Provence: A Throwback to the Lunch of a Lifetime
Updated: Sep 11
Provence's biggest shows are sprawling lavender fields, remote valleys, vineyards, medieval farmhouses, and hilltop towns, all worthy of the long haul.
The towns and villages surprise you with 17th-century well-preserved architecture, daily markets of finest local produce, and scenic drives en route. As a result of that, Provence became a holiday retreat for the well-heeled Parisians, Europeans, and today, the rest of the world.
Nature has been bountiful to the Provençaux, throwing an abundant larder to each Provencal house, which in turn shows up at the table every lunch and dinner, and I too had to be a part of one such lunch in the spring of 2016.
We drove uphill, leaving behind the French Riviera, meandering through Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region in southern France. After an hour on hairpin bends, albeit giving off jaw-dropping views, we stumbled upon the most beautiful village of the region: Gourdon, sitting on the summit of a high rock of 760 meters.
This living postcard of a village has charming medieval alleyways, and among them, the hidden jewels to hunker down in for a day.
You're expected to do nothing here but traverse on trails of vintage shopping and artisan boutiques, and so I shopped for souvenirs over sea salt, olive-oil, herbs-infused oils, hand made soaps, truffles, honey, cheese, and candies made of dried fruits.
The cobbled streets were lined with a handful of alfresco dining, and the stoned houses with olive and orange groves in-between looked as if they were locked in a time warp. Everything here is old-world: smoke spiraling out of chimneys and wildflowers, thyme, lavender, and mushrooms growing in between rocks and under trees – a far cry to the cityscape. You get a sense that life is still lived here, under the shadow of rolling hills that change colors from green to lilac every passing season.
Much before reading Julie & Julia by Julie Powell, I knew Provence has a special place for food lovers like me, therefore I didn't have to waste much time to snuffle out the best of Provencal France.
We settled inside a charmingly quaint restaurant, opposite the main town center, which featured an antique fireplace. Me and my husband, who's been my travel partner for many years, quickly made ourselves comfortable around the fire space, and within a few minutes of settling down, I already smelled wood-fired pizza. We're those pizza-loving souls, always searching for good pizzas, and with no second thoughts, we placed our first order.
The pizza had chèvre (French cheese made with goat milk ), herb infused tomato sauce, olives, golden chanterelle mushrooms, jambon (ham) on a super-thin crust. I could smell the oak wood on the first bite itself.
A lady in a red and white checkered apron and with kitchen gloves dished out the pizza and showed up again carrying a bottle of pimento oil, gesturing the use of it. I drizzled a bit for a spicy kick, and I never thought I would say that I had the best pizza in my life while traveling in France.
My husband, with not such a flexible palate, ordered a simple French scrambled omelet, which became our comfort food when tripping through the south of France.
The soft cheese-curdled textured egg had flavors of chives, tarragon, and chervil, and when sliced, the nutty gruyère cheese popped out. Finely sliced tomatoes were arranged over a sharing platter, dressed in extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and sea salt.
What I didn't realize before coming here was that Provencal food boasts simple comfort-food, but taken up with lots of techniques and home-grown flavors.
Our next stop was Saint Paul de Vence, another fairytale village perched high on a hilltop.
Walking up the fortified town of Saint Paul de Vence, which offers views down to the Mediterranean Sea, makes you aware of being far inland from the glitzy French riviera.
Off late the medieval hilltop, towns are the new favorites of modern travelers. That is to say, when the flashy yacht parties and indolent wine-sipping-under beach-umbrella life of French riviera fade away, that's the time to follow the back roads.
Saint Paul de Vence charms all with a beautiful thoroughfare studded with a fountain and gargoyles, and further inside, small art galleries, boutiques, and the outstanding modern art museum that doesn't cease to amaze you. It's claim to fame is that in the heydays, countless artists, like the much-acclaimed Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Jean-Michel Folonfell, fell under the town's spell and stayed there seeking for inspiration.
After a museum crawl, while walking up to the town road, I was often able to smell woodsmoke scented with garlic and herbs wafting out of the houses. That triggered our hunger pangs and made us forget that a few hours before we had tucked in breakfast up to our necks.
I was recommended by one of my writer friends to indulge in a three-course lunch when in Provence, which guided us to a century-old rustic country-inn run by a third-generation family of chefs. The place had a vintage charm, with white linen tables and crockery set pairings for all courses. It had outdoors and indoors seating, and we got driven towards the blocked-up holes of the old fireplace again.
Here came our first course, soupe de poisson, a Provencal fish soup stewed in fennel, plum tomatoes, garlic, leeks, and a clearly detectable taste of saffron and orange zest. Of course, the fish is the star of the dish, churned into a broth and seasoned in so many flavors, elevating a soup to a wholesome meal. The soup was served with rouille (Provencal sauce) over croutons on the side.
The first course came paired with viognier blanc, a fruity white wine of the Rhone valley.
The next in line was confit de canard, duck legs slow-cooked in its own fat and country wine. It was served with figs poached in honey and thyme, and my tongue could taste the lemony, buttery flavors that came clean in every bite.
A lot of people will tell you that summer food is what best describes this region. To this I will say I smelled summer in the duck confit, which had every note of freshness, from wine to the citrus fruits poured in.
Before the duck was served, a sommelier came along with the French syrah 1992, a red vintage wine of the northern Rhone. It was a meal that we will never forget, precisely because it went beyond the frontiers of our dining experience. Food was stunningly prepared and servings orchestrated on the table, something we had never seen before.
The last was one of the favorites, and I remember the flavor till today. Lemon sabayon, a French spin to the Italian lemon tart. It is traditionally made with egg yolks, sugar, and marsala wine whisked and cooked over a double boiler, then poured over fruit. In Provencal style, a sweet and tangy lemon treat is set on a pine-nut tart crust. The sweetness of this dessert is perfectly balanced with the lemony-sour.
We fell into a post-lunch coma until the coffee brought us back from the slumber, and we realized it was a three-hour lunch. After taking eyes off our plates, I finally came to hear the thrum of the restaurant. Trays of drinks were brought out and the three-course menu explained with much vigor, each time.
After several minutes, a man wearing an all-white chefs uniform came out smilingly asking me in English, "did you enjoy the food?" My pent-up emotion showed up in the not so French way when I replied back with the single worded "Yummy!" He looked at me as if I'd spoken Hebrew, standing perplexed.
My husband came to my rescue returning to him much politely: "it was the most delicious, and thank you so much for making it happen," only this time, he responded, "merci beaucoup" (thank you very much), smiling.
I saw him circling around other tables, asking diners his-most-important-question until he disappeared into the kitchen.
Since then, as many European medieval towns I chanced upon having chimneys, memories flash back to the Provencal fireplaces, venting out a primitive smell of life.
The sight reminds me of everything that followed in our trip: the vintage vibe of the Provencal villages, the presence of artists like Picasso still felt over the towns, the luxury of sitting around orange groves sipping on rose at sunset hours, when the sky picks up the same hue of your glass, and air that heals the weariest of souls.
This is the moment why Peter Mayle, author of the worldwide bestseller 'A Year in Provence,' left behind his city life in the lure of a 200-year old farmhouse overlooking the Luberon hills.