I have just been staying near Apt in the hills of Provence, looking out towards the Luberon mountains. The steep landscape is covered by oak and chestnut trees and wild herbs grow out of the rocky, dry earth. Cliffs of ochre, once quarried for the colour used to paint the local houses, cut through parts of the forest. These same hills are where the Maquis once hid and where wild boar are hunted.
The places and ingredients Elizabeth David talks about in her seminal book, French Provincial cooking, came alive as I discovered them first hand. Things that speak of the region and its history of food: artichokes Barigoule; apricots grown near Apt; soft goat’s cheeses from Banon and sweet Beaumes de Venise wines; Calissons – the small almond cakes from Aix and the intense melons of Cavaillon. As you wander through the markets, the air smells sweet with ripe fruit and in other parts, savoury with the meaty fragrance of salamis, olives and cheeses.
We ate fresh cheese, bright white and soft as ricotta, made the evening before, a sprig of sarriette or savory, one of the herbs which grows wild on the hills, pressed into the surface. Banon, another local cheese made with local goat milk (there are few cows in this area, goats and sheep are the only animals able to do well on such rough, dry terrain). This cheese is traditionally wrapped in chestnut leaves, soaked in marc de Provence (a spirit made from the skins of the grapes after they have been pressed to make the local wine).
Our host cooked rabbits with ground cloves, peppercorns and sharpened with vinegar, browned then slowly braised in a heavy casserole until the flesh was tender and infused. Chickens rubbed in sweet paprika, coriander and cumin were roasted, dancing like can-can girls, with a beer-can enveloped in their cavities, the contents gradually steaming through the flesh, infusing it with yeasty flavour.
Everything was served simply: green beans, freshly picked from the garden and tomatoes, stewed to yielding softness taken from a recipe from a 19thC book which we discovered on the shelf in the kitchen. In the greengrocer we bought local Marseilles peppers, smaller than large green peppers but larger than the Spanish Padron, their seeds with a bite of heat, which we fried in a little oil so the skin browned and the flesh wilted. For pudding I made a tart of local figs, with a layer of frangipane enclosed by buttery, flakey pastry.
Hidden in the National Park of the Luberon, in the locality of Saignon, I found a small potager: Le potager d’un curieux, with a thriving eco-garden. For the past 20 years Jean Luc Daneyrolles has grown hundreds of rare and ancient plants, including over 50 varieties of tomatoes as well as lettuces, herbs, peppers and squashes. He sells a huge range of seeds, many for varieties that are no longer available elsewhere.
Blush, deep red, rose and sun yellow tomatoes were displayed on a table to illustrate what the seeds will produce. I stocked up on packets to try out at home and herbs like hyssop, savoury and lemon balm hoping to cultivate the flavours of Provence back in my garden in England.
Our next destination took us from hippy gardening to state of the art wine production and modern architecture at Chateau La Coste. A track leads you through the hills and valleys of the vineyard where works, many of which have been specifically created for the site, are scattered around the paths. Andy Goldsworthy has created a nest of woven branches housed inside a cave, there is a serene chapel by Tadao Ando, a concert theatre designed by Frank Gehry, and even a beautiful potager to supply the restaurant. The magnificent Centre d’Art, also designed by Ando is all sleek concrete walls and clean lines, which appears to be floating on the large lake that surrounds it. A Louise Bourgeois spider preys weightlessly on the water, its spikey shape casting a reflection on the mirror like surface.
A tour of the estate led us past a magnificent Sean Scully sculpture, made of huge cut stones assembled like a matrix to form a massive, structure, an embodiment of solidity. An old wine store had been converted into an exhibition space showing more of Scully’s work, including sketches for this sculpture and large colourful oils on the same theme.
The café served simple Provencal dishes and the wine made from the vineyard. There was fennel salad; plates of local cheeses and charcuterie, and a vegetable clafoutis made using produce from the kitchen garden. I had the tarte aux onions, the rich sweetness of slow cooked onions in a deep, crunchy pastry base. Everyone went mad for a slice of the tarte tropezienne for pudding: tender, yeasted sponge with cool, vanilla infused crème patissiere sandwiched between the layers.
We boarded the train from Avignon to London a few days later, with our pate de campagne and cornichon sandwiches and some local nougat packed for the journey, our last bites of Provence. As the train slid smoothly through the country I thought of how much I agree with Elizabeth David when she wrote: ‘Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on a train’.