I have a particular fondness—a weakness, some friends say—for ceramics, and my cupboards are crammed with pieces that I've bought all around the world. Besides enjoying the quirky beauty of my fire-blackened Indonesian bowls, polka-dotted Hungarian wine jugs, and Tunisian pitchers with their otherworldly iconography, I take a perverse pleasure in the challenge of lugging pottery home from overseas. It's ridiculously breakable; each undamaged plate is a trophy.
My favorite finds, the ones I use every day, are from the south of France, where the history of this craft is long and cross-cultural, absorbing influences from throughout the Mediterranean. The region's earliest inhabitants made primitive vessels for storing, cooking, and serving food. The Greeks introduced more sophisticated techniques when they founded Marseilles as a trading port, circa 600 b.c. (They also introduced wine, an instant hit.) Trade with Italy and Spain brought new shapes and colored glazes. When the popes settled in Avignon, in the early 1300's, they promulgated both religion and luxurious dining.
Pottery making seems especially suited to the Gallic temperament. Like cheese and wine production, it's a blend of chemistry, artistry, geography, luck, and sweat. Southern France's terroir is ideal—clay-rich soil, hot sun for baking, wood for firing. Today, it has become inseparable from what we think of as the southern French style. Provençal cuisine conjures up the mortar and pestle, terra-cotta cookware, and brightly colored olive-oil jugs and kitchen tiles. And the dishes and plates: even on the gloomiest winter day, the warm glazes and familiar rusticity evoke herb-scented Mediterranean sunshine.
I've collected most of my pottery over the years on shopping expeditions with my friend Christopher Corr, the British illustrator; he has a centuries-old limestone maison in Barjac, about an hour's drive northwest of Avignon, on the border of Provence and the Languedoc. Christopher's kitchen cabinets groan under the weight of a collection that is bigger and more eclectic than mine—he has the advantage of proximity.
Meander might be the best description of our time-proven manner of travel. We bring maps but rarely consult them, stop when we feel like it, and stick to the back, or "green," roads (French maps highlight the scenic drives). To be honest, these quests are just a very good excuse to visit some of the most appealing towns in the countryside: a café with a view is as important as the perfect bowl. This time around Christopher brings along his paints and pads to keep a record of our trip, which starts practically in his backyard. Surrounded by vineyards and lavender fields, with a view west to the Cévennes Mountains, Barjac is a quietly enchanting spot. I like it precisely because there's not much to do there. But the Friday market, held along the steep main street, is a crowded local event. In a prime location at the top of the thoroughfare, Jocelyn Nestier has been selling sturdy pottery from northern Spain for as long as I've been visiting, some 10 years now. His pieces are mostly solid-colored, but I keep an eye out for the occasional marbleized glazes that make his pitchers and salad bowls look like earth-toned finger paintings.
From Barjac, Christopher and I drive an hour south to Uzès. On a high Languedoc plateau ringed by fields that explode with red poppies every spring, it is one of the loveliest towns in southern France. The great renegade novelist André Gide spent his school vacations here, in his uncle's house, just off the Place aux Herbes. This wide central square is shaded by plane trees and surrounded in all directions by winding streets. So many prettified French villages have a museumlike quality; Uzès buzzes with an urban energy.
Christopher and I eat lunch in the Place aux Herbes, at Lou Mazet, a restaurant where a waiter hauls around an enormous chalkboard menu to each table. Christopher keeps his watercolors in an antique metal paint box, which he opens everywhere, even in the best restaurants, managing never to get paint on the tablecloths or on his clothes. Taking out his painting pad, Christopher turns his gaze to the neighboring tables, where French couples, sitting with their dogs and babies, drink beer under café umbrellas. Our food arrives and I dig in, but Christopher ignores his warm goat cheese strata: he is fixated on a salon next door, where tattooed locals sip mint tea. Waiters and diners stroll by to peek over Christopher's shoulder. But he pays no attention, as his sketchbook pages become covered with little paintings—of the square's big fountain, of my salade niçoise—rendered in quick swabs of his brush.
The Pichon family has been making pottery in Uzès with the region's signature white clay for two centuries. The current generation, Veronique and her brother Christophe, have separate studios and shops. According to Christopher, who collects gossip as voraciously as he does pottery, there's a rumor of a bitter family feud. His favorite designer is Veronique, so after lunch we head to her store. It's so packed with breakables that we both leave our bags at the door. Veronique works in subdued, earthy greens and grays; her refined tableware has a distinctive scalloped edge. Unlike most Provençal ceramics, her plates would be at home on a formal dining table.
A few miles down the road is our next stop: the hilly Languedoc town of St.-Quentin-La-Poterie, which was a pottery-making center for centuries, thanks to its excellent clay. Though there's no longer a thriving industry here, more than a dozen contemporary artists maintain ateliers, producing a wide and sometimes wacky variety of styles. Most of this work is too modern for my taste, but just outside of town, at Les Céramiques de Lussan, Christopher and I are captivated by a flock of life-sized ceramic chickens. En masse they're wonderfully silly, but take one away and it would work in a garden back home. I, unfortunately, have only a fire escape. Instead I buy a few eggcups, delicately painted with tiny chicken portraits, that will be ideal for serving chilled vodka or sake. (I imagine they'd be good for eggs too.)
The next day we're off again, driving two hours southwest to Aix-en-Provence, leaving behind the farmers' fields and dark river gorges of the Languedoc for Provence'spale hills. Aix may be the most famous town in the region; it's certainly the most energetic, its countless squares humming with students from the university and its lanes lined with wonderful shops, like the outrageous confectionery La Cure Gourmande, which sells chocolate olives (you can't tell them from the real thing until you take a bite), and Le Faubourg, which carries etched glasses. I'm something of a "town square collector" (anthropologist?fetishist?), and my favorite in Aix is the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville—small but perfectly proportioned, with the requisite fountain, a news kiosk, and a few cafés in one corner.