“Mais oui, there are vegetables in the dish; it is a fondue with mushrooms.”
Over the past weekend, MB, my parents and I journeyed through Provence. A region full of stereotypes about how beautiful it is and how great the food is and what a relaxing atmosphere it has…they are all true. Through the great efforts of MB, we were able to avoid the inevitable throng of English tourists that take over the south of France in July and August and find smaller, quieter areas. We had a wine tasting in Chateauneuf du Pape (the only varietal that uses up to 13 different grapes), we drove through Orange and saw one of the best preserved Roman Theaters in the world, we swam in the Mediterranean, we played Petanque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A9tanque) and drank rosé, we relaxed and enjoyed the unbelievable scenery. But most importantly, we ate.
Now, most of my time in France has been spent in the Rhone-Alps in winter. This is a region known for things like cheese fondue, raclette, and tartiflette. When I order a salad, it is not unusual for it to come dressed with things like poached eggs, foie gras, gesiers (gizzards), magret de canard, and a variety of other fattening and delightful items. Once, I had a salad in which the salad dressing was literally liquid cheese (it was fabulous). So, while vegetables always make an appearance, my experience, in France, has been that they perform the back-up vocals for the stars: meat and cheese. Not so in Provence; in Provence, it is just the opposite.
On our first afternoon, we were startled to see plates coming out of a kitchen with plain fish, carrot, turnip, snails, and green beans…there was no cheese, there was no meat. I began to think I had wandered into an alternate universe when, luckily, the huge bowl of aioli arrived at the table and I felt reassured that I was still in France. But even with this, it was a revelation, the vegetables and the fish were the headliners and the aioli was the subtle accoutrement (okay, not so subtle – it was a spicy, intense, awesome, garlic endorphin rush). Where was the butter and cream laden sauce? Where was my meat, wrapped in meat, cooked in meat fat?
Later that evening we went to a restaurant in Castellet* (http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/var/castellt/castellt.htm) for a 10:30 dinner…only in France can my parents stay up this late. The waiter comes to the table as we are pouring over the menu and kindly offers some advice:
“You are in Provence; you get the vegetables. Foie gras ? No, this is for winter.”
I’m sorry, did I hear that correctly? Did a Frenchman just tell me not to order the foie gras? We adhered to his consul and enjoyed a variety of vegetable heavy dishes: vegetables stuffed with sausage, vegetable carpaccio, pesto soup with vegetables, etc. Granted, afterwards, my parents and MB shared a huge entrecote (big hunk o’ beef), but again, it arrived unencumbered by rich sauces or salty cheeses and instead was presented by itself, beautifully cooked (my Mother salted it and I’m not sure my Father has forgiven her).
So, Provence has broadened my food horizons in France to include more than just meat and cheese. Now, I will feel less guilty about serving vegetables as a main course at dinner; I will just tell people it is ‘Provencale’. It is summer, afterall. Perhaps, I will change my whole cooking style and for the rest of the year MB and I will focus on vegetable heavy meals with low-fat proteins like fish…I mean, except for tonight of course, our neighbor offered to make us a fondue, its not like you can say no, that would just be rude, right? Anyway, I’m sure they’ll be mushrooms in it.
*If anyone wants any further information about where we stayed or ate on this trip just let me know and I’ll be happy to provide details.