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Classic Foods of Provence

Can a culinary landscape endure eight decades of change? Guided by an extraordinary 1929 map of France’s regional specialties, Christopher Petkanas uncovers a dozen Provençal dishes that have stood the test of time.

By Christopher Petkanas

There are 1,100 entries for fruits, vegetables, stews, soups, breads, charcuterie, pastries, candies, fish, cheese, wine, and other foods on A. Bourguignon’s 1929 Carte Gastronomique de la France. Or is it 11,000?I may never find out. Most of the specialties on the map, which is legendary among culinary historians and a handful of other food geeks, but otherwise unknown, are in five-point type. Without a magnifying glass, you can barely make them out. The letters in the words Beefsteak “Maître de Chais” and les foies de canards aux raisins look like a swarm of gnats descending on the Bordelais. In regions that are especially dense with specialties, the entries are practically on top of each other.

Even supposing that I could get my copy of the Carte Gastronomique out of its frame and over to Kinko’s to be blown up in sections (and supposing that Kinko’s didn’t destroy it), transcribing and tallying all the sausages and oysters and gâteaux documented on the map would be a massive undertaking. I had a reason for wanting to put down on paper, in clear, foolproof lists, every entry and the locality Bourguignon assigned to it: for the rest of my life, I would be able to consult the information at a glance and in a more practical form when traveling or doing research. My ultimate goal was to hit the road to see how many specialties, after 79 years, are still being grown, raised, caught, distilled, made, cooked.

With the Carte Gastronomique out of print for nearly five decades, years ago I had a brilliant plan to fund this work by privately republishing the map, using the money Tim Zagat would pay me to offer it as a gift-with-purchase with his first Paris survey. He hated the idea. At this writing, a New Jersey bookseller is offering one on Alibris for $1,500. Mounted on linen, it measures 47 by 38 1/2 inches and is bordered with beautiful period ads for pièces montées cakes and les délicieuses rillettes et les cochons de lait de Tante Madeleine. The last, 1962 edition—16 by 32 inches and minus the ads—is $75, also on Alibris.

Except Zagat, every food professional I have shown the map has fainted, or at least gasped, even the annoying ones who profess to find traditional French cuisine hoary and too saucy. Bourguignon’s Carte Gastronomique is the mother of all food maps, a monument to regionalism. Self-appointed members of the food police blow on aboutterroir yet know nothing of this fascinating arm of the cartographic arts. I collect food maps and have seven of France alone, the earliest from 1809. Specialties on it are indicated with charmingly naïve pictograms instead of words: baskets of oysters in Cancale, haricots in Soissons, pâté terrines in Angoulême. It’s a delightful but lesser work than Bourguignon’s, which no food map has ever matched for scope or accuracy. The precision with which he places entries according to where they are prepared or produced is breathtaking. An eighth of an inch north of Mamers, one and one-sixteenth inches west of Nogent-le-Rotrou: là!—Sanguète de Lapin et Petits Oignons—a “crêpe” of rabbit blood and pearl onions.

With time running out before Alain Ducasse buys up every historic restaurant in France, I resolved to jump-start my project by scaling back my ambitions and biting off a single region. But which one?The map slices the Hexagon into 32. Provence seemed ripe. It has France’s most famous cuisine—and some of the worst eating in the country, thanks to chefs willing to pander to tourism and a generally slovenly food culture. I have lived there on and off for nearly 20 years and can confirm that the situation has not improved since Ruth Reichl’s landmark 1998 slam of the area’s cooking in the New York Times. I hoped it would acquit itself.

Who was Bourguignon?The map identifies him as an Ex–Chef de Cuisine and Directeur of L’Écu de France, a restaurant founded in Paris opposite the Gare de l’Est in 1928. The year is not uninteresting, for it suggests that Bourguignon, assuming he was involved with L’Écu from the beginning, had finished or nearly finished his chef d’oeuvre when it opened. I went by recently and was surprised to find that not only is there still a restaurant at the address, it still has the same name. Brasserie Familiale Depuis 1928, the menu trumpets. The manager told me he knew who Bourguignon was, but there was no map. L’Écu today specializes in choucroute and is one of those chillingly ordinary Paris restaurants of which there must be—what?—1.27 million?I was not inspired to stay for lunch.

Bourguignon’s avowed mission at the brasserie was to rehabilitate “l’art culinaire regionaliste,” but he could have just as easily been talking about the map. In connection with it he wrote, “No one pretends you have to be in Marseilles to savor a good bouillabaisse.... Why strain to climb the steep slopes of the Puy de Dôme to taste the coq au vin at the Mercure Gallois when this unforgettable recipe is admirably realized in a certain Parisian restaurant[?]” The question was posed coyly (the restaurant in question was his own) and rhetorically. “Since Tourism and Gastronomy depend intimately on each other,” he continued, “you have to hope that the taste for travel develops the love of eating well and revives these old recipes.”

Of the 279 entries Bourguignon nailed down in Provence, I knew without having to get into my 1987 Renault 5 that there continue to be croquants (almond cookies, similar to biscotti) in Allauch, cherries in St.-Cyr, salted anchovies in Cassis, juniper confiture in Barcelonnette, scorpion fish off the coast of Hyères, sea urchins off St.-Tropez, asparagus in Lauris, honey in Orange, truffles and fruits confits in Carpentras, melon in Cavaillon, brandade(creamed salt cod) between Aubagne and Cassis, calissons (almond-and-confited-melon paste) in Aix, and lemons in Menton. I also knew that people eat daube (beef stew) between Forcalquier and Castellane, stuffed vegetables in Toulon, and tapenade, aioli, and bouillabaisse in Marseilles. If you want to learn more about these products and dishes, stop reading now. For my immediate purposes I was only concerned with two kinds of specialties: those I had never heard of, and those I was not sure were still in circulation. Every item was cross-referenced against the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur volume in the scholarly Inventaire du Patrimoine Culinaire de la France, an invaluable inventory of foods—current in 1995—with the same aim as the map.

Bourguignon puts fassum—whole cabbage stuffed between the leaves with an egg-bound mixture of pork, rice, cured ham, tomato coulis, and peas—at the end of a long list of finds along the Côte d’Azur. I found it in Grasse. Chef Emmanuel Ruz thinks so much of the dish, he named his restaurant after it. Lou Fassum is rather eccentric-looking, which is a nice way of saying naff, but the cabbage—poached in pot-au-feu bouillon and served in a fat, humid wedge—is wonderful. In a recipe in the short-lived (1896–1927) Grasse newspaper La Voix du Peuple, the bouillon is flavored with the weird addition of a piece of oven-dried melon. It also instructs the cook to garnish the cabbage with capers, a more interesting and pertinent finishing flourish than Ruz’s misguided slick of pesto. (Both agree, however, on a final dusting of nutmeg and Parmesan.) Though he doesn’t use it in his restaurant, Ruz sells a remote article of kitchen equipment, crocheted by the few Grassoise housewives who still remember how, that will not be coming to Sur la Table anytime soon: a fassumier looks like an old-fashioned French cotton-string shopping bag, only smaller and with drawstrings. The net helps reconstitute the cabbage after it’s filled and to hold it together while it poaches. A top-knotted tea towel or piece of cheesecloth also works well, but has less romance and none of the folklore.

The map locates fougassette—a flattish oval brioche—squarely in Grasse. So does a 1931 guide by the National Automobile Union that tried to get people on the road by telling them where to eat what. I was window-shopping, literally, when I found fougassettes, preening all matte and tender in the vitrine of Venturini bakery in the center of Grasse. Scented with orange-blossom water, the bread is slashed in seven places with the corner of a spatula to symbolize the face of Christ (eyes, ears, nose, mouth). Production increases at Christmas, when every dessert table in Provence has a brioche among its 13 sweets, symbolizing Christ and the apostles. If that’s not enough symbolism for you, the table is laid with three cloths, signifying the Holy Trinity.

Bourguignon places échaudé in Draguignan, but it turns up here and there throughout Provence. Provençal desserts have a reputation for being chokingly dry and rustic, but don’t look to échaudé to disprove it. Venturini’s is ring-shaped, flavored with lemon zest, boiled like a bagel, then baked. The result is similar to a very thin shortbread. The one I tasted was just this side of burnt. You either love the burnt aspect or hate it. Vendors once threadedéchaudé onto sticks for selling at village fêtes, and on Palm Sunday they were hung from branches and carried to church to be blessed. Easter is still associated with échaudé, which in Bourguignon’s day would have been made—like fougassette—only with olive oil. Now, grrrr, it’s cut with peanut oil.

Though panisse still shows up in shops and on menus in Nice (squeezed for space on land, Bourguignon floated the entry offshore), today it is more closely associated with Marseilles, particularly the outlying waterfront Estaque quarter. Panisse is nothing more or less than a gruel of chickpea flour, olive oil, salt, and water. (If you try it at home, ignore the old recipes that call for adding the flour to boiling water, which guarantees lumps; instead, whisk the flour into water, and then heat it). While the gruel can be poured into cylindrical molds that allow easy cutting into fries or slices, the really skilled and fearless roll it into fat sausages in dish towels. Saucers produce individual galettes and are another, more picturesque option.

Most Americans only know panisse as the name of a churchy restaurant outside San Francisco. The one you eat, deep-fried or pan-browned in more olive oil, is compellingly nutty and crusty, with a firm, smooth, starchy interior. Three stands in Estaque—Lou Goustato de l’Estaco, Magali, and Chez Freddy—sell panisses in paper cones for eating as street food in damp bathing suits, with pepper and industrial quantities of worst-quality rosé. Panissesalso make a great gratin, napped with tomato sauce and scattered with Parmesan, but good luck finding them this way. The most arcane and deviant way to eat panisses is for dessert, sprinkled with sugar, but nobody in Provence can be bothered to serve them to you like that, either.

Does any of this sound familiar?It should if you’ve spent any time in Nice or Toulon, where all the same ingredients go into a savory crêpe the Niçois call socca and the Toulonnais know as cade. The batter, slightly thinner than that of a normal crêpe, is poured into a low, tin-lined copper pan up to 28 inches in diameter. The best soccaand cade are baked in a wood-burning oven.

Bourguignon considered pieds et paquets so important to the gastronomic profile of Marseilles that he bumped it up two type points and set it in all caps. The dish is composed of lamb’s feet and tripe that, once filled with garlic, parsley, and salt pork, forms adorable little packages. Both feet and tripe are simmered with white wine, tomato, and aromatics until the cartilage melts into the sauce and the feet fall apart, encouraging you to roll the knobbly, glassy bones around in your mouth. On bad intelligence, I reserved a table Chez Loury and invited a septuagenarian acquaintance who has lived in Marseilles her entire life to try out the restaurant’s pieds et paquets.Catastrophe! Slicing into a tripe bundle, she found ground pork instead of salt pork. “One more thing to convince the world that Marseilles is full of crooks!” she wailed. “What do they take us for—tourists?”

Honor and the right morsel of pig are restored to the dish at Ou Ravi Prouvencau, 50 miles west in Maussane-les-Alpilles, at the foot of Les Baux. Chef Jean-François Richard plays off pieds et paquets’ lovely funkiness with a sweetness traced to the carrots in the packages. Separating the men from the boys is the way they are secured. The boys use string or, worse, heat-tolerant rubber bands. The men—Richard is one—make a buttonhole, passing a corner of the tripe through it. Chic. Also on the map and menu here are artichauts à la barigoule (artichokes braised in white wine and olive oil) and soupe au pistou (vegetable soup with pesto), both mercifully unreconstructed and served in a courtyard garlanded with lights and enclosed by a high wall hung with mirrors. Ou Ravi Prouvencau is a rare example of an almost-extinguished species: the classy, no-star, family-run, multigenerational provincial French restaurant.

You might think that the only people who ate feet historically were the tilling class, but they figured on the 1476 funeral menu of a canon of Arles. The first recipe for pieds et paquets (actually five variations, consuming an entire chapter) appeared in Marius Morard’s 1888 classic, in reprint as the Manuel Complet de la Cuisinière Provençale. By 1927, they threatened to topple a certain fish stew as the most Marseillais dish in Marseilles. Pieds et paquets are “almost as renowned as bouillabaisse,” writes E. Blancard in Mets et Produits de Provence, “[and is] yet more widespread, because it’s found everywhere in cans and jars.”

Poutargue—the salted, dried, and pressed eggs of the gray mullet (bottarga in Italian)—was right where Bourguignon said it would be: in Martigues, down the coast from Marseilles. Martigues is seedy. I’m being kind. The eggs have a waxy texture, a distinct butteriness, and taste deliciously of the sea floor. Though poutargue is an uncommon luxury food today, an 1886 account describes how Martigues fishermen ate it for breakfast with dried sausage and café au lait (yuck), then again at lunch with cheese and olives after an abundant soupe de poissons. The French have never really understood what to do with poutargue beyond slicing it and passing it around with aperitifs. The Italians suffer from no such failure of the imagination. See Marcella Hazan’s amazing pasta sauce of gratedpoutargue, sweated scallions, chili peppers, and lemon zest.

Lifting the egg sacs out of a mullet in one piece without tearing the fragile membrane requires the hands of a surgeon. Since all of José and Jean-Claude Ortis’s poutargue—just 110 pounds annually—is sold at the biweekly Martigues market or directly from their scary shanty under the Caronte viaduct, the brothers ignore European Union norms, gently pressing the mullet sacs between planks and then drying them in the open air. Each fish yields two amber lobes. By the time the roe have melded into a solid, compact mass, they have lost 35 percent of their weight.

Most of the eggs sold by La Saveur des Calanques in neighboring Port-de-Bouc arrive frozen, horror of horrors, from Florida and Mauritania. To appease the inspectors in Brussels, the company cheats, skipping the delicate pressing process altogether and drying the roe in humidity- and temperature-controlled chambers. Whereas the boys wimpishly dip the lobes in paraffin to preserve them, the men risk leaving them in their own tissuey pellicle. Both La Saveur and the Ortises disdain paraffin.

La Saveur’s scruffy shop sells poutargue and crème de mélet, or small sand smelt, an obscure fish the map cites in an arching laundry list of poissons du littoral méditerranéen that begins in Roussillon on the Spanish border and finishes in Provence. Crème de mélet is combined with salt, bay, fennel, olive oil, and an unholy amount of black pepper. The crude, atomic condiment replaces mustard in vinaigrette and is tamed with more oil when eaten with crudités.

Bourguignon would find Aix-en-Provence less changed, vis-à-vis his map, than perhaps any place in the region. The patisseries Béchard and Poulain wrap toasted hazelnuts in a primitive dough of flour, sugar, and water forbiscotins. The recipe is identical to one from 1704, except that orange-blossom water replaces lemon zest as the flavoring. It would be nice to report that biscotins are handmade, but these guys love their centrifuges.

Palette was not yet an official appellation when Bourguignon singled it out for vin cuit. Today, Château Simone is the only Palette estate that produces the dessert wine, though without commercializing it, leaving the market to small outfits like Domaine Naïs, in nearby Rognes. To make vin cuit, a copper cauldron of grape must is boiled down over a wood fire to concentrate the sugars, then seeded with yeast by adding fermenting wine. The process is tricky, for in reducing the must, the level of alcohol increases, making natural fermentation difficult. True to its name, vin cuit has a characteristic “cooked” quality; it also tastes strongly of prunes, goes extremely well withbiscotins, and is another of the items on the Christmas dessert table in Provence.

The Confiserie du Mont Ventoux fulfills Bourguignon’s promise of berlingots in Carpentras, northeast of Avignon, with 80 to 90 tons of the hard candy annually. Old-timers simply ask for “Carpentras,” shorthand for the mint version of the pyramidal confection, striped with white.

Berlingots bring to 12 the sum of specialties on the map that can be added to the registry of survivors. Bourguignon would be pleased but not impressed. He liked big, sweeping numbers. This potato, that chicken, he felt, contributed a crucial detail to the national portrait he undertook to paint. In looking at his friend’s heroic Carte Gastronomique, the celebrated epicure Curnonsky thought he saw “the august and maternal face of France.” Everyone tells me that since so much of it endures as the mapmaker knew it, I should finish eating my way through Provence, then take on the rest of the country. It’s easy to say when it’s not your shoe leather. The math is frightening. But I’m thinking about it.