There is no one single Provencal food tradition. Ala provencal on menus usually alludes to the use of garlic, olive oil, tomatoes and a certain mix of herbs, the ones usually found in herbes de Provence, or it might mean fresh basil in summertime.
But the different ingredients found in the southern Alps, Camargue Delta, Cote d’Azur or Plan de Dieu in the Rhone Valley, all are part of Provence, can vary radically. In the old days, the inland country people, more than 20 miles from the coast and not near a railhead, rarely ate fresh fish other than trout from local streams and salt cod. Potatoes and tomatoes weren’t a part of the regional menu until the 1800’s. After they came from the new world on explorer’s boats, they spread slowly from Spain to the aristocrats in France and Italy.
Even the large scale cultivation of lavender, actually more commonly a hybrid called lavandou, didn’t occur until the later 1800’s when American laundry detergent makers wanted its scent. Now the blooming lavender fields, row upon row of purple iridescence are the hallmark of the tourism industry – plus the source for great honey!
Wheat wasn’t native to Europe either, a concept unimaginable in France today. Wheat & bread as an omnipresent symbol of sustenance is a vision re-enforced by golden paintings of Provencal wheat harvesters from Vincent Van Gogh. Wheat was native to Syria and when the Romans conquered them they took the new ingredient(s) and spread it throughout their European and north African empire.
Previously, epoitre/faro/spelt was the grain for Roman Legions stomachs to march on before the more prolific and easy to use wheat appeared. And while epoitre is making a big comeback in food circles, the acceptance and wide spread cultivation of wheat, like the tomato and the potato shows the capability of the Provencal to accept and grow almost anything and turn it to their own.
Because of Provence’s fabulous growing climate, the culture’s southern irreverent nature and tradition of absorbing new ingredients, the regional food will continue to evolve, please and put it’s own spin on the palate – perhaps it’s all that sun and sky.
In the last decade, French chefs have had their collective crowns as kings of food knocked a little crocked by more experimental chefs led by the Catalans & Basques, French gone overseas to spread their wings and even, God forbid, the English. Many restaurant chefs in Marseille now look as much to their brethren in Barcelona, Africa and Asia for inspiration as they do to Paris.
In France today there is alas, aside from the very expensive range, a great deal of very mediocre restaurant food, franchise fast food and supermarket frozen junk surprise available. But in the country and at home the French have mostly held the line and maintained their traditions and interest of culinary quality. They do care more about what they put on their tables and are willing to pay more than say most Americans.
I would be willing to bet the next revival of French food will come out of the south, as much of the last wave of nuevelle cuisine did. New influences and stolid old traditions can more happily collide and co-exist in the sunny labrotory of the south, Marseille can lead the way (Nice is too rich and conservative for such). Undoubtably, olive oil, native herbs and wine will be involved somehow, in Provence , yes of course. But in what form will the new direction take and with what other ingredients, and for what purpose (as in a movement, a celebration, a protest, experiment, an accident…) that remains to be seen and will be worth waiting to find out.
People have always escaped to the south to get away from the rigid confines of weather, social convention, government and debts of all kinds – emotional and otherwise. Escape and liberation provide new perspectives that lead to creativity. Plus one has the feeling of being able to slip across the border to Spain or Italy more easily if things get a little too controversial. Ratatouille will remain, but the addition of cous-cous, tajines and Vietnamese nem has only leavened the mélange of Provencal cuisine.