Provence's southern border is the salty, glittering mediterranean sea, and so it is unsurprising that fish and seafood play essential roles in the Provencal diet.
Daily or weekly fish markets are a common sight, and fishing forms a significant part of the local economy. Perhaps the most famous market is that of Marseille's old port, where the fish arrive on tiny boats to slip and slide their way into large trays, and are sold within seconds. It doesn't get much fresher than that.
And all sorts of interesting and unusual creatures can be found on those markets - shell fish, urchins, rock fish, oysters by the hundred... And you can be sure that there will be an army of mamies hovering like seagulls, ready to elbow you out of the way for the freshest catch.
There are countless fish and seafood recipes that I could mention here, but I cannot realistically introduce you to fish in Provence without talking about two fantastic dishes: bouillabaisse and aïoli.
Bouillabaisse is a wonderfully rich fish soup, garnished with potatoes, vegetables, toasts with a garlic and safran mayonnaise, and of course a magnificent selection of fresh fish and sea food. I have heard many stories about the origins of bouillabaisse, and the meanings of the name of this dish itself. My favourite, which may or may not be true, is that the bouillabaisse was originally a peasant dish, for fishermen and their families, made by boiling all the ugly, misshapen creatures caught but not sold that day, in the bottom of a barrel, with some veg thrown in. The fishmonger who told me this tale also reliably(??) informed me that the word bouillabaisse is a combination of two old Occitan words, meaning "boil in the bottom". I like this story a lot, mainly because it is true that the rock fish traditionally used in the soup are fantastically ugly things that you would never want to find steamed, whole, on your plate. Whatever its origins, bouillabaisse is one of the most famous and most expensive dishes in France, and there are several great places to eat it in and around Marseille. Having only tasted it once, albeit it in one of the most famous bouillabaisse restaurants in town, I would not dare to make any suggestions as to where to go. But I will offer one bit of advice - the portions are so vast; don't eat for 24 hours before you have bouillabaisse!
Aïoli, however, is a much more affordable, every day dish which I personally appreciate just as much as a 100 euro bouillabaisse. It consists of a fiercy garlicy mayonnaise (the aïoli) which accompanies a plate of simple tastes. These usually include desalted salt cod, boiled in unseasoned water, a selection of boiled vegetables (carrots, courgettes, potatoes, beetroot, green beans...), boiled eggs and, if you're lucky, bulots (sea snails). This selection of delights, dipped into the mayonnaise, often grace the lunch specials menu in Provencal restaurants on a Friday, and early Friday morning chefs can be seen whipping up enormous bowls of yellowy, garlicy dips.
Aioli is relatively simple to make - all you need to do is crush up plenty of garlic in a pestle and mortar, to which you add egg yolks. Once nicely whisked, slowly drizzle in olive oil, whisking continuously, until the mayonnaise begins to form.
Or you could just cheat and buy it in a jar, like I do!