Thursday, May 29, 2008
Provençal cuisine is very different than that of the rest of France. It is more Mediterranean, using tomatoes, garlic, seafood, olives, and olive oil (rather than the usual French preference for butter). We tasted some classic examples: Niçoise salad (I did not ask for ranch dressing, for those who have seen the movie a Good Year), olives marinated in garlic and herbes de Provence, tapenade, and aïoli provencal. The latter dish intrigued me. I knew aïoli was a garlic mayonnaise, but it was listed on menus as a main dish rather than a side dish. So, I gave it a try. I was presented with a plate of boiled fish, potatoes, and carrots, and grilled fennel, zucchini, eggplant, and shrimp. The homemade aïoli was served in a dish to be eaten with the various items. What appeared to be a bland and strange plate proved to be incredibly tasty. But they certainly did not spare on the garlic when making the aïoli. I am not sure how my companions could stand to be in the car with me the rest of the day!
We sampled plenty of the region’s olive oil and wine. After driving through endless olive groves, we stopped at an olive oil shop in St Remy. There, we learned about what gives olive oil its flavour. Regulated much like France’s other beloved food products, olive oil from the Provence region is made using any combination of five different types of olives. The combination of olives selected, and whether they were harvested will ripe or still a little unripe, gives each olive oil a distinct flavour that ranges from mild and sweet to fresh and sharp. After sampling many types, we loaded up with several bottles of olive oil from orchards we had driven by.
We spent one day exclusively dedicated to wine. The most famous Provençal wine region is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but there are several other, more reasonably priced regions such as Gigondas, Côtes-du-Rhône, Lirac, and more. We started by visiting individual wineries, but unlike other wine-making regions we have visited (Okanagan, Sicily, St. Emilion), they were not equipped to give tours of their fields and manufacturing areas; they only offered samples. Not that we could complain about the samples, but we were interested in learning more about what makes a Gigondas a Gigondas. So for some better education, we ventured over to a tasting cave in Chateauneuf-du-Pape that represents several of the region’s vintners. They aim to educate their clients while doing a tasting. One feature unique to the the vines in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region is how the soil is prepared. The ground surrounding the vines is covered with rocks that help seal in the heat, and protect the soil from the strong mistral winds that blow in the region.
We also enjoyed the quaint little wine town of Gigondas. In this tiny village, possibly too small for a school, we figured that every family has at least one member working in the wine business. At one winery, we were greeted by a lady, surely in her seventies, who gladly let us sample the wine from her sons’ vineyards. She ran around like a woman half her age, and found a way into all our hearts.