Lavender, which can cover a hillside in Provence, is used as a flavoring for desserts such as ice cream.

When one thinks of a great cuisine and excellent wines to go with it, France usually ranks high on the list. The geographical regions within this country are as diverse as the food ingredients and cooking techniques used to make the signature dishes. One of the popular regions is Provence, located in the southwestern part of France.

For centuries, Provence has attracted painters, poets, photographers, filmmakers and of course global tourists with curious and hungry culinary palates. Its cooking and ingredient usage are different from the rest of French cooking, which is influenced by Mediterranean cuisine (similar to southern Italy, southern Spain and North Africa). Traditional French cooking contains many dairy items such as cream and milk. However, there is very little dairy used in Provence cooking. Instead, this region uses many fruits, vegetables and herbs. The olives, olive oils and honey produced here are considered some of the best in the world.

Provence cooking is considered what we call in America “hardy country cooking.” Bouillabaisse, aioli (fresh garlic and olive oil), pissaladiere (onion and anchovy pizza) and lavender ice cream are some of the foods that define this style of cooking.



Provence's Most Famous Foods

Bouillabaisse (sometimes called fish stew) can be made economically or very expensively, depending of the type and quality of ingredients used. A basic version is made of an assortment of fish, shellfish, tomatoes, garlic, saffron, olive oil and a mixture of herbs (rosemary, marjoram, sage and tarragon). There is a similar dish called bourride, which is more of a fish soup. It is made of fish, shellfish, garlic, saffron, olive oil, a mixture of herbs (marjoram, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, savory and thyme) and some aioli (garlic mayonnaise), which is used to thicken the soup base of the bourride. After cooking, the fish and seafood are served on a platter, and the soup is poured and served in a tureen. Aioli is a staple condiment used in Provence cooking made of very fine bread crumbs, wine vinegar, chopped garlic cloves, egg yolks, salt, white pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. Aioli is used as a spread on bread, sandwiches and as a topping for stews and some soups.



A basic version of bouillabaisse, or fish stew, is made from an assortment of fish, shellfish, tomatoes, garlic, saffron, olive oil and herbs.

Making the Menu Provencal

Restaurant LuLu has a line of Provence-flavored condiments and sauces sold in the retail market. There is a goat cheese and olive oil vinaigrette made of white wine vinegar, goat cheese, canola oil, extra virgin olive oil, ground olives, garlic, black pepper, sea salt and natural gum. Three products have been crowned winners at the NASFT (National Association of Specialty Food Trade): Fig Balsamic Vinegar; White Truffle Honey; and Meyer Lemon, Fennel and Sage Marinade, which can be used to roast chicken or fish.

At the restaurant, LuLu has a seasonal Provencal menu, featuring signature items such as Leek Goat Cheese and Bacon Tart, Whole Roasted Striped Bass Fish with Tomato and Fennel Ragout and Brussels Sprouts with Capers and Lemon.

Famed chef Alain Ducasse was the first to be called the six-star chef, because he was the first to have two restaurants (Paris and Monte-Carlo) receive the top three-star Michelin rating. Ducasse’s Monte-Carlo restaurant has a popular Provence-inspired menu. Although the menu changes daily, staples such as a mixture of Provencal garden vegetables cooked with black truffle olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt have remained. There is also a selection of local Provence cheeses.



Truffles in Provence

A truffle is a fungus that grows underground, usually near the roots of oak trees. The days are long gone when they were found in abundance in the oak forests of Mont Ventoux, Provence. Nowadays, more than 90% of truffles produced are cultivated in groves with oak trees. They are very expensive (around $350 for 3oz). On the other hand, only a small amount is required to flavor a dish or some oil, which can be used as a condiment for dipping bread or flavoring pasta or mashed potatoes. In fact, many French, Italian and American producers of olive oil have added some type of flavored truffle oil to their product lines.

Frabique Delices has been manufacturing traditional French classical products for 21 years. This company produces over 150 different products, including an assortment of pates, mousses, duck foie gras, duck confit, cassoulet, seafood and vegetarian terrines, garlic sausage and duck salami (which was the 2005 winner at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City). Cured duck salami is packaged in an 8oz retail package and a 16oz foodservice package. It is made of duck meat blended with fresh garlic, sea salt and black peppercorns, then cured for 45 days.

Frabique Delices recently started producing truffle butters. They have a Black Winter Truffle Butter made of French butter, black truffle puree, black truffle peeling, natural black truffle extract, black truffle juice concentrate and salt. Also produced is White Truffle Butter made of French butter, white truffles, natural white truffle extract and sea salt. These products are packaged in 5oz containers for the retail market and 8oz and 16oz squeeze plastic tubes for the foodservice market. Truffle butters can be used on meats, fish, pasta, risotto, baked and mashed potatoes, or stewed and sautéed vegetables.



Black Perigord truffles are most often from France, while white Piedmont truffles are generally from Italy.

Signature Herbs

Provence cannot be mentioned without including signature foods and ingredients that define this region’s cooking such as ratatouille, herbs de Provence, pistou, tapendae and salade nicoise. Ratatouille (also called stewed vegetables) is made of zucchini, bell peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, garlic and a bouquet garni of herbs (parsley, rosemary, marjoram, thyme and tarragon) and olive oil. It can be eaten as a spread over bread, as an ingredient for omelettes or as a condiment for hot or cold meats. One popular product, Charles Faraud’s Ratatouille, is sold by the Charles Faraud Company in 21oz jars and available on the gourmet food website Marky’s Gourmet Food Store (See “Website Resources.”)

Herbs de Provence is a combination of thyme, rosemary, marjoram, savory, oregano, tarragon and, sometimes, lavender. These herbs have flourished in the fields of Provence since the Romans felled them over 2,000 years ago. Most major herb/spice producing companies in America have their own version of herbs de Provence. For example, under McCormick & Company’s Gourmet Collection consumer line, their Herbs De Provence product is made of rosemary, marjoram, thyme, savory and other spices.

OrganicVille produces a product called Herbs de Provence Organic Vinaigrette, sold in the retail marketplace in an 8oz bottle. It is made of filtered water, organic expeller-pressed soybean oil, organic cider vinegar, organic extra virgin olive oil, salt, organic spices, organic minced garlic, organic lemon juice concentrate, organic rosemary extract and xanthan gum. The company describes the product as a delicate blend of herbs gathered from the south of France.

Pesto with a Provencal Twist

Pistou is the Provencal version of Italian pesto. It is made of garlic, sea salt, basil, grated Parmesan cheese, black pepper and olive oil. There are no pine nuts in pistou. It is used as a condiment or an ingredient to flavor soupe au pistou (Provence’s version of minestrone).

Tapenade (also called olive paste) is a combination of garlic cloves, capers, anchovy fillets in oil, pitted black olives, thyme, savory, lemon juice, black pepper and olive oil. It can be used as a spread or thickener or as a flavoring ingredient for stews and soups.

During lunchtime in Provence, nearly every restaurant is busy preparing and serving some version of salade nicoise. The basic ingredients to this popular dish are tuna (fresh or canned), olive oil, cooked/boiled red potato wedges, cooked string beans, anchovy fillets, chicory (curly endive), thinly sliced red onions, tomato wedges, thinly sliced hard boiled eggs and a small amount of herbs de Provence. The vinaigrette used on the salad is made of minced garlic, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil.

Executive chef Dominique Tougne at Bistro 110 runs one of the most successful restaurants in Chicago. He says, “Although our menu is in permanent evolution, there are some items we can’t change because they represent the foundation of the restaurant. That includes ‘La Vraie’ salade nicoise.”

Sidebar: New Products in Paris

Nearly 150,000 attendees from 191 countries visited the 22nd edition of SIAL, a major trade show for the international food products industry held in Paris in October. The approximately 5,300 exhibitors showcased some of the most innovative and trendsetting food and beverage products worldwide. Some interesting sights were:



1. Coeur D’Olive by A L’Olivier (France) — A flavored, solidified olive oil made into a spread, containing no trans fatty acids, available in basil, garlic and herbs, lemon and plain olive oil flavors. It is intended to be used as a spread on sandwiches, toast, stuffed shellfish, fish, meat and pasta.



2. Filo Pastry and Cheese Patisserie Cups by Foodafayre Limited (U.K.) — These flavored filo pastry cups and cheese biscuits cups are to be used to flavor hors d’œuvres and appetizers.



3. Nomu Vanilla Paste by Nomu Brands PTY (South Africa) — This premium-quality Madagascar bourbon vanilla paste in a pump dispenser is meant to be used as an ingredient for desserts.

Every other year, SIAL awards SIAL d’Or trophies to innovative products that are commercial successes in the national markets; the international panel is made up of 27 journalists from trade magazines. Some of the winners were: Canada: Campbell Company of Canada (Soup at Hand, soup in a hand-held, microwavable cup container); the U.S.: Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream (Dibs Bite, bite-sized ice cream snacks in a tub container); and Israel: Borekas (oven-ready savory pastries made with 50% vegetable puff pastry, in spinach & feta cheese, sweet potato & cream, sweet corn & potato, and cauliflower leek and cheese flavors). Bahman Fine Foods (maker of condiments, sauces and juices), Acorn International Group Inc. (manufacturer of pralines and pecans) and Nonnis Food Company (producer of New York-style bagel chips, pita chip snacks and biscotti cookies) were some of the American companies that represented the U.S. at the show.



For more information on the 2006 SIAL show or future events, go to www.sial.fr.

Copyright Kelly Cline / istockphoto.com

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