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Classic Foods of Provence

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Photo: Roland Bello

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. Panisses also 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 socca and 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 grated poutargue, sweated scallions, chili peppers, and lemon zest.


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