Elizabeth David’s anecdote about the English still selling olive oil in chemists in the 50s is renowned. Even in post-rationing Britain, the thought of the dishes David covers in French Provincial Cooking, while we were using powdered eggs, must have sounded incredibly remote.
A lot has changed in the fifty-two years since that book’s release. English food is now some of the best in the world.
Elizabeth David, in my mind the world’s greatest food writer, has sadly passed away. And Keith Floyd grew up and made the best food TV there’s ever been.
It is almost entirely in these two figures that my love for cooking was born. Keith Floyd’s style, constant drinking and laissez-faire attitude were inspiring: cooking can be fun.
And through Keith Floyd’s frequent mentions throughout On Fish, On Food, On France and On Britain and Ireland, he said one name more than anyone else’s.
“As Elizabeth David once said,” start so many Floyd stories as it is clear we are watching a man talk freely about someone he idolises.
And so it was natural for me to find myself wanting to pick up a book of hers to see what the fuss was about.
I remember opening the pages to its first chapter as she launches into her ode to Provence vividly now. It joins eating lobster for the first time at Bonnie Gull or Iberico jamon for the first time in Stop Madrid Taberna, as one of my three favourite food experiences of my life. Reading about a place.
From that moment on, reinforcing the brilliant exploration that I saw Floyd reveal months before, I have wanted to go to one place more than any other in the world: Provence.
Today, as McDonalds line the streets of France’s capital city and the locals don’t seem to mind, I had to wonder whether Provence would still provide that joy.
Will you still be able to go into a small cafe bar and eat beautiful fruit, wonderfully flavoursome tomatoes or beef slowly simmered in red wine with a zest of orange peel? Or would fast-food have caught up with this part of the world that David writes of like no other?
Strangely, the latter nightmare scenario has not become true. In over 200 miles of driving, around 24 of walking, all the while looking for restaurants and places to eat, I saw just one McDonalds. One.
The Provencals take food as seriously as you hope. In Cucuron, locals came out in droves for lunch as the shops shut and we picnicked after a long walk through the vinyards that engulf this village. They return again at night. We drank rose in Bar L’Etang, until it closed early with a lock-in for five or six friends.
One door down at Restaurant L’Etang, we catch a late night meal of duck confit. Served simply with adornings of fat. While mine was cooked unevenly with an overcooked side to it, the Girls had no complaints of theres. We drank rose and then red, both locally sourced and both delicious.
In larger towns, where tourist traps try to draw you in with their almost kitcsch blackboard and chalk menus, you’re left wishing that the restaurants of Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden served food to this standard.
In Avignon, at Lou Mistrau, the first lunch of the trip, I ate pork fillet served with tapenade and a salad. A Provencal dish of the highest standards. Wonderfully salty, full of flavour and honestly cooked. There was more brilliant rose, with a pitcher costing the same as of a Mojito at a low-level London cocktail bar.
Afternoon drinking made us temporary friends with a pair who offered one of the best pieces of advice of the whole trip: go to L’Ubu for dinner.
L’Ubu set a very high precedent indeed for the meal of the first night. Red wine was ordered and I had to stop the conversation on first sip, “One moment, because we need to reflect on this wine.”
Full of black berries and deeply velvety, I asked the waiter what it was. “It’s from a friend of mine who lives just outside of Avignon, it’s organic.” No Rhone I’d drank before had been this marvellous.
Despite the red, I had two seafood courses for food. To begin, we had squid with a coriander salad. Floyd or David would have been singing to the heavens about its simplicity and honesty.
The squid was the most delicate I’d eaten – nothing at all like a piece of food that so often struggles with a chewiness problem. The plat borrowed from the south introducing couscous and sweetness to a simply roasted cod, which tasted of the sea.
In Aix on day three with the heat picking up, we sat in Cafe Cardeurs in Place Forum des Cardeurs, and a cold lunch seemed most appropriate.
A beef carpaccio served with an ice cold beer was a surprisingly refreshing combination in the 29 degree heat. And the tomatoes that were served with it edged ahead as the best of the trip. By mistake I ended up with the same again in a momentary lapse of uncertainty as we ordered dinner that evening in Bistro Romain.
If the architects of Brasserie Zedel were attempting to allude to a certain pastiche of railway cafe and high-ceiling opulent dining, then it wouldn’t surprise me if they found their inspiration here. The carpaccio wasn’t on a level with that of Cafe Cardeurs, but the starter of jambon and the charming staff more than made up it.
Finally, we arrived in Cassis – the closest to a tourist destination we had found. Yachts lined the harbour, the sands were golden, and the sea crystal clear. We swam, we sunbathed, and we had a late and not-so-petit, petit dejuner for eight euros a piece.
By the time that evening arrived, having nibbled on cheese and swigged three euro rose from the supermarket, we knew we wanted one thing: seafood.
Wandering past lots of places that we thought ‘yeah, we could eat there’, I worried momentarily that we would only find a so-so establishment.
Instead, we found Restaurant Calendal.
Midway through our meal, the Italians who were sat to our side started to complain in English, while the owner came out to see what the problem was.
“The sauce has no flavour, the meat is dry, the pasta is dreadful.” They left shortly after paying just for their wine and a starter between them.
What food they were eating, I couldn’t tell you. Because I was eating bouillabaisse for the first time.
There are few things that will prepare you for a bouillabaisse. The richness and body of flavour in the soup is incredible. The seafood it composes all take on that richness and depth while retaining their own identity. It is quite simply brilliant.
There are people who argue over the dish’s ingredients and some writers claim to favour a tomato-less version: I am not one of them. The fish, which many I did not recognise, were perfect.
So when the Italian couple complained about their food and stormed off in a huff, we took great pleasure in telling the owner that ours was a meal that perfectly finished a trip of very high quality food indeed.
Everywhere – from the supermarkets to the street food markets, from roadside cafes to city bars, and from restaurants overlooking the quietest pools of water – the people of Provence take their food incredibly seriously.
While the larger towns do not shut in the way that Cucuron did in the middle of the day, there were more than just tourists filling the restaurants for two-to-three hours every lunch time, and from six o’clock until midnight in the evenings.
My fears that the globalisation, which I love for bringing different cultures and cuisines to London, would have turned this place into a soulless and heartless entity were completely unfounded.
In over fifty years since the release of French Provincial Cooking, England has become a place where I think you can find the greatest food in the world. More restaurants open in London than I can keep up with and know I would love.
Olive oil is no longer sold in chemists but delis, supermarkets, artisanal shops and the corner shop when you buy your tobacco and four-pack of Stella at the weekend.
And yet, Provence still secured the place in my heart that it did for Elizabeth David fifty years ago. Provence is a country I am returning to next week, next month, next year – or, quite frankly, whenever I get the earliest chance.