Southern France's Gourmet Indulgence
Baguettes and rosé. Aqueducts and amphitheatres. Lavender and truffles. Ben Groundwater asks where else in the world could you be but in the south of France?
There’s no way to be properly prepared for the simple greatness of a French baguette smothered in butter. Eat all the bread you like back at home. But you won’t be ready for the astounding deliciousness of a hunk of French bread, fresh from the oven, smeared in an obscene amount of lightly salted butter.
Bread and butter should be high on the menu in Provence or the neighbouring region of Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes. It’s a perfect introduction to the south of France where, in the likes of Avignon, Tournon, Arles and Lyon, food is not just a part of life, it is life. It’s a deeply cherished facet of local culture which is intertwined with everything else that makes this part of the world unique: wine, chocolate, art, history, religion, identity. And it’s time to tuck in.
History on a Plate
You can define any area in the south of France by two things: its history and its produce. That goes for anywhere in Provence, as you follow the course of the mighty Rhone river. In the far south, in places such as Les Baux-de-Provence and Arles, are ruins from Roman times – well-preserved structures that speak of the long history and the many influences found in this part of the world. For three centuries the Romans ruled here, and their legacy is obvious in the impressive arena and amphitheatre in Arles, and the many aqueducts that still dot the surrounding countryside.
But that countryside holds another bounty: olives. It’s warm down here near the Mediterranean, which is why these trees thrive, why olive oil is so highly prized and why it’s such a vital ingredient in so many of the region’s dishes. Provence’s black and green olives and the oil they produce speak of “terroir” in the same way wine does.
Local wine, of course, is just as important as oil in this part of the world. The wines of the south of France are rightly famous: light, crisp Provencal roses; heavier, meatier Cotes du Rhone reds; bright, flavourful gamays of the Beaujolais region just to the north.
Pairing these wines with local produce is a great way to understand the region, too. That might be a full meal of Provencal or Lyonnaise cuisine, or it might just be a few bites of local chocolate. Tain-l’Hermitage, on the opposite bank of the Rhone from Tournon, is known as the “Cite du Chocolat”, the home of the famed Valrhona. It’s comforting to think, while cracking into yet another bar of rich, velvety dark chocolate, that the experience is cultural, too.
There’s more Roman history in the ancient settlement of Vaison-la-Romaine, about 50 kilometres north of Avignon, where the striking features include a magnificent theatre dating back to the 1st century. On the outskirts of Vienne, the former Roman provincial capital, a large archaeological site dubbed “Little Pompeii” features the remains of luxurious residences, with their baths, fountains and gardens.
Culinary delights are a feature of Viviers, just north of Avignon, which is home of highly prized truffles. The limestone soil here is perfect for growing these delicacies. There are two ways to uncover their secrets: visit a farm and wander around with a truffle dog on the hunt; or visit a local restaurant and enjoy food infused with that wondrous and indescribable scent.
Further north is France’s culinary heart, Lyon, home of the late, great chef Paul Bocuse, and a city obsessed with food. Here Bocuse’s legacy lives on in several restaurants; however, there is also a raft of young chefs reshaping the modern Lyon dining scene, taking the bounty of the surrounding countryside and turning it into something amazing. Something almost as amazing as that first morsel of fresh bread with butter.
Need to Know
Taste – the food and history of southern France on our 8 Day Colours of Provence tour. In ancient Avignon, board a Concerto River Ship for seven nights of exploring the beauty of southern France. First stop is Tarascon, perfect to discover at a slow pace. Back in Avignon, discover the city’s most famous building, the imposing Palace of the Popes, home to “popes-in-exile” during the 14th century.
Experience – in Viviers, join the hunt for truffles on a farm before visiting the Renaissance-style Grignan Castle. On Day 5, choose to ride the Ardeche Steam Train through the Doux Gorge, visit historic Maison M. Chapoutier winery or taste Tournon’s famous chocolate at the Valrhona factory. Next day, a morning walking tour offers a closeup of Vienne’s Roman ruins, then sail to Lyon in the afternoon. In this famous food city, tour the markets or visit the Beaujolais wine region before a dinner at Paul Bocuse’s famed L’Abbaye de Collonges restaurant.