Although I have returned to the area many times now, I’m still in awe of the quality of food I enjoy when I visit. In recent years, I have also tried to inspire my children to understand the ethos of Mediterranean/Provençal cooking and they now treasure it as much as my wife and I do. The ingredients, influence and distinct identity really excite me and I always come home from the region with new ideas that I can bring to my own cooking back here in Scotland.
The Provençal way is very much about fresh, local ingredients prepared with honesty and passion to create the most outstanding, flavoursome dishes. For me, it’s truly a gastronomic paradise.
I initially learnt a lot about the Provençal way of cooking from my time working for Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in Monaco. That’s where I really came to understand and immerse myself in the importance of these principals – how to treat the produce with the utmost respect and understand the natural marriages of flavours. This is also where I was first introduced to the wonderful local markets of the region and they have been a highlight on every trip I’ve made since.
The cuisine is very much influenced by the warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The hilly, rugged landscape and coastline mean you can find some of the most wonderful local, fresh, abundant ingredients. Seafood like sardines, sea urchins, octopus, rouget and loup are plentiful, and I love cooking with local fish like sea bream, which tastes wonderful when stuffed with newly picked fennel branches. It’s such an easy-to-prepare dish, but is heavenly when cooked on the barbecue and even better with some lime juice squeezed over it.
In this region, there are many varieties of lovely seasonal, local fruits like peaches, apricots and melon, as well as vibrant, ripe vegetables, thanks to the local sunshine. On our recent trip to Provence I especially loved getting my vegetables from the market in the morning. The peppers, corn on the cob, courgettes and my all-time favourite, courgette flowers, made some fantastic additions to our lunch or dinner tables, and due to the quality of the vegetables, they taste just stunning with very little needing to be done to them. I was lucky to have access to a small garden where I would pick aubergines, salads and courgettes on a daily basis.
The Mediterranean region also offers fantastic choices of olives and olive oil as well as the famous collection of glorious natural herbs and flavours like garlic, thyme, oregano, fennel and rosemary.
There are many outstanding dishes which many of us enjoy today at home, that have originated from Provence – ratatouille, bouillabaisse, the popular seafood dish escabeche, daube Provençal stew, as well as accompaniments like aioli, tapenade and pesto sauces. You’ll even find herbes de Provence in most herb collections, which is a mix of the very best herbs commonly used in Provençal cooking.
I’ve always loved eating crudités in Provence – it’s such a nice way to make the most of the fresh vegetables and local flavours. I was inspired to create my own Scottish twist using ingredients from my own doorstep. It’s a very simple recipe, but I find that makes it all the more enjoyable, and it is very much in keeping with the ethos. Provence is a truly wonderful culinary region and I hope these recipes can inspire you to take some ideas from the Provençal way of cooking and eating.
4 line-caught mackerel fillets
50ml extra virgin olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
4 shallots, peeled and sliced
3 star anise
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 tsp coriander seeds, crushed
200ml white wine
juice of 4 oranges
400ml fish stock
freshly ground black pepper
Check the mackerel fillets for pin-bones, removing any you find with kitchen tweezers.
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a heavy-based wide pan, add the carrots and sweat over a medium heat for four or five minutes. Add the shallots, bouquet garni, star anise, fennel and coriander seeds and sweat for a further two to three minutes.
Pour in the white wine, orange juice and fish stock and cook slowly, uncovered, for ten to 12 minutes until the carrots are just tender; check with a small, sharp knife.
Now place the mackerel fillets, skin side up, on top of the vegetables, making sure the fillets are covered by the liquid. Cook for two minutes and then remove the pan from the heat.
Cover the pan tightly with cling film and set aside for five minutes; the mackerel will continue to cook in the residual heat.
Remove the cling film. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed, then serve the escabeche.
Spring Vegetable Crudités with tapenade and pesto
6 young carrots
12 young radishes
2 fennel bulbs
6 asparagus spears
15 pods of broad beans
For the tapenade
200g black olives, pitted
50g tinned anchovy fillets
2 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
For the pesto
2 garlic cloves
2 tsp pine nuts
150ml olive oil
100g fresh basil leaves
25g Parmesan cheese, grated
To prepare the vegetables
Peel the carrots and cut them into finger-length strips. Cut the cucumber into similar-sized strips. Cut the radishes in half. Cut the fennel in half and then slice each half into four neat wedges. Trim the asparagus and peel the stalks and pod the broad beans. Cover all vegetables with a wet kitchen cloth or wet kitchen paper until just about to serve, as this will keep them fresh and moist.
To make the tapenade
Place all the ingredients in a blender and blitz until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste and keep in the fridge until ready to use.
To make the pesto
In a blender or food processor, blitz the garlic and pine nuts with one spoonful of olive oil. Add the basil and Parmesan, then slowly pour in the rest of the olive oil until well mixed.
Arrange all the vegetables neatly together on a large serving plate or tray and serve with separate bowls of tapenade and pesto on the side for everyone to help themselves.