The Foods of Provence - Part I, Goat cheese and olives
The Provencal diet is a Mediterranean one that relies heavily on local produce, seafood, cheese, olives and olive oil. In Provence, locals eat "de saison" focusing on what is in season and fresh at the market. A visitor to the area should certainly try some- if not all - of the local specialities.
Goat cheese, or "chevre" as it is known in French is ubiquitous in Provence. There are many different types, different shapes and different colors.
Fresh goat cheese is white, creamy and spreadable and is often found in a log, sometimes decorated with flowers or herbs. Soft-ripened goat cheese can have a natural rind or a "bloomy" rind. The natural rind occurs when air dries the outside of the cheese creating a soft crust. To create a "bloomy" rind the cheese-maker coats the outside of the cheese with penicillium candidum creating a "fuzzy" edible rind. Soft-ripened goat cheeses are often coated in edible ash and have a gray color. You'll find soft-ripened cheeses labeled as crottin, chevrot, valencay and pico. Some goat cheeses are aged up to 12 weeks before being sold at market. Tomme de chevre and bleu de chevre have a sharper taste and are a bit more yellow in color.
Regardless of age, shape or rind goat cheese almost always figures in a Provencal meal.
The olive tree was introduced to Provence 2500 years ago and its fruit has played a major role in the cuisine of the region ever since. Olive trees bloom with a delicate white flower from April through June The fruit is harvested from mid-Fall through earl Winter, depending upon the region and the weather. As the olives ripen, they turn from green to black (no, there is no such thing as a black olive tree).
Just as with the goat cheese, olives come in a variety of types and can often be flavored with herbs such as thyme, parsley and fennel, garlic or lemon. There are still numerous local olive growers who create olive oil on site. A visit to a local olive oil mill allows you taste the variety of oils available and olive oil samples are often available at the markets from local producers.
Olives form the base of the popular "apero" treat, tapenade. Every home cook and every bistro in Provence has its own tapenade recipe but every tapenade includes olives, olive oil and garlic. You'll find a small bowl of tapenade, accompanied by slices of baguette, at almost every cafe or bistro in Provence. Tapenade is easy to make and if Provence is not in your immediate travel plans, click here for my own tapenade recipe.