- 04 Oct 2013 -

Paradis à Provence

I have heard of the craze people have about Provence and I wanted to see for myself what the hype is all about. To let you in a secret, I have never taken it too seriously as a foodie paradise. I was under the impression that aside from the French location, everything is more Mediterranean than French—the weather, the food, the life style...But people go nutty about the cuisine, the cassis, the rose and all them herbs down there! It's only fair I give it a chance.

I chose Avignon as it is the capital of the Cotes du Rhone and its acclaimed status as representative of the height of Provencal gastronomy. Cruising around the markets (Les Halles is a must) and talking to some of the chefs in Avignon, Nimes and  Isle Sur la Sorgue, I realized I was so wrong in my ignorant assumption. Chefs here are dead serious about their integral role as the alchemist in culminating regional produce at their best...whether its aromatic herbs, olive oil, fish, or fruits and veg from the Mediterranean, to name a few. They are extremely proud of the wealth of their agricultural heritage and the savour-faire of the artists who work hard to promote their region. It is no surprise that given the Mediterranean weather with more than 300 days of sun per year, gastronomy in Provence is light, colourful and flavourful at the same time. Dishes are often put together just before serving to ensure all the goodness is preserved right till the absolute last minute before the combustion of flavours in that first bite.

I knew Avignon has the largest and most diverse ensemble of arts and cultural events in the south of France but I had no clue its food markets are as much a monumental landmark as its cultural heritage. You don't have to be a history buff to appreciate that most restaurants in Provence are housed in buildings of historical interests.

Every Tuesday to Sunday there is an outstanding indoor market in Les Halles in the town center where local food purveyors show off their produce. It is an event where talented ambassadors introduce you to their world and tell their story. Imagine a kaleidoscope of colour, fragrance, freshness and flavour in this food affair. Be guided by the scent and you will find yourself immersed in food trails of different towns within the region. Before you know it you are eating, learning and assimilating the food culture of Provence in the most authentic way. I guarantee even for those with zero interest in food and local horticultural will find the atmosphere simply intoxicating.

If you happen to be in Avignon in the weekend, drop by Les Halles at 11am on a Saturday.  Local chefs descend there to unveil their magic with cooking demonstrations. Daily or weekly cooking lessons are on offer behind the scenes in various bistros and brasseries within the old walled city. For those of you who are visiting Avignon in the low season, don't be discouraged by the chill in the air, this is the start of an exciting time for a prelude of gastronomic delights. On 20 September there is the annual food fair in the center of the walled city. Imagine dining on delectable cuisine with hundreds of food lovers under the trees and moonlight in the open-air market square. Oh...before I forget, don’t miss out the famous Christmas market at the end of November to the end of December as well.

For me, Provence is that special place where you learn to amuse your senses.

Unwind the clock and take a deep breath;

Lie back on the chair in that bistro and close your eyes;

Hear the leaves whispering to each other as they sway amongst that gentle breeze above you;

Smell that basil and olive oil you dropped on the lunch table; and

Feel the warmth of that Mediterranean sun glazing on your face…

Join me in Provence

 X  After—Thought X

I know my focus is supposed to be everything to do with food but I can't live with myself if you made it all this way to Avignon and miss out the Brocante capital of Provence—Isle Sur la Sorgue. You could easily miss it as you actually get off the SNCF train stop at Vaucluse de Clos. You are bang in the town center as you walk out the train station, and this town is jam packed with stores that sell antiquities, reproductions or objects of curiosity—huge, big and small for interiors and jardins.

The streets are lined with market stalls every Saturday to Monday, making this a huge attraction for locals and tourists. And you don't have to worry about the weather, its always sunny with that picture perfect blue, not a cloud in the sky. Be ready to be greeted by shopkeepers with big grins, speaking English with that charming French accent. If all this shopping is a bit too much for you, there are plenty of boulangeries which sell artisan breads and pastries, glacé stands, crepe stores and cafes with a wide selection of traditional French favourites and dishes that are more conducive for consumption in 27celcius in the middle of September!

Do yourself a favour, please don't miss it!!!

; Chapter 1: Fruit Pi