WHAT'S ON THE MENU?
There's more to Provençal cooking than herbs. With its generous sprinkling of country produce, splash of surf-fresh seafood and good dollop of spicy southern flavour, chances are you're already acquainted with some of the more traditional local dishes, from Avignon's daube (stew) and Marseille's bouillabaisse (fish soup) to pistou soup, zesty olive tapenade and good old ratatouille. What really draws gourmet-minded travellers to the region, though, is the idea of terroir (cooking that is rooted in its locality), which is particularly strong in Provence.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
Wake up and smell the croissants chez vous. Avignon, especially, is full of gourmet B&Bs, many of them run by chic urbanites who've left Paris behind to live a better life in the country's sunny south. One of the best of these is La Banasterie, whose elaborately decorated rooms are set in a characterful 16th-century building at 11 rue de la Banasterie in the city centre (00 33 4 32 76 30 78; www.labanasterie.com). Rates start at €100 (£71) per double, including a breakfast of fresh pastries, homemade jams and fresh fruit. The owners are also chocoholics, so make sure you try the hot chocolate. Another good option for gourmands is the Hôtel de L'Atelier, just across the river at 5 rue de la Foire, Villeneuve-lez-Avignon. More pared-down in style, the rooms here have simple white walls, antique furniture and leafy views and the continental breakfast, which you can eat out in the courtyard in summer, features plenty of fresh, local produce. Rooms start from €50 (£36), with breakfast an extra €8.50 (£6) per person (00 33 4 90 25 01 84, www.hoteldelatelier.com). For more good regional B&Bs, visit www.guidesdecharme.com or www.avignon-et-provence.com.
HOW ABOUT A FOODIE SOUVENIR?
Olives, goat's cheese and herbs are all widely available in the region. Other specialities include calissons, sweet oval biscuits made with almond paste. The most famous producer of these is La Confiserie du Roy René, at 330 rue Guillaume du Vair, Aix-en-Provence. Here you can visit a museum, see nougat and calisson being made, or just buy the finished product. Guided visits run on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10am and entrance costs €1 (70p) (00 33 4 42 39 29 89; www.calisson.com).
You won't be stuck for a sugar kick in Provence. South of Avignon, in the village of St-Rémy de Provence, is Le Petit Duc. This artisan bakery specialises in putting a modern twist on ancient flavours, such as the saffron-spiced coeurs du Petit-Albert, which are based on a 14th-century recipe (7 boulevard Victor Hugo, 00 33 4 90 92 08 31; www.petit-duc.com). Then, just four doors down is chocolatier Joël Durand and a confection of handmade chocolates and biscuits more elaborate than the witch's house in Hansel and Gretel (3 boulevard Victor Hugo, 00 33 4 90 92 38 25; www.chocolat-durand.com).
WHAT ABOUT WINE?
Provence is classic wine-producing territory. The Côtes de Provence appellation is one of the most common, but others include Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, Côtes de Lubéron and Bandol. Then there are fortified wines such as Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise.
If you want to just buy, La Cave du Bouffart in Avignon, stocks a large range of local wines (14 rue des Fourbisseurs; 00 33 4 90 82 35 50). If you want to actually visit vineyards, nine wine tourism routes have been established in the Côtes du Rhône area. For further information, see www.vins-rhone.com.
If you'd rather join an organised tour, Arblaster & Clarke runs wine-themed holidays in Provence, including a Southern Rhône vineyard walking trip. This costs £1325 per person and takes in visits to vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, as well as a stop at Orange and its Roman amphitheatre. The price includes six nights accommodation and most meals but not travel to France (01730 893344; www.winetours.co.uk).
WHERE'S A GOOD LUNCH STOP?
One excellent place if you have plenty of friends is Château Val Joanis, a picturesque winery and olive oil producing estate just north of Aix-en-Provence that's open from April to October (00 33 4 90 79 20 77; www.val-joanis.com). Get a group of at least 15 together and the château offers "Lunch at Val Joanis" packages which include a tour of the château, vines, winery and gardens, an extensive produce tasting and a home-cooked lunch with wine for € 37 (£26) per person. If there are fewer people, you'll have to skip lunch but guided tours of the winery and gardens, followed by a wine and olive oil tasting run every Thursday at 4pm (during July and August, there are extra tours at the same time on Tuesdays and Saturdays). These cost €5 (£3.60) per person.
Down on the coast the Simplicité bistro in Cannes is a triumph of substance as well as style. For around €15 (£11) per head, the lunchtime set menu serves up fresh local flavours in dishes from pistou soup and arugula to baby artichoke salad (5 rue Jean Daumas, 00 33 4 93 68 27 40). Or try the Guide Gantié, an online rundown of some of the best restaurants, food shops and gourmet places to stay in Provence ( www.guidegantie.com). Or, for a list of local bistrots de pays, low-key places serving local specialties, call 00 33 49 275 1391 or visit www.bistrotdepays.com (a French-language website).
HOW ABOUT A STROLL ROUND A MARKET?
If you like to graze while you sightsee, one good option is to take a train or bus out to L'Isle-sur-la- Sorgue, a pretty, canal-laced town outside Avignon that transforms into a giant flea market on Sunday mornings. Most of the stalls here sell bric-à-brac, furniture and crafts but there are also stands selling little honey sweets, olives and herbs - and the village has some excellent options for a lazy lunch. One of the best is Le Jardin du Quai, which is set in a characterful old building and specializes in simple Provençal food (91 avenue Julien Guigue; 00 33 4 90 20 14 98).
Some of the best food-based markets take place on Wednesday mornings in St-Rémy-de-Provence, Saturday mornings in Arles, daily at Les Halles in Avignon and on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings in Aix-en-Provence. One thing to look out for among the food stalls of the Cours Saleya market in Nice (daily except Mondays) is socca, unusual chickpea-flour pancakes. For a full list of regional food markets, contact the local tourist office.
CAN I DO A COOKERY COURSE?
The Hostellerie Crillon de Brave, just north of Carpentras (00 33 49 065 6161; www.crillonlebrave.com), runs small-group cookery courses over five half-days in English. It also includes truffle hunting, wine tastings and visits to local markets. Prices start at €2,900 (£2,071) per person, including six nights full-board accommodation, tuition and excursions.
If you're short of time, L'Ecole de Cuisine du Château de Berne, linked to a luxury auberge west of Grasse, runs small-group classes over a morning or long weekend, as well as longer courses. The chef also speaks English. Prices start from €100 (£71) (00 33 4 94 60 48 88; www.berneauberge.co.uk).
Also popular locally are the two-hour cooking sessions (from €58, or £41) run by Alain Llorca of the Michelin two-star restaurant, Le Moulin de Mougins, outside Cannes (00 4 93 75 78 24; www.moulin-mougins.com). At the similarly sophisticated La Mirande, in Avignon, prices start from €75 (£54) for tailored cookery classes (00 33 4 90 14 20 20; www.la-mirande.fr).
For other culinary holidays in Provence, try Holiday On The Menu (08708 998844; www.holidayonthemenu.com), Tasting Places (020-8964 5333; www.tastingplaces.com) or Gourmet On Tour (020-7871 0848; www.gourmetontour.com).
ANY OTHER GOURMET WAYS TO SPEND AN AFTERNOON?
Between November and March the Vaucluse region of Provence is prime black truffle-hunting territory while more subtle-tasting white truffles are gathered in high summer. If you want to find out what all the fuss is about, Dominique and Eric Jaumard run scenic 90-minute black truffle-hunting trips in winter just west of Carpentras. These cost €75 (£54) per person and include a post-hunt picnic of truffled dishes from patés to truffle ice cream (00 33 4 90 66 82 21; www.truffes-ventoux.com).
HOW ABOUT DINNER WITH A VIEW?
Finding a memorable meal isn't hard in Provence with its legions of Michelin-starred chefs. If you're looking for a restaurant with a view as classy as the cooking, the La Commanderie restaurant at Le Château du Domaine St-Martin in Vence is set on a terrace featuring panoramic views of azure sea and scrubby hills. In the summer months you can also eat at tables set romantically among olive groves. Both serve a sophisticated Mediterranean menu, with dishes like sea bass with slivers of bacon, slowly baked with garden herbs, caramelised spring onions and fava beans par for the main course (00 33 4 93 58 02 02; www.chateau-st-martin.com).
Another cliffhanger of a terrace juts out over the water like the prow of an old ocean liner at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc's main restaurant, near Antibes (00 33 4 93 61 39 01; www.edenroc-hotel.fr). Along the coast at St-Maxim, meanwhile, the coral-coloured Le Beauvallon, is a little more discreet than its flashier sister, St-Tropez (which is probably why Kylie stays here when she's in town). Here, a hint of the exotic spices up classic Provençal ingredients, with dishes such as roast lobster with saffron broth (00 33 4 94 55 78 88; www.lebeauvallon.com).
If you prefer countryside to coast, guests at Alain Ducasse's hotel, Bastide de Moustiers, can book the poshest picnic they've ever had (€30/£21, per person), taking out a feast of pies, tarts and salads into the countryside around Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (00 33 4 92 70 47 47; www.bastide-moustiers.com). Double rooms from €150 (£107), without breakfast.
If that sounds too pricey, head back to Avignon for steak-frites or a salad spiked with a fruity tapenade dressing at L'Epicerie, a bistro set on a pretty square (10 Place Saint Pierre; 00 33 4 90 82 74 22). Main courses cost a more moderate €15 (£11).
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