The cuisine of Provence is defined by its landscape, where olive trees terrace the rocky hillsides and thyme, sage, rosemary, and fennel grow wild, along with juniper bushes and bay laurel trees. Along the Mediterranean coast, anchovies are caught and more often than not cured in salt, preserving and intensifying their flavor. These ingredients—along with lots and lots of garlic—give Provençal cooking its bold and vibrant character.
Often combined with tomato, these strong flavors are used to create such delicious, classically Provençal recipes as bouillabaisse, ratatouille, salade niçoise, and the garlicky mayonnaise called aïoli (pronounced ayoh-lee) that’s found everywhere in Provence. In fact, garlic is so highly regarded in Provence that the region hosts an annual summer celebration called Le Grand Aïoli. Villagers gather at community tables for a feast of locally grown boiled potatoes, beets, green beans, carrots, and salt cod served alongside bowls and bowls of homemade aïoli.
But if there were one recipe that captures the spirit of Provence, I’d vote for tapenade, a tangy, full-flavored spread made by puréeing olives, anchovies, and capers with plenty of olive oil, garlic, a squeeze of lemon, and perhaps a sprinkling of thyme. Like most great Provençal recipes, the flavorings are robust but not heavy-handed, the ingredients mixed so that they meld without any one flavor—even the garlic—standing out.
Lavender is adored, but more often in the field or as a fragrance. One flavoring that often gets mentioned as important to Provençal cooking is lavender. Regarded by many as a symbol of southern France because it blooms so beautifully and bountifully there, lavender is really used more as a fragrance for soap and candles than as a culinary flavoring. The flower does provide the region with its wonderful lavender honey, and you do find it occasionally infusing custards and ice creams, but mostly at high-end restaurants, not at home.
Dried lavender flowers are also featured in the renowned, eponymous dried herb mixture, herbes de Provence. But the mix is just as often made without lavender, reflecting those herbs that appear, usually fresh and in great abundance, in just about every savory dish. These include thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and sage. You’ll almost always find lavender among the herbes de Provence sold in those cute clay crocks, mainly because the addition has come to be seen (mostly by people outside of Provence) as more authentically Provençal. And if it’s just a pinch, so as not to make the mixture too floral, and if that pretty color makes you think of sunny days under the azure sky eating rosemary-scented lamb chops, grilled bread with tapenade, and garlicky green beans, then it’s fine with me.
Experiment with the flavors of Provence
• Sauté eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers, and zucchini with garlic and olive oil, and then cook slowly for a classic summer ratatouille.
• Stir a finely chopped anchovy fillet and minced garlic into a simple vinaigrette for a full-bodied salad dressing.
• Toss penne with grilled fennel, tomatoes, olives, and a drizzle of olive oil for a Provençal-inspired pasta.
• Rub a mixture of salt, pepper, finely chopped garlic, and rosemary onto tender lamb chops before grilling.