Delicacies from the south of France
On the stage that is global cuisine, France’s culinary heritage really shouts. But the south of France boasts staple ingredients, classic dishes and sensational flavours that truly sing from the rafters.
This is very much a ‘cuisine du soleil’ and the key influences are the warm, sunny Mediterranean climate and the many riches of the sea. The interior, often dry, rugged terrain, produces vibrant vegetables, aromatic herbs and orchards that cloak the rolling hills, producing apricots, cherries, figs and walnuts.
Fish forms a large part of many southern French dishes. Stews of various kinds originate from the Côte d’Azur: Bouillabaisse with its almost religious rules of preparation; bourride is the cheaper, simpler cousin cooked with white fish and served with aïoli; morue à la Catalane is a classic based on cod with tomatoes, anchovies and olive oil.
Oysters from the Etang de Thau near Sète are a speciality, while clams, mussels and squid are very much part of the Mediterranean catch of the day. All feature on many menus, perhaps in stews or with pasta.
Aïoli is something of a staple and is the glue that binds together so many dishes. You could call it a garlic mayonnaise but that would be missing the point. It can elevate a dish to another level, maybe served with fish or on crusty bread. Or it can be the star attraction itself when served as the dip for a platter of assorted vegetables and shellfish.
As you travel you’ll find local produce and specialities, often sold by stalls on the roadside. Usually the melons, honey, goats’ cheese, nuts and peaches are among the finest you can expect to find, and certainly the freshest.
The main attraction
Oil, or the preferred cooking medium, tells its own story. In the north, butter is the oil of choice, produced by dairy herds grazing on lush, green pasture. The south-west, famously, is the land of the goose – the rich fat being used for all manner of unctuous dishes. But the south, home of the olive, produces the oil that gives us ratatouille and pretty much the basis of every southern French dish.
Olive oil and the way in which it is used in the kitchen, shows it to be more a way of life than a store cupboard ingredient. It allows the simplest of dishes to become taste sensations with the minimum of fuss. Tapenade is the epitome of rustic excellence – olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil, pounded together and spread on toast. Perfection.
Well this is not a bad place to be for non-meat based dishes. The south of France, particularly the wider Provençal region, produces aubergine, peppers, herbs, olives and olive oil. Add them together in a pot and – hey presto – you have ratatouille! Elevated from its peasant origins by healthy eating junkies and lovers of stripped-down classical simplicity (OK, yes, and Disney movie fans too), it is an iconic dish in the pantheon of southern French cuisine.
Little sums up the warm, sunshine flavours of the Med more than salade niçoise (no meat, but should include tuna and anchovy) – an alchemy of all the wonderful ingredients from land and sea. It has long since broken free from its local origins and become a global classic.
And pissaladière is a perennial favourite crowd pleaser, also with its roots in Nice: based around onions and anchovy, it is a tart not unlike a tomato-free pizza. A savoury snack worth travelling for.
Lemons grown along the Côte d’Azur, especially around Menton near the Italian border, often find their way into dessert in the form of tarte au citron, tangy and refreshing. Or perhaps crème Catalane, creamy and similar to crème brûlée but with lemon and vanilla. You’ll also discover a range of delicate pastries and cakes, often flavoured with almond and sweet fillings.
And to wash it all down…
Well you really are spoiled for choice. A bottle of chilled rosé fits the bill on most occasions and, well, just feels right. But perhaps the most iconic apéritif of all would be a milky white pastis with water to taste, sharpening the appetite of the French since 1932, courtesy of Monsieur Ricard.