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Provence A-Z (Anglais) Relié – 31 octobre 2006

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<a name="iti1"></a>Tapenade

It has been called the black butter of Provence (although it may frequently be green), and it is one of those happy gastronomic inventions that sharpen both appetite and thirst. Normally, therefore, you will find it served with your apéritif before you get down to the serious business of making your way through the menu.

The name comes from the Provençal word tapeno, or caper, and capers are an essential part of every tapenade recipe. Other ingredients can vary slightly according to taste, but I recommend following the instructions of Monsieur Meynier, the Marseille chef who invented tapenade more than a century ago. Here's his original recipe:

200 grams black olives, pits removed
100 grams unsalted anchovy filets
100 grams tuna in oil
large spoonful strong mustard
pinch of fines herbes
200 milliliters olive oil
a glass of Cognac

Take 200 grams of black olives, with their pits removed. Crush the olives, using mortar and pestle, together with 200 grams of capers, 100 grams of unsalted anchovy fillets, 100 grams oftuna in oil, a large spoonful of strong mustard, "pas mal de poivre," and a pinch of fines herbes.

As you crush, add, little by little, 200 milliliters of olive oil.

The final touch: mix in a glass of Cognac.
The resulting thick and wonderfully pungent black paste, gleaming with oil, is traditionally spread on small pieces of toast. But it would be a shame to restrict tapenade to toast. Try it with hard-boiled quail's eggs, with tomatoes, with fresh goat cheese, with plain grilled fish, or a cold vegetable omelette. I have also seen it used as a dip for potato chips and eaten, on its own, by the spoonful. It is that good.



There is a popular misconception that the language spoken in Provence is French. It resembles French, certainly; indeed, in written form it is almost identical. But remove it from the page and apply it to the ear, and Provençal French might easily be another language. If words were edible, Provençal speech would be a rich, thick, pungent verbal stew, simmered in an accent filled with twanging consonants; a civet, perhaps, or maybe a daube.


Before coming to live in Provence, I acquired a set of Berlitz tapes in order to improve my grasp of French, which I hadn’t studied since my schooldays. Evening after evening, I would sit and listen to cassettes of the most mellifluous, perfectly enunciated phrases—spoken, I believe, by a lady from Tours. (I was told that the accent of Tours is considered a jewel among accents, the most polished and refined in France.)


Every morning in front of the mirror while shaving, I would do my best to imitate this accent, pursing my Anglo-Saxon lips until they could pronounce something close to the Gallic u, practicing the growl from the back of the throat that is so necessary for the rolling Gallic r. Little by little, I thought, I was making progress. And then I left England to come south.


It was an instant farewell to the lady from Tours, because the sound of the words I encountered in Provence was unlike anything I had heard before. And to make matters even more incomprehensible, these words were delivered with an incredible velocity, a vocabulary gone berserk. My ears were in shock for months, and for at least a year I was unable to conduct any kind of sustained conversation without a dictionary. This I used much as a blind man uses a white stick: to identify obstacles and try to find my way around them.


To this day, many years later, there are times when words, even sentences, pass me by in a glutinous blur of sound. Living as I do in the country, I have noticed that the rural accent is perhaps a little thicker—or, some might say, purer—than in bastions of urban civilization like Aix or Avignon. But then there is Marseille, a special case. Here the unsuspecting visitor will have to contend not only with the accent but with an entire sub-language. How, I wonder, would the lady from Tours react if she were offered a pastaga, directed to the nearest pissadou, cautioned against employing a massacan, accused of being raspi, invited to a baletti, or admired for her croille? Like me, I suspect, she would find it all extremely puzzling, even comac.




pastaga = pastis
pissadou = toilet
massacan = a bad worker
raspi = miserly
baletti = a small dance; what used to be known as a bal populaire
croille = arrogance, effrontery, chutzpah
comac = extraordinary




It has been said that Provence is a region that has been rubbed with garlic. Whether you think of garlic as le divin bulbe or the stinking rose or the poor man’s panacea, there’s no getting away from it—in soups, in sauces, in salads, with fish, with meat, with pasta, with vegetables, on or in bread. And if there isn’t quite enough of it for your taste, you can always resort to this old Provençal habit: Take a clove of garlic (probably the one you always carry in your pocket for just such a gastronomic emergency), peel it, and hold it between the thumb and index finger of your right hand. With your left hand, hold a fork with its tines facing downward on a plate. Grate the garlic briskly across the tines until you have enough aromatic juice and fragments on your plate to season the food to your liking.


When considering garlic’s history and reputation, it is often difficult to sort out fact from legend. We are told that the laborers building the pyramids of ancient Egypt went on strike because their garlic ration was late in being distributed. This is confirmed by several sources and is probably true. On the other hand, you have the vampire-repellent theories—carry a head of garlic with you at all times, and rub garlic on window frames, door handles, and the floor around your bed for nocturnal protection—which probably aren’t. Other slightly dubious claims include garlic’s supposed ability to neutralize snake and insect venom; to cure leprosy, asthma, and whooping cough; and to protect against cholera and the evil eye (“Bon ail contre mauvais oeil”).


But nothing in the medical history of garlic, at least in Provence, is quite as impressive as the tale of the four thieves. It takes place in Marseille in 1726, when hundreds of inhabitants were dropping like flies from the plague. Our four thieves (today their nearest equivalent would be ambulance-chasing lawyers) visited the empty houses of the recently dead and ransacked them. Growing careless, the thieves were eventually caught and brought to trial. Fortunately for them, the judge had an inquiring mind. How was it, he asked them, that you were able to enter all those contaminated houses without being stricken yourselves by the plague?


Plea-bargaining ensued. In exchange for leniency, the thieves revealed their secret, a powerful elixir that made them immune from the plague. It must have seemed at the time as miraculous as the discovery of penicillin, and from that day on it was called le vinaigre des quatres voleurs, or four thieves’ vinegar. The ingredients are vinegar, absinthe, rosemary, sage, mint—and, naturally, garlic. (Absinthe is difficult to find nowadays, but pastis would probably be an acceptable substitute.) Not surprisingly, the Marseillais quickly found themselves among the most enthusiastic consumers of garlic in France. They still are.


There is no doubt about some other, less dramatic health-giving properties. Garlic is an antiseptic, a disinfectant, and an inhibitor of bacteria. It is rich in vitamins B1 and C. Medical studies suggest that garlic eaters show a lower incidence of stomach cancer, may be less prone than average to strokes and cardiovascular disease, and possess blood of exceptional purity.


Alas, the same cannot be said for their breath. Garlic-induced halitosis has been something of a social obstacle ever since man popped that first clove in his mouth thousands of years ago. King Henri IV of France used to eat a clove every morning. It was said by one of his contemporaries that his breath could knock over a steer at twenty paces. And yet he was also a renowned ladies’ man, which leads me to believe that his lady friends had discovered the only truly effective solution to the problem of garlic breath in others. Which is, of course, to eat garlic—and plenty of it—yourself.




The Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral, a man with a lyrical turn of phrase and a practical turn of mind, praised aioli for possessing, among its many other virtues, the ability to keep away flies. I have also known it occasionally to repel humans, particularly those delicate souls accustomed to a cuisine that is largely innocent of garlic. Aioli is not for those with timid taste buds.


Technically, it is mayonnaise. But it is mayonnaise with guts, and to compare it to conventional mayonnaise is like comparing a slice of processed cheese to a ripe Camembert. This classic recipe explains why:


For eight people, you will need sixteen cloves of garlic, the yolks of three eggs, and ne...

Revue de presse

“Mayle's affection for lavender fields and languid lunched continues unabated-and so does his influence.”
USA Today

“Mayle's magpie dictionary yields amusing facts . . . and useful information. . . . You'll soon succumb to his road-tested charm.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Whether he's smacking his lips in gustatory contentment or mock exasperation, Mayle's affection runneth over. . . . If there is anything charmless or depressing in all of Provence, its secret is safe with him.”
The Boston Globe

“After nearly two decades of writing about the character and the characters of Provence, Mayle's love for this rich and colorful region is undiminished.”
The Christian Science Monitor

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