgundy, some black, green, orange, yellow and so on. Tomato appearance can differ dramatically – coming long and skinny, smooth or crinkled – just as there is a vital difference between ‘une belle tomate et une bonne tomate’ (a beautiful tomato and a good tomato).
A recipe for a classic Provençal tomato salad goes like this: slice six red tomatoes. Grate two cébettes (small white onions) and sprinkle on top. Dress with a vinaigrette of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper; sprinkle with chopped basil or parmesan shavings and voila – salade de tomates.
One other tip worth noting from Provençal chefs: don't store tomatoes in the fridge – it dulls their flavour.
The artichoke, another July vegetable, is eaten young and can be stuffed with a salted pork, onion and herb mix, then baked, to become petits légumes farcis (little stuffed vegetables); stuffed courgette flowers make an enchanting variation on this. Most vegetables that grow under the Provençal sun can be thrown together into a tian (vegetable-and-rice gratin) or eaten as crudités – that is, chopped up and served raw with anchoïade (anchovy purée), tapenade (olive-based dip) or brandade de morue (mix of crushed salted cod, olive oil and garlic) with an aperitif.
August: Herbal Scrub
Distinctive to Provençal cuisine is the use of lavender, harvested during the hot dry days of August when the aromatic purple flower is still in bloom. Its flowers flavour herbal tea, tart up desserts and spice grilled meats. Its leaves float in soups.
Provence’s titillating array of aromatic herbs and plants is a legacy of the heavily scented garrigue (scrubland) that grows with vigour in the region. Throughout Europe the herbes de Provence mix is used abundantly. Since 2003 the dried herbal mix has been protected by a Red Label requiring authentic herbes de Provence to contain 26% rosemary (a natural ingredient for eternal youth in medieval Provence), 26% savory, 26% oregano, 19% thyme and 3% basil.
In Provence, however, culinary creations rely more on fresh herbs. Fresh basil lends its pea-green colour and fragrance to pistou (pesto), although the herb is dried to flavour soupe au pistou. Sage is another pistou ingredient, and aromatic rosemary brings flavour to meat dishes. Chervil leaves are used in omelettes and meat dishes, and the tender young shoots of tarragon flavour delicate sauces accompanying seafood.
Then there is the sensual aniseed scent of the bulbous fennel. While its leaves are picked in spring and finely chopped for use in fish dishes and marinades, its potent seeds are plucked in late August to form the basis of several herbal liqueurs, including pastis.
Should you fancy your very own herbal scrub, head to the Église de Châteauneif near the Prieuré de Salagon in Haute-Provence and ask the priest at the church to concoct one for you.
September: Red Rice
Gourmets rave about the red rice harvested in September in Europe’s most northerly rice-growing region – the Camargue. Nutty in taste and borne out of a cross-pollination of wild red and cultivated short-grain rice, the russet-coloured grains are best shown off in a salad or pilaf. They are also delicious simply served with olive oil, salt and herbs or almonds, and marry beautifully with the region’s other big product, bull. Risotto-style white and other brown-rice varieties are also cultivated in this wet westerly corner of Provence, where paddies cover 100 sq km and conditions can be unique.
Rice is planted in a pancake-flat field at the end of April and flooded with water from the Rhône, remaining submerged until 15 days before the September harvest when the water is drained off. Harvesting rice is just like harvesting wheat, after which the field is burned and the rice sent to the cooperative to have its outer husk machine-removed, thus becoming brown rice.
Rice is also a favourite snack for the flamingos of the Camargue, but local farmers use a machine that makes automatic-gun sounds to scare them off.
While some rice farms are moving to organic methods, lower yields are a major obstacle: an organic 500-hectare rice plantation yields just 2000kg to 5000kg of rice per hectare (compared to up to 8000kg per hectare on a traditional nonorganic farm).
October: Sweet Chestnuts
Roast chestnuts hot off the coals brighten darker days in October, when the first fresh fruits of the châtaignier (chestnut tree) fall. The larger fruits are called marrons and are packed singularly in the prickly chestnut burs, while the smaller fruits are châtaignes and are packed two or more per bur.
In Collobrières, chestnut capital in the Massif des Maures, the autumnal fruit is made into marrons glacés, crème de marrons (sickly sweet chestnut spread, much loved on crêpes) and liqueur de châtaignes (chestnut liqueur). The tree’s aromatic flowers flavour gelée de fleurs de châtaignes (chestnut flower jelly).
November: The Olive Harvest
In November, the bulk of the region’s succulent, sunbaked black olives – borne from clusters of white flowers that blossom on the knotty old trees in May and June – are harvested. The harvest continues in some parts until January, olives destined for the oil press usually being the last to be picked.
Classic aperitif accompaniments are a simple ramekin of olives marinated in spiced olive oil or a bowl of tangy tapenade, a dip made with black olives in brine, salty anchovies, capers, garlic, thyme and olive oil.
Table olives are the first to be harvested and can be black, round and fleshy (grossane); green and pointed (picholine) or pear-shaped with yellow tints (salonenque). Olives de Nice (the Cailletier grape variety) are small, firm, and coloured lime, wine, brown or aubergine.
Olives generally turn colour in October, after which the main harvest takes place, usually in November, when green nets are laid out beneath the trees to catch the falling olives, loosened from the tree with special scissors. Annual yield: around 350 tonnes.