Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
October 20, 2017
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Mangia Bene

According to the great writers on Provençal cuisine, there are three foundations to the cooking of Provence: olive oil, garlic, and the aromatic herbs, such as herbs de Provence or aromatic condiments such as pissalat, a purée of anchovies blended with olive oil. Jean-Noël Escudier, the author of an important book on Provençal food, La véritable cuisine provencal et niçoise, said that the king of Provence is the olive tree, the essential element to Provençal cuisine. There is no good cuisine without good oil and there is no Provençal cuisine without garlic.

C. Chanot-Bullier, the author of a subregional cookbook on Provençal cuisine, Vieii receto du cousino prouvençalo, divided the cuisine of Provence into four regions: The first she called the region of Marseillaises, Martegalle, and Aixoise (or Marsiheso, Martegalo, and Sestiano in the Provençal language). This is an area of fish stews and soups, bouillabaisse being the most famous. All kinds of shellfish are important too. One Provençal version of allioli called rouille

is a famous accompaniment to many fish dishes. The meat of this region is prepared in a variety of ways with daube being the most popular; the meat is slowly cooked in red wine and stock along with black olives. The nearby hills of Aix provide an abundance of rabbit and small birds which are favorites for the cooks. The vegetables dishes are often cooked as tian. The desserts have a certain Arab feeling to them, such as the baked maniclo, made of leavened dough, sugar, and orange flower water or the cacho-dènt, baked fingers of flour and sugar dough made with eggs, ground almond, and orange flower water.

Chanot-Bullier called the second of Provençal cuisines that of Arlesiennes and Camarguaises-Comtadines (Arlatenco-Camarguenco-Coumtadino). In this region, vegetables play a role above all. In the Comtat-Venaissin, a typically excellent plate is le tian, made in many different ways although tian d’epinards is quite famous. (A tian is a vegetable dish cooked in an earthenware pan called by the same name.) After spinach and Swiss chard, the most common vegetables are eggplant, cardoon, and zucchini, although artichokes are popular too.

The third cuisine was of Toulonnaise and Varoise (Toulounenco-Varesco). This is the cuisine of the Côte d’Azur, the kingdom of coquillages, shellfish, eaten raw or cooked in fancy sauces. She includes tapenade, the famous paste of black olives, anchovies, tuna and capers, as being a part of this cuisine.

Fourth is the cuisine of Nice (Niçarda), where it is typical to see the use of pasta. Nice has been part of France only since 1860 and has historically been more closely associated with Italy than with France. For five hundred years, Nice--except for a brief period during the Napoleonic era--belonged to the House of Savoy whose dominions included Savoy, Sardinia, and the Piedmont. Nice’s culinary traditions are closely tied with that of the Italians, especially the Genoese, and for that reasons pasta has played a role in the cuisine of Nice since the thirteenth century. Ratatouille is very famous here.

(Photo: Olives in Provence,

Provençal cooks are very particular about how a dish is prepared. They are fussy about ingredients, especially the olive, the king of Provençal cuisine, and about methods of cooking that can appear baroque to the outsider. The origin of the culinary baroque, a voluptuous, almost Rubenesque cooking style, seems to be rooted in the age of Louis XIV. The baroque philosophical sensibility of the Provençal cook is captured in a well-known story concerning an imaginary dish called olives Provençal. A green olive is stuffed into a thrush. The thrush is stuffed into a chicken which is stuffed into a goat that in turn is stuffed into a pig which is stuffed into a pony which is stuffed into a cow. The stuffed cow is roasted on a spit for a long time, nearly a day. When it is done, you discard the cow, pony, pig, goat, chicken, and thrush, remove the olive, and eat it. This is not a story about prolificacy; it is a story about the proper way to eat an olive.

Much of the writing about Provençal food is very misleading when it comes to the historic roots of the cuisine. During the Middle Ages cabbage was virtually the major source of food for the Provençal masses. But in the contemporary cookbooks cabbage is hardly mentioned and we read instead about tomatoes, zucchini, and potatoes as if these New World foods have had a long history in Provence. It seems likely they became popular in the cuisine only recently, perhaps around the end of the nineteenth century.