They say the Provence region of France is blessed by the gods. I’m inclined to agree.
With sun-soaked hillside villages overlooking sweeping lavender fields, olive groves and vineyards, “charming” is certainly an understatement. In fact, I think “enchanting” is more appropriate.
We stationed ourselves for the week in Avignon, a medium-sized city in the Vaucluse department. Medieval stone ramparts surround its center, running parallel to the Rhône River on the northern side. Echoes of the city’s papal and artistic prominence are evident with the grandiose Palace of the Popes, Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral and plethora of museums. Wandering away from the tourist hot-spots means encountering winding cobblestone streets, vines creeping up the sides of off-white cement facades with pale blue shutters, imposing mahogany doors and courtyards hidden from view.
Because Avignon is just a short drive away from a handful of villages in the Luberon Regional Nature Park, it served as the perfect gateway to the region and all its flavors.
If there’s one thing that has remained constant throughout my travels in France, it’s the prominence of the local market, and Avignon was no exception.
Les Halles is a covered marketplace in the heart of the city open every morning from Tuesday to Sunday. There are upwards of 40 stalls stacked high with fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, spices and other regional specialities.
As our go-to breakfast destination, we feasted on quiche (lorraine and spinach/goat cheese), blood oranges and farm-fresh yogurt. We also discovered this savory Provençal tart with olives, eggplant, tomatoes and herbes de provence (a mixture of dried marjoram, rosemary, thyme and oregano).
Due to the mild Mediterranean climate, the Vaucluse region is renowned for its truffle harvest. In fact, the markets in this region alone are responsible for 70% of all truffle sales in France, with most sold under the name “Truffe du Périgord.”
So when we sat down to eat at Estaminet, Arômes et Tentations (EAT), a small but inviting restaurant dishing out traditional seasonal cuisine, it was no surprise that I started with this warm cauliflower soup drizzled with truffle-infused olive oil.
The region’s proximity to the Mediterranean Sea means you’ll be unlikely to pass through without spotting at least one poisson dish on every menu. Perhaps the most renowned is the bouillabaisse, a saffron-infused fish stew originating from Marseille.
Although I had eaten my fair share of fish in La Rochelle the week prior, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a taste of the region’s seafood-dense cuisine.
When ordering traditional cassoulet, a speciality of the southwest region of France, you can expect a hearty stew with duck or goose confit, sausage and white beans. However, as a Provençal spin on the meat-heavy dish, this cod cassoulet was brimming with tomatoes, white beans, zucchini and snap peas.
Traveling during the first week of April meant celebrating the very beginning of peak asparagus season. At Le Gout du Jour, I started with this vegetable-centric appetizer featuring white and green hot asparagus in addition to a cold asparagus panna cotta.
The simplicity of the dish was a testament to the power of allowing high-quality ingredients speak for themselves.
While in Lourmarin, a commune nestled amongst olive groves, vineyards and almond trees, we ate al-fresco at Café de L’Ormeau and, in classic Provençal fashion, started with an olive tapenade.
As its name would suggest, salad Niçoise originates from Nice and features greens, tomatoes, green beans, boiled potatoes, hard boiled eggs, olives, tuna and anchovies. Our lunch spread included three of these salads in addition to a traditional ratatouille omelette with stewed eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and onion.
And of course a plate of frites to share as well.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
- Have you ever visited the Provence region of France?
- What is your favorite Provençal specialty?