For those who value their food, then the produce of Southern France is an obvious lure – at all times of the year. Here’s some highlights of what gastronomes might enjoy when they next visit.
It’s an easy destination to visit from the UK – simply fly into Avignon, Nîmes, Lyon or Marseille with FlyBe, CityJet, Ryanair, British Airways, easyJet or train it with Voyages-sncf.com.
Vaucluse in Southern France is the top producer of black truffles in France so if you are a lover of the “tuber melanosporum” or “black gold”, read on.
The Truffle Harvest Proclamation” – takes place in Richerenches each November – to mark the opening of its famous market for black truffles – the largest market of its type in France. This is when the first truffles of the season are tasted and there is an official opening by the Confraternity of the Black Diamond and Gastronomy in their ceremonial robes, digging for truffles with truffle-scenting dogs, tasting, a conference and special truffle menus. At noon, the restaurants serve their special truffle menus. Whilst in the village, why not visit the Knights Templar Commandery.
From late November to end of March 2017, the Carpentras Winter Truffle Market takes place where every Friday morning, the truffles harvested from the slopes of Mont Ventoux are traded with buyers coming from near and far In an elaborate ceremony, the truffles – “tuber melanosporum” – are weighed on hand-held scales and carefully wrapped, money is discreetly exchanged and produce handed over from grower to gourmet customer. Carpentras has recently launched a Summer Truffle Market every Friday between May and August welcoming gourmands to try some local truffles together with a glass of AOC Ventoux Wine for just €6 per person.
Truffle Hunting: There are a large number of truffle growers in Southern France who will show you how they search for this “black gold” during the season – normally mid-November – mid-March. Robert Florent, a truffle grower by vocation for example, organises outings to discover truffles with a demonstration of cavage (truffle hunting) in the wild, accompanied by his truffle dog named ‘Cannelle’ (cinnamon). Afterwards, he invites participants for a wine tasting with truffles on La Bastide de Clovis, his estate in Gordes, listed as one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France.’
The Vaucluse is often termed a big vegetable garden – whatever produce is in season, they’ll be available in the markets. Strawberries, asparagus, cherries, melons, figs, apricots, muscat grapes, garlic, black truffles, spelt (mountain wheat), olives, aromatic herbs and saffron.
Springtime in Carpentras sees the strawberry season. The sunny climate of Provence is ideal for growing sweet smelling crunchy strawberries and in Carpentras, there are four preferred varieties: Pajaro, Agatha, Ciflorette (perfect in pastries) and Garriguette (with the most beautiful smell). In the spring, several villages have strawberry festivals (in Carpentras, Pernes les Fontaines and Velleron), which are an opportunity to enjoy the fruit and to meet producers.
Melon has also become the speciality of the chef Jean-Jacques Prévôt, who, in his restaurant (an old melon warehouse) serves different melon dishes including the surprising “Summer Mac Prévôt”, a hamburger made with melon.
For the sweet toothed …
When the French hear the word nougat, they immediately turn to Montélimar in the Drôme. The term Nougat de Montélimar is reserved exclusively for products containing at least either 30% almonds or 28% blanched almonds and 2% of blanched pistachios and 25% of sweetening. An application for IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) is under way.
To make nougat, you mix honey with water and sugar before pouring the mixture into whipped egg whites and adding crushed pistachios and a touch of vanilla. The resulting mixture is laid out on marble tables before being cut into slabs.
The first nougat factory opened in Montélimar in 1770 after the first almond trees introduced by Olivier de Serre began to bear fruit. However, it only gained worldwide renown following the increase in tourism to the South of France in the 1930’s when people stopping for petrol would pick up a slab of nougat to eat in the car! Today, you can take a tour in the factories in Montélimar as there are currently 12 nougatiers in Montélimar.
Which nationalities imports the most Montélimar Nougat? Well that would be us Brits, the Germans and the Swiss.
The Militant du Goȗt Label
The producers of foodstuffs in the Gard are besotted with the quality of their produce. Indeed, the local Militant du Goȗt label has been in place for over 20 years and is a term used to distinguish food products that are firmly anchored in and are symbolic of a certain geographic territory. So when you talk about olives, they are olives from the Nîmes area and when referring to onions, they are the sweet product from the Cévennes.
The AOP Huile d’Olive de Nîmes is the first AOP Olive Oil in the Languedoc-Roussillon and thanks to the Picholine olive, the resulting oil has a hint of piquancy and slight bitterness that gives it a freshness and incomparable aromatic intensity. The olives thrive on the stony, limestone dry soil or garrigue in the Gard with the area being the second biggest in France for organic production with over 760 organic growers farming nearly 20,000 hectares.
The special mild onions of Cévennes have been grown for nearly two centuries. The crop is part and parcel on the landscapes of terraced fields which characterize the southern Cévennes. Mild onions are delicious raw and cooked and are very easy to keep for several months after harvest. Due to demand, the farmers in the Gard have developed and modernized this traditional crop and have formed a co-operative to develop reliable, rapid packaging and marketing. This led to an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in 2003.
The mild onion from the Cévennes – grown from May to September – is pearly and soft, delicious in salads, glazed and in other preparations. The variety has been strictly maintained through the selection of seedlings ensuring the sustainability of its excellent properties.
That old chestnut …
The humble chestnut has been the lifeblood of the Ardèche for centuries and was given the “AOC Châtaigne d’Ardèche” in June 2006. Rich in vitamins, chestnuts were turned into flour, used in soups and stews and made into jam and purees to sustain a poor population through the winter months. Today, the chestnut is sought by gourmets alongside the locals.
Half of the French national chestnut production comes from the Ardèche (some 5,500 tons from around 6,000 hectares of chestnut groves) and visitors can visit producers, buy edible souvenirs and find out more at the Chestnut Museum in Joyeuse. There are 65 varieties of chestnut with the 19 main ones representing 75% of overall production. The most famous are Comballe, Bouche Rouge, Sardonne, Précoce des Vans and Merle. 60% are sold fresh and 40% are used in other ways – as liqueurs, sweets etc. Chestnuts also feature on every local menu as the chefs champion “the bread tree of the Cévennes” to provide maximum taste with minimum food miles.
Perhaps the most famous way of processing chestnuts is the “marron glace”. The chestnuts are sorted, graded and thoroughly peeled and then dipped in a sugar syrup which, by osmosis, penetrates to the kernel of the nut. Only the best specimens are taken for glazing. They are then placed on a grill, sprayed with icing sugar and dried in an oven for a few seconds. This process was first industrialized by Clément Faugier in Privas in 1882 with Sabaton founded in Labégude in 1907 and Maison Imbertin Aubenas in 1920.
Photo credit thanks to: Alain Hocquel / Muriel Pellegrin / Nadine Tardieu / Drome Tourisme / Vaucluse Tourism / Lionel Pascale / Gard Tourism / Ardeche Tourism / M.Rissoan / C.Fougeirol /
Notes to Editors: Southern France is an umbrella association promoting the Ardèche, Drôme, Gard, Vaucluse, Vallée du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Wines. The four departments run across three different regions (Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur – Auvergne Rhône Alpes – Languedoc Roussillon Midi Pyrénées), their collaboration enables visitors to discover a coherent geographic area along the Rhône Valley. Strong common themes are authentic and perched villages, great natural or architectural sites, outdoor activities and, of course, Rhône Valley vineyards. So think sunshine, authenticity, heritage, nature and the art of living which is of course – food and wine!