Food and drinks historian and author of The Vinegar Cupboard, Angela Clutton, explores the cuisine of Provence, the area that inspired L’arlesiana.
“Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get onto a train. Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place at all. But now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm stony herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of a piece of orange peel scenting a beef stew…”
These are the words with which Elizabeth David introduced her readers in 1960 to Provence. It would have conjured up then – as it still does now – a place of romance and beauty, with those attributes found as much in its food as in anything else. In modern-day London it often feels an effort of will to believe in such a place, yet L’arlesiana tells us it is there. While the opera does not actually take us to Arles, we do get to discover the surrounding countryside of Provence, with its culinary abundance that runs through the region.
You know, I’m sure, the kinds of delights Elizabeth and I are talking about. Let your mind wander for a moment to thoughts of her herb-scented hillside. That is where we might partake of a sun-drenched lunch of charcuterie, terrines, rillettes, rich cheeses, farmhouse butters, vegetables that taste somehow ‘more’ than they do anywhere else, and wine that may be a bit rough around the edges, but that doesn’t matter here.
With such a menu, Provence becomes the exception that proves the rule of what I so often say about food through history: that it is interesting because it tells us about people, place and time. Yet the lunch I have just described is timelessly typical to Provence. It could be lunch now just as it was Elizabeth David’s longed-for lunch almost 50 years ago; and the same 100 years before that, when Alphonse Daudet was writing short stories about life in Provence that were the basis for his play, L’Arlésienne, and for Cilea’s opera.
The very unchanging nature of Provence tells us much about the region’s focus on farming and the produce of the land. It is why Marthe Daudet – Alphonse’s daughter-in-law – lauded the food of Provence over all other regions in her ‘Les Bons Plats de France’, which she wrote under the name of Pampille, and which is still considered a classic of French cookery, 100 years after its publication.
Pampille extolled the pleasures to be found in, amongst much else, Provence’s vegetables. Take her description of a recipe for preparing the region’s long-leaved, violet artichokes. She says they are so tender there is no need to remove the choke, thus making Provence’s artichokes already a step up on most others, because de-choking never fails to feel a faff. The recipe says to cook them in a pan of half-and-half oil to water until they have crisped up and the outer leaves begin to spread. The tender artichokes are then arranged with their stalks standing upright to allow the petals to spread out. Anoint with some of the hot oil, salt liberally and that is that. So simple, so magnificent, so Provence.
They are the perfect partner to, perhaps, some sausages or cured meat from a local farm, whose cows, goats and sheep were and are prized as much for their meat as their dairy produce. Think of ‘Banon’: ewes’ milk cheese named for a town in Provence. It is dipped in local eau-de-vie and then wrapped in chestnut leaves to mature. Like all dairy in the region, it tastes all the better for the depth of flavour given by the lush pastures and the herbs that grow within them, those herbs being the thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram and more that remain iconically known as herbes de Provence in our modern cooking.
Deep black olives appear in so much Provençal food. They are added into daubes of chicken or rabbit that are slow-cooked with tomatoes, garlic and lots of red wine. They are on pissaladière breads; and in tapenade – along with the capers that are yet another local speciality, (Tapéno being the name for caper buds in Provence). Pampille gives a recipe for ‘A soup made with boiled water and olive oil’, and its name doesn’t lie – there is little else other than some garlic and salt in it. She acclaims it as a cure for, amongst other things, nostalgia. Poor love-lorn Federico in our story could perhaps have done with a bowl or two of it.
The harvesting of the olives in Provence from November to January was important to the region’s economy, yet achingly laborious. The olives had to be picked by hand to avoid damaging the fruit or the tree. That remains the best way to pick olives.
At the end of the harvest, the olive-pickers would be treated by the local olive-millers to a supper of bread spread thickly with the oil from the first pressings of the olives, then topped with crushed garlic, as many anchovy filets as desired (so that would be plenty) and then grilled. Washed down with lots of local wine, that remains, I think you will agree, a feast.
But it is not the feast where our story of L’arlesiana reaches its denouement. In the opera, that is the wedding feast of Federico and Vivetta, which is interrupted by Federico’s rival, Metifio. In the short story, it is the feast of Saint-Éloi, patron-saint of draught animals, and so the day for blessing the animals who play such a vital role in farming the land. That is held in the summer, in June, just as most weddings would traditionally have been.
What might have appeared at the feasting table? Hogget or mutton from the sheep farm, roasted on a spit. Lots of game. The everyday produce of dairy and breads would have appeared too, but I think in rather more elaborate form as befitted the occasion. The rough breads that would accompany most meals would instead be replaced by breads made with the finest white flour, its dough enriched with butter, twisted into elegant shapes and decorated with herbs.
There would be sweets, too. Tartes and tortes, and maybe some hazelnut and honey nougat. The Daudet story tells of the farm courtyard planted with hazel trees, and I very much doubt the nuts would have been left to waste. Little would be lovelier than mixing those with one of the many local varieties of honey, which carry the essence of lavender, thyme, orange or acacia.
The wedding feast’s centrepiece would have been the pièce montée, a focus of attention rather like a wedding-cake. Pity poor Vivetta, who surely would have spent hours planning what this architectural sweet creation would have been like for her special day. Often it took the form of what we think of now as croquembouche– a pyramid of choux pastry buns, each filled with crème pâtissière, and held together in its structure by crisp caramel, before being broken into with a hammer, with children scrabbling on the floor for shards of flying caramel.
Fundamentally, though, the feast would have stayed true to the core of the food that makes Provence all that it is. A place where the very simplest of pleasures can be the very best, and the most sustaining. Recognisable to Alphonse Daudet, ‘Pampille’ and Elizabeth David; to me, to you and generations to come.