Speak of Provence and an awed hush will often descend on the group. For those who have been, they slip into a reverie of market stalls and long lunches. Those who have only heard stories conjure up images of lavender fields and long lunches. The long lunches part is usually a theme.
So why is it, then, that Provence is so often associated with romantic honeymoons or, at the other end of the spectrum, buses of seniors? Are those the only people who enjoy working up just enough of an appetite strolling under plane trees to spend two hours or more lingering over a few bottles of rose and a perfectly simple meal? I don't think so.
Here are 5 things people don't talk about when they talk about Provence. These are the things that make the region fun for the adventurous, and extra-fun for the adventurous foodie. If you want to do more than just read about fun things, join a 7 day tour of all things amazing and food September 29-October 5, 2016.
1. Artisan production isn't just a buzz word
Now that there's a world-wide fear of mass production and food full of chemicals, small businesses are banking on the word 'artisan' to set themselves apart. Everything from ice cream to energy drinks are jumping on the bandwagon. In France, artisan isn't a marketing ploy; it's doing things the way they've been done for thousands of years. And it's delicious. A government-down respect for tradition has allowed producers to continue to use processes (like hanging salami in a damp cellar to cure) which would never fly in North America for inspection purposes. These old methods create complex flavours that you just can't get in sterile environments.
2. Incredible bike routes
With its spiderweb-like road system spanning over vast valleys, Provence was made for exploring by bike. The local governments have realized this and invested heavily in making biking easy and safe. Websites like this one give you an idea of just how many well-marked cycling routes exist for everyone from the novice to Tour de France hopeful.
3. Everyone is part of the food scene. There's no pretentiousness about it.
Oh, your grandmother makes the best tapenade this side of the Sorgue? But wait, it's not packaged in cute kraft paper and twine? Literally no one cares. Yes, great packaging is an added bonus (especially when you're choosing gifts to bring home) but more often than not products make it because they taste amazing. That means that the majority of things you eat aren't just going to look good and then disappoint. I would love to say this is the case 100% of the time, but let's not try to fool ourselves.
4. Cheese and bread are a complete meal
It really deserves its own category. French cheese isn't like other cheese... it's better. Funky bacterial cultures and heritage cow breeds mean there's one for every taste, from stinky and oozing to aged to crumbly, tangy perfection. Every market has new varieties to try alongside the classics. And oh, the affineurs! As far as I'm concerned, all of that cheese is only made better by the exceptional bread. Foolhardy travelers don't do their due diligence in sourcing the best regional bakeries, but with a little poking around one can find bread that blows all past notions of what bread is out of the water. Together they're something special.
5. A doors-open policy
It may seem intimidating to wander up to a farm door and strike up a conversation with a French farmer (especially given the bad rap the French get when it comes to tourists); but if you can muster the courage, you're welcome to poke your head into just about anything. Maybe it's the endless sunshine and easy access to wine, but the southerners have a laid-back way about them which welcomes random visitors. You may not be quite ready to go talk to French strangers on your own though...
If seeing the real thing and interacting with the locals sounds like fun to you, join The Modern Pantry's first culinary tour of Provence where we'll be doing just that. Market visits and cooking classes will be paired with a truffle hunt, grape stomp, cheese making workshop on a goat farm, and visit to an olive mill. With a group of only 8 you'll be elbows deep in all of the artisan action. But don't worry, there will be plenty of time for lunch!