Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Eating & Cooking in Avignon

One thing I certainly enjoy about traveling is discovering restaurants and local specialties. Of course Provence is well known as a food mecca. We did eat out a few times, but most of our experiences in this realm were not particularly memorable. With so many tourists in town, the restaurants were doing such a lively business that we found the normal amount of care that goes into serving customers did not seem to be possible. Our meals came out of the kitchen long after we'd ordered them, the plates were hastily put together and the prices seemed very high. Eating in cafes and restaurants was not a relaxing and gratifying experience during the festival. No worries. Emily had her apartment with a nicely supplied brand-new kitchen, a small terrace for eating and while she was at work and Zinnie was asleep, I had a lot of fun cooking up meals for us.

Our place was located just down the street from Les Halles, the Avignon market, which is open 6 mornings a week. We went there almost every day. The exterior is much like the museum at the Quai Branly in Paris, with a beautiful vertical garden decorating its walls.

On the inside are small stands where local producers sell their wares. It reminded me a little of the Nantes covered market, though not quite as big. Still, anything a person could want can be found here.

The produce was inspirational. So beautiful to look at. Emily is a vegetarian, so the favorite vegetable market stand was always our first stop and our meals revolved around these daily purchases. I love the multi-colored carrots available in the south. They are just as sweet and delicious to taste as they are to look at. If you are as charmed by these, as I am, you can purchase the seeds to grow your own from one of my favorite Etsy shops, Cubits. I have some of these colorful carrots from this source growing in our garden now, but they haven't come out of the ground yet. We shall see if they like the more temperate northern climate.

Emily eats fish, so I became a pescetarian for the week. This was an unlikely turn of events. Rick knows me as a person who avoids fish, much to his disappointment. But the truth is that I have always wanted to enjoy eating fish and this gave me a wonderful opportunity. For one thing, the fish is absolutely as fresh as it can be, and for another Emily is a sort of expert on the subject. The first night we had these beautiful little rougets (red mullet), which the fish monger fileted for us. They were really out of this world delicious. Emily and Jos recently gave me three Nigel Slater cookbooks and in one of them he gives information on how to identify the freshest fish on offer. He says that if the fish is very fresh, it will not smell "fishy." These little critters were of course Mediterranean.

After our first morning at the market, this was our haul. The charming small artichokes are available almost everywhere now. They make a nice salad. The peaches and nectarines were flat and incredibly tasty. The tomatoes came in three colors, several shapes and solid or striped. I don't think I've ever had a tomato so delicious, with the possible exception of the ones my grandfather used to grow in his vegetable garden when I was growing up. I had never met a white or rose colored eggplant before. Aren't they pretty? I like their petite size. The beans are the type that dried white beans come from, but these were fresh. I decided to make soup, as I think of these white beans as being quintessentially Provencal.

I looked for a recipe but couldn't really find one, so I made something up. It involved browning and then steaming some onions, egg plants, carrots, fennel and a touch of garlic, then adding some tomatoes, the beans and a bit of chicken broth. I threw in some fresh basil and salt and pepper. For good measure, I garnished it with Italian parsley and pieces of chopped sun-dried tomato. It turned out very well indeed!

Tomatoes are a bit like strawberries or corn, I think. The moment you pick them, they begin to lose their taste. These beautiful varieties were all from local sources, so they were as fresh as they could be without having your own garden out back. We loved how simple meal preparation became. Just cut up the vegetables, sprinkle some herbs on top, drizzle with good olive oil and voila! What a feast.

The carrots are even prettier once they're cooked and mixed up together with a drop of butter and salt and pepper. It's all that's needed.

Cold vegetable plates, simply prepared make a fabulous easy meal.

Emily taught me how to eat a sole and avoid the bones by scraping the meat away from the spine in the middle of the fish. She also encouraged me to try some seaweed vegetables. Here it is called passe-pierre or salicorne in other parts of France. This was my first taste and I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious it is. It's not particularly salty. I would characterize it as slightly sweet.

The restaurants in Avignon did a very brisk business while the festival was going on. In general, however, we stayed home, and I think we probably ate better than most.


  1. Nancy I didn't know you were not easy with fish ! But I think you have to spend some session days training in Britanny to be fond of ! Ocan fish is far more tasty than mediterranéean one (hi, hi , very "chapel spirit" indeed )
    There are so many ways of cooking fish ! and so many kinds too. May be because we lived near the sea and all my parents were good at fishing, we love fish and especially fih from the sea which is definitly more tasty.

  2. Nancy!!! I have sorely missed you my friend and I loved this post...it made me hungry ;->

    Emily is so beautiful and seeing her with Zinnie is just magic. The only thing missing in this post was Quinn...I miss his sweet little face.

    Hope all is well in France.

    Janet xox
    The Empty Nest

  3. Those carrots are amazing! Makes me want to make a run to the vegi market!

  4. This post has made my mouth water. The produce in France is so much better than we ever get here. I think its because we only have supermarkets, a dedicated grocers is a rarity. It's the same with getting fresh fish - which is entirely different from eating something that's a little, shall we say, aged.

    i've never been to Avignon, but hopefully one day.

  5. Thank you so very much for sharing your day-to-day in such a well-written and enticingly descriptive blog. I have enjoyed reading your posts; they are most helpful for one who enjoys travel.

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