Saturday, 27 October 2012

Les Panisses

One of the best nibbles to be had at apéro time in Provence are panisses. These salty little treats are made from a chickpea-based dough, sold in rolls around 25cm long and probably around 12cm diameter. They are sliced into thin discs, deep-fried and sprinkled with sea salt, and served plain or spread with tapenade. 

The consumption of panisses is not limited to aperitifs though; they are sold hot in paper bags by the dozen, to be eaten like chips in the UK. They also appear atop many salads in restaurants in and around Marseille, and as far afield as Nice. Panisses are thought to originate from the little fishing village of L'Estaque, just outside of Marseille, to the west. Takeaway stalls do a roaring trade all along the portside there, including one of the most famous, Chez Magali.

The port at L'Estaque

Along with panisses, the stalls in l'Estaque also sell chichis, an enormous dessert made from donut batter, which is rolled into a sausage, flattened, deep-fried and served with sugar or chocolate sauce. Chichi has become a provencal slang word for male genitalia, and the stall-holders never cease to get an innuendo in when handing you a freshly-fried chichi.

Friday, 12 October 2012


Alcohol is without a doubt one of the main food groups in Provence. That said, the Provencal diet has quite a lot of food groups...

One of the most sociable times of the day in Provence, however, begins by some unspoken unanimous gut feeling amongst the locals at around 6pm. The heure de l'apéro (short for apéritif) is much, much more than just a simple pre-dinner glass of wine whilst something boils away on the stove. It's a time to sit with family, friends and children, share quelques verres and an array of tapas-style nibbles to get the appetite going, and most importantly to talk. It's a time for sharing the stress of your day, or bemoaning the latest of the Olympique de Marseille's losses on the football pitch, and then for letting those worries melt away in the company of loved ones (and a glass or five of something strong).

Drinks consumed at apéro time include (obviously, predictably?) pastis, but also whisky, beer, and panaché (a lemonade and beer mixture much like shandy) for men, and sweet muscat wine or chilled glasses of rosé served with ice cubes for ladies... The pregnant and teetotal are spoiled with interesting and different fruit juices, often from local producers, and those on a diet are treated to a simple Perrier citron. 

It is unthinkable to invite friends over for an apéro without preparing nibbles. And apéro nibbles are almost a meal in their own right. Olives, nuts, toasts with tapenade (an olive and anchovy paste), crudités to dip into anchoiade (a strong, salty anchovy dip), cubes of cheese, small savory pastries, saucisson, radishes with curls of butter, whole pizzas cut into thin slices, tiny goats cheese dripping with olive oil, toasted brioche with slices of foie gras and sea salt, cherry tomatoes fresh from the vegetable patch... The list is endless, but so seems your appetite when bowls of these delicious bite-sized treats are laid out before you. Bars throughout the region produce little plastic bowls or terracotta dishes of these wonders - at no extra cost - to amuse the bouche whilst tables are cleared and laid for dinner.

L'heure de l'apéro is a great time for storytelling, or simply listening. It is the perfect forum for the Provencal expert - that guy in the village bar who seems to know everything about everything, and is even surer of his opinion when pastis glasses are being thrust into his hands by avid listeners. Want to know the best restaurant in town? He's eaten at them all, and will tell you where to get the best daube provencale. Need a new pair of shoes? He knows where you can get a deal, and where you'll be ripped off. Want to go truffle hunting? He knows a man selling a blind pig with a fabulous nose. Not sure who to vote for in the next mayoral election? His cousin's girlfriend's brother is running, but he'll convince you not to vote for him.
Every bar has one, and the opinions really get flowing an hour or so into apéro time. Take everything he says with several pinches of salt, or simply get sozzled enough not to remember what he said the next day. But you will laugh and laugh, perhaps get into an argument with him, and finish the evening by settling down to that great daube together, sharing a bottle of red to wash all those pastis down.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

La chèvre dans le puits...

Re-reading my last post, I remembered an anecdote that a wonderful American friend of mine once told me, about Notre Dame de la Garde.

A lot of the paintings that hang inside the church depict sorrowful situations from which La Bonne Mère has saved her ill-fated followers. Many include shipwrecks, storms and even seamonsters.

My friend was told (by one of those reputable Provençal sources) that somewhere, in some forgotten dusty corner of the church, admist images of heroic sailors battling with giant squid and braving 100ft waves, is a painting of a goat looking forelornly up from the bottom of a well. The story goes that a young goat herder let one of his goats stray from the herd. Later that day, he caught the sound of bleating on the wind, and followed it to his father's well, where he found the goat, unharmed but very much stuck. The story-teller left quite how the Bonne Mère helped him to retrieve the misfortunate beast to the imagination of his audience, and to this day I have been unable to find the portrait to match the tale. Perhaps he was having my friend on, but nonetheless I will continue to look for that little goat every time I go to the church (please tell me if you find it!).