How to Pack a Provence-Themed Picnic: 10 Essentials
There's nothing like unpacking a piquenique in the hills of Provence to the serenade of crickets and cicadas. Fortunately, crickets and cicadas are widespread in other parts of the world, and most of the fare that goes into a Provençal picnic basket is easy enough to come by or make yourself.
Picnics in Provence are not an elaborate affair. Even in Paris, with the exception of the "White Picnic" where people by the thousand dress in white and set up tables, candles, real China and real cuisine, picnics are an occasion to let down one's hair and enjoy simple pleasures of the palate, with quality foods you can throw in a basket, pull out, and eat as is. All you usually need in addition to food is an Opinel knife, maybe a wooden board on which to cut salami, and a corkscrew. Oh, and wine glasses. Mustn't forget the wine glasses, even if you're not wearing white!
Canteloupe and cured ham
You've seen them on appetizer platters and may have even put them there yourself on occasion: canteloupe pieces wrapped in prosciutto ham. In France, the same combination is served with canteloupe simply sliced and a slice of dry cured ham on the side. Usually canteloupe, called simply melon in French, is left attached to the peel and eaten with a knife and fork. For a picnic, just cut off the peel and eat with your fingers.
Fougasse is a flattish olive oil bread that is stuffed, topped or kneaded with other taste treasures like olives or anchovies. Variations can be found all around the Mediterranean, like Italian focaccia. Even in Provence there are differences. Some bakers fold the bread over the other ingredients, slitting open to top to reveal them. Others knead the ingredients into the dough and slit it all the way through, giving it a pretzel like appearance. Watch for the recipe, coming soon...
Baguette French Bread
Why bother with French bread when you've already got Fougasse? It's a question I've often asked myself and that I think only a Frenchman can answer. If you think I'm kidding, just go to any French bakery right before closing time and you'll see the line is make up of anxious men fearing all the baguette's will be gone before they make it to the front of the line. It's a French guy thing. They have to have it. Even if they've already got fougasse...
One of the joys of Provençal markets is the olive vendor with his long rows of tubs, each featuring a different flavored olive. With the cost of land in the South of France, many areas where olive groves once stood are now covered with parking lots, much like Southern California. Olives nevertheless remain part of the food culture so to meet demand olive vendors procure most olives from North Africa, then add the flavorings. Hey, who cares. They're delicious.
You can find this apple-sized pork meatball at butchers throughout the South. Three different French departments (like states) claim its origin. Lean ground pork is mixed with spinach, collard greens or other flavorful greens and often with hazelnuts or chestnuts. The balls are shaped by hand, wrapped in lacy caul fat, cooked in the oven and served hot or cold, whole or sliced. For a picnic, just slice it and eat it with bread.
Saucisson, the French name for salami, is a picnic staple throughout France, but the further south you get the more variety you find. Most of the time they're made of pork, but sometimes you'll find donkey saucisson (I tried it once and felt like a cannibal but hypocrite that I am I still eat the pork). Some have hazelnuts or other ingredients, even goat cheese, mixed in. It is almost always served with cornichons, tiny pickles, which French men have to have almost as much as baguettes.
Another classic that comes in a wide range of flavors, again almost always with a pork base but often with other meats mixed in, such as rabbit, roe deer, pheasant, or wild boar. Patés can be rustic like the rabbit terrine on the left, or more complex like the paté en croute (crusted paté) on the right. Paté en croute with duck liver paté in the middle like the one shown here is called paté Richelieu. Here again, mustn't forget the cornichons.
Soft or aged, mild or strong, no picnic in Provence is complete without chèvre goat cheese. All throughout the South there are small markets where farmers sell what they produce directly to the public. This is where you want to go for goat cheese. There are so many varieties you can easily do a cheese platter with goat cheeses alone. But sometimes just getting one kind, whether it's your favorite or something new, is even more soul-satisifying.
All you need for dessert is fruit. Forget anything you have to peel. For a taste of Provence, go for a colorful of combination of fresh figs, apricots and Reine Claude (greengage) plums. Figs thrive in the Provençal and Mediterranean climate, the apricots that grow in the Rhone Valley are descended from the first trees introduced to France in the 1400s, and Reine Claude plums are the sweetest you'll ever taste, though the most difficult of the three fruits to come by outside France.
I've saved the corkscrew for last, but the first thing you'll want to do as soon as you sit down to your picnic is cork the rosé. What is more typical of Provence than rosé? It was the first wine produced in France, brought to Provence by the ancient Greeks. By the time the Romans arrived 700 years later, the area's rosé had already developed a reputation around the Mediterranean. Now, 2600 years after it was first produced, it's reputation still holds. Let's drink to that!