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Classic Foods of Provence

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Photo: Roland Bello

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 threaded échaudé 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.

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