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Classic Foods of Provence

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Photo: Roland Bello

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 for biscotins. 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 with biscotins, 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.


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