Bonjour from Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence is obviously in Provence, southern France, about 30 minutes’ drive inland from Marseilles.
Aix-en-Provence is the heartland of Provence. It is a magical, ancient city with grand boulevards, massive outdoor daily fresh food markets, brocante “vintage wares” markets, linen markets, large town squares and a thriving commercial city centre. It is famous for an abundance of mineral spas too.
Aix-en-Provence is surrounded by farming land growing olives, garlic, citrus trees and rows and rows of glorious lavender and rosemary used both for cooking and the pharmaceutical industry.
Music lovers will adore the Festival International d’art Lyrique, showcasing opera and chamber music in the month of July.
The food of Provence is lighter and uses more fresh vegetables and salads than in northern France where sauces tend to be heavier and dishes slow-cooked. Olive oil and herbs (lavender, rosemary, basil, marjoram and oregano) are big business in Provence and the food reflects these Mediterranean flavours. Tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini do well in this climate and are often served either grilled with olive oil, or stuffed with breadcrumbs, herbs and anchovies, and baked as a side dish.
Aïoli (garlic mayonnaise) is extremely popular as a side to go with fish or a dip with fresh vegetables. Brandade is a salted cod and puréed potato dip served with bread. Bourride is a light, white fish stew. For something a bit different, lavender can be used to infuse slow-roasted pork, rabbit and veal in winter dishes.
Cheeses from everywhere are available in Aix, but stick to local goat varieties such as Banon or the rich, soft versions from Mont Ventoux.
Aix is also famous for their pastry shops. Try sweets like nougat and pralines and don’t leave town without trying a calisson – an almond-shaped treat consisting of candied fruit (orange, fig or a melon) combined with ground almonds in a marzipan-like layer and then topped with icing. Fresh seasonal fruit tarts like cherry, lemon and fig are also popular.
Pastis is a popular anise-flavoured liqueur served as an apéritif (drink before dinner).
The wine most commonly associated with Aix-en-Provence is rosé. In the past, it has been about quantity but winemakers have got serious and added up to 30 per cent cabernet sauvignon grenache and sometimes vermentino to make a gutsier rosé with tannins to cut through the olive oil used in the regional cuisine.
Best food souvenir
Well, not food exactly … but you absolutely must stock up on soaps made from local olive oil or goat’s milk as well as hair and beauty products using lavender and rosemary essential oils.
Getting there and around
Regular shuttle buses run from Marseille airport every 30 minutes. Aix is accessed via TGV from Paris (3 hours), Nice, Marseille and Lyon.
Anything by Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence, Encore Provence).