« Flowers that Bloom in the Spring – Tra La | Main | Where Eagles Fly »

Jo'Burg Days: The Provencal Table

…Entering a café on the main square, crowded with enthusiastic mid-day diners we were directed to a tiny table. Here we sat down to one of the most memorable of several fine meals we were to enjoy in cold and wintry Provence.
This is the season for hearty, stick-to-the-ribs foods, and traditionally the time when game is on the menu. Today’s speciality is daube de sanglier, wild boar, proceeded by a brandade of salt cod, delicately seasoned finely pounded creamed salt cod served on a slice of crisply toasted baguette…

Barbara Durlacher enthusiastically experiences in the pleasures of Provencal food.

Eating is a serious business in France, as Peter Mayle amusingly told us in his books, and nothing has changed since he penned his light-hearted accounts of life there. The range and quality of the provisions on offer is wide and the Common Market is one great supermarket. Computers, excellent communications and efficient deliveries have brought the world to their doorstep.

Even the most ordinary local shop is filled with an astonishing array of foodstuffs, including the excellent local cheeses, of which the flat white circles of Banon goat’s cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and tied with raffia are some of the most popular.

Fresh citrus from Morocco and Israel, peaches, pineapples and plums, strawberries, cherries and kiwi fruit from the southern hemisphere overflow the supermarket bins; first grade lettuces, leeks and root vegetables crowd the shelves. The delicatessen counters bulge with patés. Farcies, aspic ducklings of pate de foie and saucisson of all shapes, sizes and flavours take pride of place. The important thing is to present a well loaded table during the big family holidays.

The Frenchman’s dedication to his stomach is an all-consuming passion, and from the quality and variety of the food, one soon realises there is a good reason for this. Though expensive, everything is of the best quality and the cooking is superb.
We had just spent an icy morning cruising the pre-Christmas market at Apt, where we were astonished to hear that les truffes [truffles] were for sale at the extraordinary price of one thousand Euros a kilo [R7 000]. These delicacies are much favoured by the Frenchman: their rarity establishes their high price.

As one of the favourite foods of the pig family trained animals are occasionally used to locate the much-prized fungus, but a thwarted pig is dangerous, so the services of a good chien truffier [truffle hound] are often substituted. The secret places are closely guarded and the locations passed down from father to son.

But, as Peter Mayle tells us, a report in the mid-1980’s in the London Times said, (to quote “Toujours Provence”) that people of “unspeakable villainy” were substituting the more common white Italian truffles for the authentic French variety by the simple expedient of staining them with walnut dye, “until their complexions were dark enough to pass as black truffles” and charging the full price. Such dishonesty!

After filling our eyes and senses with the enormous range of foods on the market stalls, we were ready for a good meal. Most of the small restaurants and bistros are family-run, and although their décor is unremarkable, they serve fine food, without pretension or fussiness, excellent value for money.
Entering a café on the main square, crowded with enthusiastic mid-day diners we were directed to a tiny table. Here we sat down to one of the most memorable of several fine meals we were to enjoy in cold and wintry Provence.

This is the season for hearty, stick-to-the-ribs foods, and traditionally the time when game is on the menu. Today’s speciality is daube de sanglier, wild boar, proceeded by a brandade of salt cod, delicately seasoned finely pounded creamed salt cod served on a slice of crisply toasted baguette.
The daube is served in a copper pan, and has been simmered for hours in a good red wine. The dark, almost purple meat has a pronounced grain and a strong gamy flavour. Shot that weekend in the surrounding hills where the beast was rooting under the scrub oaks, the patron paid tribute to the dish by grating a small helping of truffes over each serving.

Accompanied by a bottle of Bordeaux, this was the first of a number of excellent meals we enjoyed in the Vaucluse area of south-western Provence, and was typical of the local cuisine.
Burping gently, we returned home, sallying forth a couple of days later to sample the efforts of Griet and Frank at their charming restaurant Au Coquelicot [the Red Poppy] in St Étienne-les-Orgues. Again the premises are small, the norm in these Provencal villages, but the ambience is cool and elegant, and the service superb.

The room was not as crowded as previously and I was able to get a copy of the menu.

Amuse de bouche Quiche de champignons
Soupe Potage de Carottes au Coriander Frais
Entrée Pavé de bœuf, sauce á la crème de
champignons et éschalottes,
Gateau de pomme de terre et salade petite.
Salade de fruits exotiques
Feuilles de brick farcies avec crème citron
Translated, this means:
Appetiser: Tiny squares of mushroom quiche
Soup. Carrot soup garnished with fresh coriander
Entrée Medallions of beef fillet with chopped mushrooms and shallots in a cream sauce, accompanied by slices of a delicate baked potato and cream galette and a small green salad.
Dessert Mixed salad of exotic fruits, comprising star-fruit, melon, and grapes, garnished with miniature crepe suzettes filled with a citrus crème.

An exquisite, delicately balanced, well-composed meal, served to the standards of the grandest restaurant. It’s only in France that one can find such an excellent establishment in a tiny village in the depths of the countryside.

Another evening the family party visited the local Moroccan restaurant where we enjoyed the following.

Deep fried briquettes filled with potatoes and vegetables
[similar to samosas, but without the spices]
A crisp green salad of tomato, onions, mixed lettuce
and cucumbers with a light French dressing.
Tagine of lamb shanks with prunes
and apricots, served on a bed of couscous.
This was accompanied by a dish of the fiery Harissa chilli sauce
very fierce, but an ideal counter to the sweet dried fruits.
Merguez sausages served with couscous
Accompanied by vegetables in broth.
Merguez are highly spiced and rather dry,
not as flavourful as boerewor]
Assorted ice-cream
Baklava
Hot, sweet mint tea
A tight squeeze into unpretentious crowded restaurant on New Year’s Eve provided the following.
Amuse de bouche Tiny assorted quiches, farcies and savouries
Soupe. Butternut with croutons
Jellied Paté with a rocket salad garnish
Wine. Sancerre
Tartine of goose, duck, partridge and capon en croute
Mixed vegetable assortment of courgettes,
potatoes, green beans and broccoli
Wine. Chateauneuf du Pape
Cheese board
Chocolate mousse,
Assortment of delicate homemade vanilla ice-cream, orange and
cherry sorbets served with granadilla jus
Liqueur. Maydie – Coffee

But, surprisingly, at Christmas and New Year the Frenchman’s fancy turns to marine matters and he prefers seafoods to the traditional goose or turkey. Outside each supermarket and occasionally even at petrol filling stations one finds stalls selling an large range of mussels, clams, scallops, crabs and crayfish. Boxed in clean seaweed and resting on mounds of crushed ice smelling of the sea, the sub-zero temperatures and fast sales mean that winter sales and storage are no problem.

A frequent sight is a Frenchman, baton of French bread under one arm, balancing two or three bulging boxes of seafood on the other, struggling to unlock his car preparatory to going home to a feast – boullabaise perhaps, or a family-size paella? The choice is wide, and the appetites enormous.

Maybe this appreciation of good well-cooked food is a sign of a happy and well adjusted society. If so, then this part of Provençe has achieved a most enviable and well-fed lifestyle.

Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.