After leaving St-Tropez, we bid the cote d’azur au revoir and head towards Provence. We continue along the N98 passing by the Massif des Maures which is made up mainly of crystalline schists. This is the oldest geological area in Provence but not as spectacular as the Esterel Massif we passed on the way to St-Tropez.
We drive past Hyères, a town with wide streets lined with palm trees. We would have liked to continue towards Presqu’île des Giens, an island linked to the mainland by two sandbars which enclose Les Pesquiers salt marshes but we have to reach Marseille in time for lunch.
We take the auutoroute A57 to Toulon, France’s leading Mediterranean naval base and then the A50 towards Aubagne, the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion and the birthplace of one of my favourite authors Marcel Pagnol of the trilogy, Marius, Fanny, César.
The scenery changes dramatically once we leave the coast behind. We see olive groves and vineyards growing on rolling hills, fragrant citrus trees. I roll down the window and can smell a faint aroma of lavender and herbs.
We pass many Côtes de Provence vineyards along the way. Domaine de Sainte Marie, Domaine des Campeaux, I start to make notes then stop. I am captivated by the landscape, the hills and vineyards with tall trees lining up both sides of the road on and the distinctive smell of pine in the air.
I remind myself that we are finally in Provence, a region that spreads from the Alpes de Provence on the east to the Rhone river in the west and from the Haute Provence in the north to the Mediterranean in the south. A historical region, it dates back to 6 BC when the Greeks settled in Marseille, establishing their Mediterranean trading posts. In 125 BC, the Romans took over, called the region Provincia Romana and left their mark on the area by constructing temples, roads, arches, aqueducts, amphitheatres and bridges.
Known for its sun drenched climate albeit the cold Mistral wind that blows down the Rhone Valley, Provence also prides itself on its cuisine relying on the use of aromatic herbs, garlic, tomatoes and olives. Specialities are aioli – a strong garlic mayonnaise, salade niçoise with anchovies and hard boiled eggs, tapenade – an anchovy, garlic and olive paste and the bouillabaisse, a fish soup served with rouille, a red capsicum sauce.
My favourite herb mix is Herbes de Provence, with basil, thyme, fennel, savoury and oregano. Lavender grows in open fields, making its way into local fare and used as essence in perfume. Olive oil is the basic cooking medium as butter is hardly used. Little did the ancient Greeks know when they planted olive trees that they would turn Provence into a major producer of cold pressed extra vierge oil.
I have researched Provence’s regional specialities before the trip. I hope we get the opportunity to try at least some saucisson d’Arles, a dried sausage made with beef and pork, nougat de Montelimar in two varieties, the nougat noir (firm) and nougat tendre (soft) and calissons d’Aix, oval shaped sweets made with almond paste. The mere thought of these makes me salivate en route.
Provence is also known for its wine regions originating from the southern Rhone and the southern Provence. The former region’s prevalent wines include Chateauneuf du Pape which dates back from the time of the papacy in Avignon, the Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a sweet fortified wine which accompanies fruit dessert and the Tavel, the famous rosé. The latter’s selection includes Cassis, famed for its spicy white wine and Bandol, a full bodied red wine.
Clearly, our thirst is augmenting by the minute.
… continues tomorrow
‘Le Tour de France Gourmantic’ series is the story of a young couple from Australia who took to the French roads on a whirlwind Tour of France back when the internet wasn’t at everyone’s fingertips, phones were still attached to sockets, GPS was an unfamiliar acronym, digital cameras were a pipe dream and the Euro hadn’t replaced French Francs. With just one fold-out map of France and boundless enthusiasm, they took their Renault 19 and went on a cultural and culinary discovery.
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