As soon as lockdown lifted, we loaded up the car, set off from London and swept our way down through France. From the M25, beneath the tunnel, across the flatlands beyond Calais, down never-ending autoroutes streaming with lorries, squeezing through the gateway of Lyon and out the other side. Then, like a great gulp of air: lavender fields and vineyards and cypress trees pointing upwards to churches perched impossibly on mountain-tops. At last, we were coursing down the lanes, overtaking vignerons in their rangy tractors, towards our green-shuttered house.
Provence is a place with a powerful pull. The great artists came for the luminescence of the light, the film stars came for the glamour of the beach. In 1948 my Granny came for a French exchange and it was this event that marked the beginning of my family’s love affair with the region. In the second in our summer holiday series (we went to Italy last week), we take you to Provence with quotes, films and books that will have you there amongst the thump of the cicadas and the scent of sun-baked thyme, wherever you actually are this summer.
‘Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on a train.’ Elizabeth David
One of the greatest food writers of all time, Elizabeth David perfectly captures France. This quote is taken from French Provincial Cooking, a book, like Provence, that’s always worth returning to.
Food and Drink
This summer I discovered the Tropézienne, a soft, sugar-coated brioche bun sliced in half and filled with a secret cream. Invented in St Tropez in the 1950’s it was beloved of Brigitte Bardot, who had arrived in town to film And God Created Woman. In London you can find them at Belle Epoque, a patisserie with boutiques in Islington and Newington Green, and a concession at Selfridges, along with the most authentic array of French cakes and larder supplies. For London’s perfect croissant, it’s hard to beat Baker & Spice. And for baguette, the unassuming Patisserie Saint Anne on Hammersmith’s King Street is as good as you’d find at the village boulangerie.
Another of the pleasures of Provence in the summer are the little cabanes that set up along the roads selling fruit and veg. This year they were more appealing than bustling markets, and the place to find the best strawberries, melons and peaches from local producers. If at the market, we always go early to reserve our poulet rôti and collect it later, warm in a paper parcel along with its juices. Not exactly the same, but a close approximation can be found in London at Park Road Kitchen. And it wouldn’t do not to mention cheese, of which the area is known for its banon, a soft goats cheese ripened in chestnut leaves. You can find these at London’s La Fromagerie, where they’ve just launched a Friday Supper Club delivering a French feast to your door along with a cheese course that changes each week.
Provence is rosé country, and though there are many famous names (Mirabeau, Miraval, Whispering Angel etc), our favourites come from the Bandol region. You’ll pay more for it but it’s worth it: find it at good wine merchants or via Spring’s online shop.
A classic Provençal aperitif, Orange Colombo is a mixture of sweet and bitter oranges, rosé and Curaçao. Serve in a small, pretty wine glass over ice. It’s also delicious poured over puddings, like almond cake.
For an authentic Provençal apéro hour, remember that the eats are as important as the drinks. Serve peppery breakfast radish, stalk on, to dip in sea salt and crushed pepper, along with thin slices of baguette spread with unsalted butter. Canapés of garlic toasts with tapenades of olives or sundried tomatoes are typical too. Find the best jars at Le Coq Epicier in Camden Passage.
The French word garrigue refers to the typical Provençal landscape where fragrant plants grow wild: rosemary, thyme, juniper, mallow, lavender and other shrubs that can do without lots of water. All of these combined make the most amazing scent, and it’s particularly delicious in honey. Look out for miel de garrigues. Ask friends to bring some home or shop online at bienmanger.com.
At Provencal markets one of the highlights are the soap stalls where you can mix and match stacks of bars and buy great cubed bricks or soap-on-a-rope. In the UK the Conran shop stock a selection of the authentic French bars that are made in Grasse, centre of the perfume world, whilst Labour & Wait stock chunky Marseille soap blocks. For the kitchen, Le Petit Marseillaise liquid hand soap, that you can order online here, eradicates all traces of onion and garlic after cooking.
Brocantes are another joy. If you’re looking for someone to go there and do the hard work for you, make a date to visit the Boule-in’s Fêtes d’Automne weekend in September. Run by a husband-and-wife duo who split their time between Suffolk and Cotignac, Provence – their base for sourcing French antiques – the quarterly sales near Lavenham in Suffolk are full of antique French treasures and bric-a-brac.
To Catch a Thief: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in and around Cannes is perfection. For quintessential countryside views of Provence see the classic, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, based on the novels of Marcel Pagnol.
Two different takes on Provence include Peter Mayle’s best-selling 1989 memoir, A Year in Provence and Felicity Cloake’s One More Croissant for the Road. Here the Guardian columnist has the arduous task of cycling across France tasting definitive versions of classic French dishes. For a contemporary travel guide, we recommend Weekend Journals, whose design-focussed tips include hotels, restaurants and towns to visit. And for fiction, Françoise Sagan’s scandalous classic Bonjour Tristesse follows 17 year-old Cécile’s hedonistic summer on the French Riviera.
For a taste of the sixties in France, play the iconic 1962 album, Tous les Garçons et les Filles by Françoise Hardy, of which a favourite track is Le Temps de l’Amour.
Finally, there’s no better route to the landscape of Provence than via paintings, of which there are so many greats to choose from. Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire is so evocative. If you’d like to see more you can take a virtual tour of the Courtauld’s Room 5 here, or read Alex Danchev’s book Cézanne: a life.