Picturesque vineyards form the backdrop for many of our walking and cycling holidays in Provence. And for good reason: they’re everywhere!
The Provençal countryside boasts never-ending seas of vineyards stretching across valleys and over hills, nestled up against its perched villages and at the feet of its mountain ranges. Benefiting from the ever-present Provençal sun, the grape varieties in the region are mostly reds, (Grenache, shiraz, mourvèdre, cinsault), producing strong reds and refreshing rosés.
As you cycle along the Rhône Valley, your rest stops will include the chateaux and wine estates that dot the countryside.
The "Côte du Rhône" reds are powerful and spicy, including the celebrated wine-making village of Chateauneuf du Pape. Gigondas, just a stone’s throw away, produces a well-known red and is a playground for walking paths perched high above the Rhône Valley.
Or why not the muscat-laced trails near the town of Beaumes-de-Venise, famous for its sweet, dessert white wine.
Continuing farther South are the Alpilles mountains and the region of Aix-en-Provence, both up-and-coming wine making areas.
Peter Mayle’s Luberon boasts reputable rosés, around such villages as Ménerbes, Bonnieux and Lacoste, also settings for fabulous walking and cycling.
Heading towards the coastline we get into rosé territory, under the wide appellation of “Côtes de Provence”. The vineyards snuggle right up to the Riviera, some of them even on the islands just off the mainland. The rosés here are light and crisp, served refreshingly cold as you picnic under the shade of a parasol pine!
Though brought to Provence by the Greeks 2600 years ago, the olive tree is often used to define Provence; requiring a Mediterranean climate, its presence delimits the Northern boundary of Provence (north of which it doesn’t grow). The cold spell of the winter of 1956 decimated most olive groves in Provence, shutting down the majority of mills and halting production altogether.
Olive oil has always been a staple of Provençal cooking; it has only been over the past few decades that the use of olive oil has become widespread over France. Only 3% of France’s consumption of olive oil comes from France. Instead of producing in mass and as cheaply as possible, French olive oils are known for their great quality. The town of Nyons specialises in an olive oil made from a variety called tanche, while the region of Les Baux produces a strong and fruity oil made from a mix of local varieties.
Cycling through Lavender Fields
In June and July, the plateaus of Provence turn a deep purple and release the fine perfume of lavender. Lavender – at least true lavender – is grown in altitude, from 600m to 1500m (2000ft to 5000ft). The flower doesn’t thrive in lower altitudes, which is why you won’t see lavender fields along the valleys or the Riviera.
The lavender fields stretch out into the horizon, offering beautiful scenery for walking and cycling, and endless photo opportunities. You can also visit the lavender distilleries and museums in the area. The nicest flowers are cut to be sold as bouquets, the rest used to make the essential oils that perfume soaps, perfumes, and other beauty products.
Lavender comes from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash”. Its medicinal virtues were known to the Romans, who used it as an antiseptic, putting it on open wounds to prevent infection, and also to wash their clothes. They also put it in their baths as a calming agent.
There are two main types of lavender cultivated in Provence: true lavender, called “lavande”, and “lavandin”, a sterile hybrid of true lavender that doesn’t have as fine a perfume and contains no medicinal or therapeutic qualities. A quality control label, similar to those used on wines, has recently been used to discern the two types of lavender on products such as essential oils.
La Bonne Cuisine Provençale
Provençal cuisine is as warm and inviting as its people, as colourful as its landscapes, loaded with the fresh produce that flourishes under the hot, Provençal sun.
Olive oil of course, garlic a must, a sprinkle of herbs cut from the fields, and a wealth of flavourful vegetables picked fresh from the local farm.
If your mouth is watering, here’s a recipe you can try:
- 6 firm ripe fleshy tomatoes (about 2 lbs)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
- 2 tbs minced fresh basil leaves
- 2 tbs minced fresh parsley leaves
- 1 clove garlic, mashed
- 3 tbs minced shallots
- Salt and pepper
- Pinch of thyme
Step 1: Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C). Cut the tomatoes in half. Remove the flesh from the tomatoes and put in a mixing bowl.
Step 2: Add the rest of the ingredients to the mixing bowl. Fill each of the tomato halves with the mixture. Sprinkle the tomatoes with olive oil.
Step 3: Arrange the tomato halves in a baking dish, not too close to one another.
Step 4: Bake the tomatoes for about 15 minutes. Serve hot as a starter or as a side dish with the main course.
Truffles - The Black Diamond
Truffles are underground mushrooms, more precisely the fruit of a root system that spreads out in the soil under oak trees. The prized black truffle of the region, Tuber melanosporum, is ready to be “hunted” (by dogs – pigs are no longer used) from mid-November to mid-March.
Although several kinds of trees can actually harbour truffles, only oaks are used in plantations. Truffles, like any other mushroom, cannot produce their own energy, needing to attach themselves to another life source, in this case in a symbiotic relationship with the oak tree. The truffles begin to appear after 10 years of this symbiosis between mushroom and tree.
Due to a changing climate and the lack of plantations, truffles have become exceedingly rare; and the ones that do appear are often the subject of theft. At the local markets, such as in Carpentras or Richerenches, quality truffles can fetch as much as 1000 Euros per kilogram.
The goats of Provence graze in the semi-arid hills, through juniper, hyssop, and aromatic herbs. The production of goat’s cheese has never been industrialized in Provence. The farmers perpetuate a tradition of simple, authentic products on small farms . You can find fresh goat’s cheese, light and spreadable, or “demi-sec” and “sec”: ripened, firmer cheeses with more bite. You can find them plain or sprinkled with herbs, such as savory (one of the 5 herbs of Provence), and in all shapes and sizes. There is also the famous Banon goat’s cheese, wrapped in chestnut leaves.
Christmas & the thirteen Desserts
The Christmas season in Provence begins December 4th, the day of Sainte Barbe. Wheat and lentil seeds are sown in small dishes. If they sprout into fresh, green shoots for Christmas, it symbolizes prosperity (in the fields and otherwise) for the year to come.
You will find Christmas markets in most towns, where you can stock up on everything you need for the holiday: foie gras, oysters, decorations of all kind, gift ideas, santons, etc.
Midnight Mass is celebrated in every Provençal village, big or small, where carols are often accompanied by flute and tambourine players, and in some villages all is done in the Provençal language.
The mass can include a “living crèche”, where parishioners dress up in characters of the nativity scene.
Christmas Eve dinner is light, composed of fish and shellfish, though thirteen desserts are eaten, symbolizing Jesus and the 12 apostles; these include fresh and dried fruits, candied/crystallized fruit, nuts, and “nougat”.
Berlingots de Carpentras
The Berlingot is a tiny, cube-shaped sweet, made from caramelized sugar.
It is said that the name comes from Pope Clement V’s pastry maker, Bertrand de Got (14th century).
At first the only flavor was mint, but now they come in all sorts of colours and flavours.
The town of Apt, in Provence, is the world capital of crystallized fruit.
The whole fruit – whether a fig, melon, apricot, strawberry, etc. – is carefully dipped into a sugary syrup, over weeks if not months, until all the water in the fruit’s cells has been replaced with sugar.
It's like candy, though retaining all the original flavour of the fruit.
This famous sweet is made with honey and unroasted almonds.
“blanc”: white and chewy
“noir”: dark, crunchy and caramelized