Picnicking in Provence

In Provence, from fragrant fields to farmers markets, you'll find lavender flowering from June through August. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)
By Jayne Cain

The antique table was set at the base of an old tree and was dappled with sunlight that filtered through the leaves. A crystal chandelier hung from one of the branches arching over the table. This outdoor room held delicate linens, silver, and treasured art pieces. Around the table sat eight people enjoying the food and wine and each other's companionship.

This scene could have been a staged photo from a high-end foodie magazine…but it wasn't. It was an authentic picnic in Provence, and I happened upon it as I wandered the stalls of the Sunday outdoor antique market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Whether sharing a meal with neighboring antique dealers, celebrating family with a fête in the garden, or enjoying an intimate meal for two among the vines, people from Provence have raised the outdoor meal to an art form.

I never did get close enough to the joyous midday meal at the market to see exactly what delicacies were being shared, but know what kinds of foods you can expect on any Provençal picnic table: Delicate local products served simply but elegantly. Flavors here are robust, but with subtle nuances.

The sun shines for much of the year in this southeastern part of France. The growing season is long and vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, and red peppers thrive. Olive trees stand ready to offer their fruits for the revered oil they produce. Even the rocky scrublands are home to wild herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and sage. And the endless rows of lavender not only perfume the air but also add a delicate essence to the honey gathered from hives set among the blooms.

Herbs play another important role in Provençal delicacies: Here, goats and sheep aren't fed on lush green grass, but on the wild herbs and small fragrant bushes found in the hills. Their milk is especially prized for the wonderful cheeses it produces, as are the animals themselves for their tender, flavorful meat.

Figs, melons, apricots, and nectarines all develop their lush flavors under the southern French sun — so lush that these fruits are considered desserts in themselves, enjoyed alone or with a splash of a sweet wine, such as Beaumes-de-Venise.

What would a picnic in Provence be without a glass of Côtes du Rhône wine? Whether enjoying a slightly chilled glass of rosé as an aperitif, or complementing the meal with a fuller-bodied Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the French savor the layers of their wines' flavors and characteristics.

Farmers markets are the best place to stock up for a picnic of your own. Stalls overflow with vibrant red tomatoes, sunny yellow zucchini blossoms, deep purple eggplant, mountains of garlic bulbs, and baskets upon baskets of earthy mushrooms. Olive vendors offer tubs filled with dozens of varieties. Cheese carts are filled with local specialty cheeses. The farmers make these by hand, sometimes wrapping the small discs in oak or chestnut leaves and then soaking them in wine or eau-de-vie before aging.

Provençal cuisine also borrows from nearby regions; air-cured ham and sausages from the Hautes-Alpes and fresh fish caught in the Mediterranean are wonderful. Delicate greens and young, tender shoots of escarole, chervil, and frisée are the ingredients for a simple salade de mesclun, ready to be lightly dressed with a fine, fruity extra-virgin olive oil. Glistening jars of honey, each gently infused with the aroma and taste of orange blossom and lavender, line the market's tables. The beekeepers move the hives into the fields to take advantage of the various floral nectars. And of course, the herb mix for which this area is so noted: herbes de Provence. This blending of savory, fennel, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and lavender flowers finds its way into many of the foods. Sprinkled on roasted meat or poultry or mixed with olive oil for a rub, it imparts a rustic flavor that is truly de Provence.

When these basic ingredients are used in cooking, magic happens. Ripe vegetables are slowly simmered together to make a delicious ratatouille or are hollowed out, stuffed with various fillings, and roasted for a filling side dish. Daube Provençal is a typical hearty dish in the region. Meat (usually beef) is marinated in wine and then slowly braised in the tightly covered cooking vessel known as a daubière. When the lid is removed, the perfume of the meat, wine, herbs, and orange peel seduces your senses — and your hunger. Young shoots of asparagus find their way into frittatas. Onions, olives, and anchovies adorn a French version of pizza called "pissaladiere." Meats are roasted over open fires. Wild fennel branches are often placed on top of the coals to add another layer of flavor and aroma to the succulent meat. Tree-ripened fruits play counterpart to a flaky pastry crust in the various fruit tarts.

But a picnic need not be so lavish to be enjoyed. Dining on a simple pan bagna or fougasse while enjoying the Provençal countryside is just as special. The former is a sandwich made of crusty bread that's first drizzled with olive oil, then filled with tomatoes, tuna, olives, anchovies, and capers. The sandwich is allowed to rest so that the flavors meld and complement each other. Loaves of fougasse are mostly oval or oblong in shape, and since the dough is slit several times before put in the oven, the finished loaf resembles a large leaf. The slits create a crunchy crust and the loaves made plain, topped with olives and herbs, or stuffed with a filling before being baked. Add a glass of local wine, and these simple foods take on an unmatched sophistication.

Any traveler can easily assemble a memorable picnic from this array of treats. Buy a colorful tablecloth in the distinctive local pattern; it'll make a great souvenir. Spread it on a park bench or on the ground beside a lavender field. Fill your shopping basket with a variety of tastes and textures, and savor each bite of this region's bounty.

A long-time member of the Rick Steves' Europe staff, Jayne Cain also assisted on many Rick Steves tours.