This was our plan: leave our centrally located villa each day with our rolling cooler in tow and head to one Provencal village or another to shop for supper, eat a long, leisurely lunch while sipping the refreshing local roses, then tour the local ruins and vineyards. Or perhaps go birdwatching in the Camargue or antique-shopping in Isle sur la Sorgue before heading home in time for the glorious sunsets, where we’d build a fire in the outdoor pizza oven, roast a few vegetables, nosh on sausages and drink more local wine.
But honeymooners that we were, we didn’t make it to a morning market before it closed down until the middle of the first week. Those noon closings were the first hints we had of the famous Provencal joie de vivre, an approach to life that demands time out for lunch, for a nap, for a walk, before heading back to the 35-hour workweek.
Wednesday was market day in St.-Remy-de-Provence, about an hour from our villa outside Isle sur la Sorgue. We chose to travel on back roads, where the iconic towering plane trees lining the lanes were being pruned, delaying traffic. But we arrived in St.-Remy in time to explore the expansive marche provencal, which meanders through the picturesque old town center, for two hours. Though it was a brilliantly sunny day in October, the mistral was blowing hard, and the pruned trees that a day before had shaded the plaza in front of the town hall now resembled giant Neanderthal clubs, giving the outdoor bazaar a wintry feel.
We bought handmade chestnut-filled pasta from a Sicilian with whom I got to speak my own “franglaisiano,” a combination of three languages that’s not uncommon in the south of France. We sampled a dozen varieties of charcuterie and purchased olives, tapenade, tomato confit, salted almonds, dried fruits, anchovies, duck sausage, several local cheeses, stuffed grape leaves and some of the biggest, most delicious (giga) oysters I’ve ever eaten. I was surprised at not only how large, meaty, briny and tasty they were, but also at how inexpensive they were. I asked for a dozen ($7) before I tasted them, then doubled my order after one bite.
Most Provencal towns have an open-air market at least once a week. (A schedule is available at provencelive.com.) All of the dozen markets we visited ramble through cobblestone streets, radiating out from town squares, the regular town merchants setting up outdoor displays under tents as well. People take breaks and sit in outdoor cafes, and everyone waits patiently as a vendor takes his time removing the pin bones from a side of salmon, giving detailed recipes to a shopper, or helping a possible customer choose a hat, a gift or a scarf.
Lined up outside bakeries and at bakers’ stands, sardined bargain hunters clog the narrow passageways with their dogs and children and baby strollers and shopping bags, waiting for the best baguette, the flakiest croissant, the healthiest whole-wheat loaf. One elderly woman we saw was choosing sausage based on which her dog liked best.
Our larder filled, we walked back to the car to store our trusty cooler before looking for our lunch spot. We wanted to discover a place ourselves, off the beaten path, so we strolled around the perimeter of the city center, and no sooner had we stopped in front of a simple restaurant than the engaging young chef/owner, Jean-Pierre Mroczek, had walked out to greet us. He encouraged us to come in and try his specialty, aioli. “You will not be disappointed,” I’m pretty sure he said. He spoke no English.
We ordered the simplest of his aioli dishes — the salt cod, which was, hands-down, the best meal we had in two weeks. Never would I have guessed that the two-inch thick, perfectly flaky and light white fish sitting atop a bed of steamed local vegetables had ever been salted. Aioli garni is a Provencal classic, accompanied by snails and fennel, green beans and carrots. That Mroczek, who has worked in Laduree, the famous tea salon in Paris, and at the posh Metropol Palace in Monaco, would come to the region and open a restaurant serving classic Provencal food is a testament to his self-confidence. He and his wife, Isabelle, who runs the dining room at their Restaurant Saveurs de Provence, have, in less than a year, garnered a wide following.
The garlicky, mayonnaise-like aioli was classically made, unctuous and eggy, with no bite, the perfect complement to the steamed cod, snails, mussels, green beans, fennel, celery and even a steamed egg. A garnish of fried parsley and orange zest provided a textural counterpoint and a fruity rose balanced the meal with its refreshing drinkability.
While the spicy, full-bodied reds of the region are gaining in popularity, I cannot resist the roses with the local fare. We found that the rose wines, which are made in stainless steel but are otherwise traditional blends of mostly cinsault, grenache and syrah, were stellar, but many of the reds were disappointingly undrinkable, too astringent, unbalanced and barnyardy (and not in a good way). Our Italian winemaker friend Paola, whom we met later in the week in Toulon, told us that some of the winemakers hopping on the organic bandwagon are eschewing stainless steel for concrete, and that the manure being applied to vineyards is reflected in the taste. I’m tempted to believe her.
Much to our surprise, our waiter’s recommendation, a 2009 Chateau Dalmeran, included some cabernet sauvignon, which is being planted throughout the region, changing the character of the wines. We were disappointed that the winery was closed on Wednesdays, but we visited neighboring Mas de la Dame, where we bought a case of more traditional rose of 50 percent grenache, 30 percent syrah, and 20 percent cinsault. It became our house rose for much of our stay.
After lunch, we were pleasantly surprised to see that the town squares had been totally cleaned up after the market, as though it had never happened.
We drove home through the Alpilles, a mountainous national park surrounded by vineyards. Never before has the concept of terroir — that the varieties of geography, geology and climate are manifest in the taste and structure of wines — been so clear to me, not just by tasting the wines as we stopped at vineyards, but also by observing that the same vines grown on one side of the highway get more shade, or the soil closer to the creek gets more water, or the grapes absorb more heat from the larger rocks in the vineyard around the bend.
In the storied village of Les Baux (so named because of the bauxite for aluminum that was mined there for eons), four buses of Japanese tourists were ascending the mount, so we drove on to the nearby, more remote and less visited Eygalieres, a hilltop of clustered stone houses. The higher we climbed through the town, the older the buildings. The town was surreally, yet typically, quiet. There was an older couple reading the news in a park overlooking Les Baux, but the place was otherwise empty, the townsfolk wisely napping after their midday meal. At the summit, wild alyssum, fennel and arugula grew among ancient ruins, which command a 360-degree view of the Rhone Valley.
Back home in our rented villa, we sipped our rose on our balcony, dazzled by the crepuscular spectrum of yellows, oranges, reds, blues and purples. The fire I built in the pizza oven was ready to roast some eggplants, and we had oysters to open. We were assured that our married life was going to be good.
Taylor is a culinary historian and the author of four cookbooks. He blogs at HoppinJohns.net.