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Cuisine de Provence with Old & New Friends

Day 65 to 68 Aix-en-Provence

sunny 38 °C

In 2008, I cycled through the south of France, Provence district, following the Le Tour de France and loved the place with its scenery, weather, lifestyle, cycling and above all its food.

Of all the cooking styles, I prefer Provençal for its rustic elements, simple quality ingredients, well rounded flavours and great for home cooking. We also quickly learned that, contrary to the perception that French cooking is full of butter, butter and more butter, Provençal cooking uses almost exclusively Olive Oil - a much healthier option so my esteem for this style has only improved.

So what better opportunity than to skip across from Italy on our way to Spain and arrange cooking classes in Provence - as one does!

We found the perfect town, Aix-en-Provence, about 1 hour north of Marseilles. Time to expand our culinary skills. Also we planned to catch up with friends, Grant and Katya, who are now living in Grenoble. They'd visited Aix before and it took very little persuasion to convince them to come down to meet us.

This town is renowned for its produce, cuisine and a touch of Paris, often referred to as the 21st district of Paris, although Parisians are definitely considered foreigners by the proud locals. Its a 2000 year old town, settled by the Romans during conquests East. "Aix" means water and this town has a number of (still operational) roman baths and hot springs so it was the perfect spot to establish an outpost for the Roman Legions to stop and replenish before continuing their marauding.

The town lives only for the seasons and seasonal produce. They shop every day for what they need and what you see in the markets and restaurants is only in what is season. Its a nice way to live, they don't expect produce out of season and plan a menu around what is in season, guaranteeing freshness and food at its best which, as we are reminded, in order to get produce out of season, it is often picked green for durability during transportation, held in cold storage and artificially ripened, compromising flavour, vitamins and all the good stuff.

Aix has a reputation for great restaurants with high quality food and is a hub for Cooking Classes.


The town is also famous for a special sweet candy almond shaped biscuit called Calissons, translated means cuddles. It was developed in the 15th century by the royal kitchens as a wedding present from the last Baron of Provence, King Rene of Anjou, to his young bride and the town to celebrate their wedding (the King's second). Today, Calissons are proudly sold in Aix and we understand that once a year there is a festival where there is a blind tasting of makers to determine who makes the best. The right to make Calissons is also regulated and only certified bakeries are licensed to make them.

Provence is a dry weather region so no green pastures for grazing cows. With terrain more suited to sheep and goats, it has become famous for its sheep and goat cheese as well as wines, particularly, Rośe.

Our Provençal Education kicks off with a full day cooking class with Giles. The day begins with a tour to the local market which has been operating in the same square for decades where Giles explains a lot about the produce and the producers and buys our ingredients.


The market was full of the atmosphere, aromas, colour and freshness we were hoping for. This lady is an icon of the market, selling her own produce, picked late the evening before, or very early each morning to be on display hours later.

We were dazzled with the variety of produce we just don't see in Oz. Heritage Tomatoes that are glorious
and we fell in love with Peche Plates a type of flat peach, that is sweet with beautiful crunchy juicy texture, perfectly engineered for easy eating as we wandered the market...

...in addition to learning about and sampling the local olives (green through black), dried fruits, honey (including lavender and other flavours) and other delicious products offered by the stall holders. Jen could not stop swooning over the intoxicating aromas from the fresh bread, cheese, olives, herbs and cured meats.

We knew straight away the food we were about to cook would be a taste sensation. Jen and I could not get enough of this market - visiting it many times throughout our days in Aix.

Next stop was to an exclusive vineyard, Château Simone, famous for its Rośe.


Located four kilometres from Aix, originally it was the bastide of the Grands Carmes d'Aix Monks, but has been in the hands of the intensely private Rougier family since 1830. Old documents bear witness to the fact that vines have been cultivated here from time immemorial. They normally don't allow visitors so the opportunity to visit this most private family vineyard was unique. From the beautifully cool cellar with barrels about 20 years old, tasting room and gardens all oozed history, everything about French culture and a sense of refined serenity and peacefulness.

We then arrived at Giles' nearby property, put on our aprons and we're ready to learn. We were set up outside on a large table in a wonderful garden setting, selecting herbs we would need straight from the garden. And we're immediately put to work.

It was the perfect way for a bunch of strangers from around the world to learn about food and cooking whilst enjoying good company.

Giles is a wealth of information, answering all our questions and patiently guiding us through the cooking tasks assigned to each of us.


Jen got a little reminder of home as one of Giles' very friendly cats is a perfect (although a little chubbier) clone of Tzara - so cuddles were in order between tasks in the kitchen.


After a few hours of chopping, dicing, mixing and numerous stories told by the group we eventually sat down to a five course late lunch:
1. Tapenades of green and black olives with anchovies, capers, olive oil and pine nuts
2. Onion tart with anchovies
3. Petits Farcis - Nice style - paying homage to Nice despite the horrific events a few days earlier. It is fitting to celebrate something so great about Nice amid so much pain. Ham, pork and beef mince stuffed into hollowed out onions, eggplant, peppers and zucchini.
4. Three different kinds of goats cheese, oozy and pungent
5. White nectarines and yellow peaches with mint syrup, and pine nuts.


All washed down with special Château Simone wine.

The day was a huge success: we learnt cooking skills, made traditional Provençal food, enjoyed the scenery of the hills of Aix-en-Provence, drank beautiful wine, sampled fresh produce in a local market and met wonderful people. This is what travelling is all about.


The next day was simple. We met up with my wonderful friend Grant and the radiant Katya to catch up over the past few years. Breakfast, walk around the shops and markets, lunch, home for a siesta, back out for dinner and drinks. That's it.

The following day, after Le Petit Déjeuner (breakfast) in the Hotel de Ville (Town Square) surrounded by centuries old buildings, our Provençal Education continues with a half day cooking class.

We again tour the Market with Mathilde, a Parisian living in Aix running cooking classes at her wonderful L'Atelier Cuisine de Mathilde.

The menu this time was:

1. Figs with goat cheese, pine nuts, honey and mint wrapped up in pastry parcels and baked.
2. A slightly different version of Petits Farcis Provençaux - veal and pork mince stuffed into onions, peppers and zucchini with tomato sauce on a bed of rice. True to the commitment to the season, in July, Petits Farcis is the only plat du jour .
3. Dessert was an opportunity to learn the classic Creme Brûlée infused with vanilla. Its amazing how everyone gets a devilish look and a sparkle in their eyes when handed the blow torch - fire it up and watch it BURN!


The whole lunch was delicious and very filling and so a siesta was needed, not before a palate cleanser on the way back.

Again out for dinner with the weather still mid twenties and still lots to talk about.

Next morning we all met at the market for a brunch and to say our farewells. Thank you to Grant and Katya for making the effort to come down to Aix-en-Provence and have the opportunity to catch up. Jen and I will remember the town in many special ways. We're also inspired by our cooking adventures and excited to get home and cook for family and friends.


The rest of the day was just a typical travel day you take each time you move on. Pack up, checkout, walk to the bus or train station terminal, catch a bus to the airport and get through customs, plane to another city, fingers crossed your bags arrive, find the airport city bus, bus into the city centre and then hike to your apartment. Before you do all this you have to work out all the logistics but for someone who used to be called Tommy Trip Planner its a piece of cake especially as we now have the iPad and everything readily accessible on the Internet. In the mean time, Jen checks out the things to do in the next town, edits what I write and finalises the photos for the blog. By now we know what each other strengths are, perfect foundation for a happy marriage!

Posted by tszeitli 09:10 Archived in France Tagged food scenery friends wine cooking provence

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Ah! I'm thoroughly jealous! I'd say I don't have a bucket list. But if one item could still be considered as a list, it'd be cooking lessons in France and Italy! The life style of fresh produce is less novel. The 5 years I lived with my grandma, when/where electricity existed minimally only for lights and radio; and no such thing as grocery store nor fridge was available, we necessarily bought and ate what was seasonal. But my memory of that period isn't at all so beautiful! The farmers market was messy and dirty. My grandma rarely took me with her shopping.

by Angela Zheng

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