Provence on My Mind


A reader of a previous post asked if I would share again the HT column I wrote on a summer trip to Provence, with its accompanying ratouille recipe.  All things equal, I’d rather revisit Provence itself but as that’s not to be this summer, here’s the article instead.  Thanks, Gillian!

This originally appeared as a column in the Bloomington Herald Times on July 16, 2003

I have a fantasy that I become fabulously rich, learn to pronounce that tricky French “rrrr”, and retire to the south of France to write about food. I am practicing for that right now, in fact, writing this column in a tiny Provencal village called St. Didier, not quite an hour from Avignon.


St. Didier is a pretty village, but that’s not unusual in this part of the world that seems to specialize in pretty villages. In fact, it looks a lot like a postcard of itself – tree shaded streets, cafes with grizzled French men drinking beer and smoking poisonous smelling cigarettes under colorful umbrellas, villagers going about their business with fresh baguettes tucked under their arms, and newsagents’ shops with racks of postcards on display, each repeating the scene in a weird endless loop of tourism and real life.

This is not our first vacation to the south of France and the thing that keeps drawing us back is not its proximity to the glamorous Cote d’Azur and the celebrity-spangled life of the Riviera, but the food, the glorious sun-kissed food.


We are, after all, in an area where people are so taken with their produce that they erect statuary to celebrate it. The town of Cavaillon, home home of the succulent and sweet Cavaillon melon, has a giant concrete melon at the entrance to town. Richerenche, the local truffle capital, has huge black truffes placed in the middle of a major roundabout.


St. Didier lacks the food sculpture, but it does have the real thing — lush vineyards and fruit trees (from my window I see figs, apricots, cherries, and quince). It’s so easy here where the sun and the soil produce a kaleidoscope of colorful summer produce that flirts and winks at you from the market stands, begging to be taken home and given a good time. Provencal markets, with their fruits, vegetables, cheeses, fish, meats, and flowers are riots of color and noise and the enticing smells of roasting chickens, exotic spice, and pungent olives.

The rocky soil in Provence is good for grapes and the vineyards are everywhere, rolling across the landscape in evenly spaced, tidy lines of green. Cotes du Provence, Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape – the famous names are common here, and appear on roadside signs everywhere, luring you off the road to taste and to buy.


One day we go with friends to Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise, both within easy reach of our village. I am not a wine drinker myself, and all things being equal, would like any extra baggage space to go for the importation of olive oils, sea salt, and candy. This year I lose, and we buy enough bottles of wine to require the purchase of an extra suitcase to get us back home.


I regret the olive oil we have no room for. Fruity, bitter, rich deep green – it deserves a suitcase all its own or, possibly, a steamer trunk.Olive trees are starkly beautiful, etched against the sky in ageless profile, with narrow slivery leaves and, in early summer, barely visible miniature green fruit. The markets have olives of every sort – from the tiny purple-black Nicoise to the firm green Picholine – spiced with garlic, fennel, and herbs. The pungency of olives is a back
drop of most Provencal cooking –the healthiness of the so-called Mediterranean diet is likely due to the fact that olive oil replaces cholesterol-rich butter in almost all the cooking.


Monday morning we come home from the market in nearby Bedoin with a feast – much more than two people can eat in a week, and we have fewer days than that left in our village cottage. We spread our bounty over the table that sits under the shade of the cherry tree in the garden just outside our front door. 

Bowls of olives, plates of cheeses (all from nearby farms), a crusty loaf of bread, cured meats, sausages, apricots and cherries. From one market stall we have brought a plate of thinly sliced eggplant, fried in olive oil, and topped with tomato sauce, redolent with fresh rosemary and fat cloves of garlic, from another a crispy roast chicken.

Another day, early, before it gets too hot to turn on the stove, I cook one of my favorite dishes, a classic Provencal ratatouille. The heavy purple eggplants, the red tomatoes bursting with tangy sweetness, the dewy green zucchini make the invention of ratatouille in this place seem inevitable. Of course this splendid dish, scented with garlic and the herbs of Provence, had  had to come into being here, of course it appears everywhere, from home kitchens, to neighborhood bistros to Michelin-starred restaurants. Ratatouille is Provence in the same way that hot dogs are Coney Island and it just tastes better here.

We spend only a week in the cottage in St. Didier, and then take to the road. There are several restaurants farther afield we want to try and we finish up in Nice for a couple of days. Nice is not quite Provence, but neither does it have the glitz of the rest of the coast. Old Nice is almost Italy, tiny  winding streets, ancient buildings, tantalizing aromas from the street food that is sold everywhere.


That street food is reason enough to be in Nice. We tear into freshly cooked socca, the trademark chick pea pancake, scraped off the pan in strips and stuffed into paper cones. Just chick pea flouer, olive oil, salt, and pepper, it is spicy and creamy inside, crispy on the edges. And we eat mess but delicious pan bagnats, sandwiches on crusty rolls filled with vegetables and tuna, and soaked with an olive oil dressing. And a tarte aux aubergines — a rich and flaky crust, a basil scented custard filling with fried eggplant slices, roasted red peppers, and gruyere broiled and browned on the top. We eat all this standing up, leaning on a wall along the Promenade des Anglais that looks out over the rock beach and the glittering water. There is no shade and the heat shimmers in the air and the food tastes like the very essence of the sun.


The last night of the trip is one of the craziest, and one of the best: dinner at La Zucca Magica – the Magic Pumpkin. It has a set menu, all-vegetarian, no choices except white, red or rose. There are pumpkins, pumpkins, everywhere, charming and jolly; everyone in the place seems to be laughing. And, bonus, the food is absolutely wonderful, although we are not always sure what we were eating. An odd, fantastic feast to end a perfect trip.

We are back home as I finish writing this. What does Provence have to do with Bloomington?  Most of the year, not as much as I’d like, alas. But for a small window of time, in July and August, our farmers’ market takes on the gay and festive colors of the Provencal markets — the tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and summer squash piled high, ripe and tempting. Pick up some vegetables, aromatic herbs, fresh goat cheese and crusty bread, take it all home, do a little cooking early in the day, and spread it all out on a table under a shady tree. For a few happy months we here at home can enjoy our own cuisine of the sun.


There are as many recipes for this Provencal vegetable stew as there are cooks who make it. Most require that the vegetables be cooked separately, so that they retain their individual identity; other “quick” versions tell you to throw everything in together. Some recipes dictate that the vegetables be cooked in a heavy pot on top of the stove, others suggest roasting or grilling them. And while some include accents like fennel seed, bay leaf or herbes de Provence, others others rely on lighter flavors, like fresh basil and mint. Finally, some cooks freshen the stew with lemon juice of a splash of vinegar before serving, some don’t. It is, of course, entirely up to you. Here’s one way I like to do it.

3 medium eggplants, or 1 large globe eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes (leave the skin on if you can)
4 medium zucchini or other summer squash, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 large red onion, cut into large dice
3 bell red bell peppers, seeded and cubed
A basket of sweet cherry tomatoes, or 3-4 medium tomatoes, cut in half
3-4 cloves of garlic, slivered
3 Tbs chopped fresh herbs (basil, mint, thyme)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 400. Keeping each kind of vegetable separate from the others, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper (this really requires getting your hands oily, but you want each piece coated lightly.) Place on separate baking sheets.Roast vegetables until soft and beginning to caramelize, or even char, depending on the vegetable and your preferences. Vegetables will get sweeter as they cook, but they will burn. Watch closely.

Put tomatoes on a baking sheet, cut side up, stick with slivers of garlic, salt pepper and drizzle with oil. Roast until beginning to char on edges. If you are not using cherry tomatoes, chop them up after they are cooked. You can always make a tomato sauce of the fresh tomatoes and garlic on top of the stove instead, and add it to the cooked vegetables, but I like the intense sweetness that comes from roasting.

As each vegetable comes out of the oven, add to a large mixing bowl. Toss vegetables gently with chopped herbs, and salt, pepper and vinegar (just a tablespoon or so) to taste. Refrigerate, preferably over night for the flavors to come out, and bring to room temperature before serving. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serves 6-8, and makes great leftovers.


Adapted from Mireille Johnston, The Cuisine of the Sun (A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, 1976.)

This can be served as a snack, an appetizer, or even wrapped around the ratatouille as a crepe.

2/3 cup chick pea flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup water
freshly ground pepperBlend flour, oil, salt, and water in a bowl. Stir well and let stand for one hour at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

Johnston suggests cooking this in the oven in a large round, shallow pan (the batter should be no more than 1/8″ thick) at 400 degrees under a moderate broiler for about 15 minutes til crisp and golden. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cut into wedges. We had better luck cooking it on top of the stove as if it were a crepe. It made about 6 medium soccas. Either way (and we tried both) it tastes great

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