Elizabeth David, who wrote a number of acclaimed books about food, once wrote: "Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on a train."
It's easy to see why, when you visit this southern sun-kissed part of France. Here, life is all about engaging the senses and living in the moment.
Near where I have been staying at Le Couvent des Minimes, the Monday market at Forcalquier is a riot of colour and smells, offering an abundance of glorious just-picked produce, artisan food, charcuterie, cheeses, linens, preserves and flowers. Wild dried herbs, rolling rotisseries of juicy chickens, mountains of purple-skinned garlic, fragrant white peaches and juicy sweet apricots, tomatoes in every hue, tiny purple artichokes, the slimmest of crisp green beans, and vats of olives green, purple and black vie for your attention. There are breads and pastries, sweet fruit tarts and cheeses … ahhh, so many beautiful cheeses. It's impossible not to be greedy.
The French beauty company L'Occitane en Provence is hosting me here, and I am learning not just about the social enterprise of their business and the ways they grow their plants and extract their essential oils, but about the Provencal idea of "l'art de vivre".
At its heart, this expression is about an appreciation for nature, a sense of being at one with the world around you. Regardless of climate or geography, this awareness of just being in the moment, taking in the scents, colours and texture of life, is something we can all share.
What I love most about the ethos of life here is its simplicity. Away from the glitz and glamour of Saint-Tropez and the Riviera, people still live a simple life. The land is kind, the sun shines for 300 days a year. Vegetable gardens and fruit trees grow behind every house. There's a freshness and simplicity to the food here, with olives and olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and wild herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme creating a framework of rich, satisifying flavours.
But it's not all about summer. In the winter, there will be slow-cooked daubes and stews with the scent of dried orange rind, slow-cooked lamb with a herb crust and gratin potatoes, pots of beans cooked with ham, garlic and rosemary, and sweet tarts of apples and pears.
It's the kind of food that feels like home.
Roast Lamb with Provencal Crust
Ready in 3 hours
A little butter, for greasing
8 large, floury potatoes
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup chicken stock
1 boneless lamb leg (about 1.2kg)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
⅓ cup parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 tsp rosemary, finely chopped
A pinch of salt
100g butter, at room temperature
¾ cup fine fresh breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 170C fanbake. Butter a gratin dish large enough to hold the lamb leg. Peel potatoes and cut into ½cm slices. Arrange in overlapping rows in the bottom of the dish. Season with salt and pepper and pour the chicken stock over the top. Trim excess fat from lamb leg, place on top of potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for 1½ hours. To make the herb crust, place garlic, lemon zest, parsley, rosemary and salt in a bowl with the softened butter and stir to combine. Add breadcrumbs and mix well — it will be pasty in texture. Spread over the parcooked lamb and cook, uncovered, for another hour, reducing heat a little if it starts to get too brown. Rest lamb for 10-15 minutes before carving thinly across the grain and serving with the potatoes.
Annabel says: I love the way this buttery, herby crumb soaks down with the meat juices into the potatoes that sit underneath the lamb. The result is wonderfully flavoursome. If using a bone-in leg of lamb, cook it for an extra 30 minutes. The crumb also makes a wonderful topping for slow-roasted tomatoes or baked mushrooms.
Homemade Orange Wine Aperitif
Ready in 15 min + maturing
Makes about 4 cups
1 spray-free orange
½ cup caster sugar
1 cup vodka
1 vanilla pod
1 cinnamon quill
1 whole star anise
1 bottle chilled rosé wine
1 orange, halved and thinly sliced
Whole star anise and extra strips of orange peel,
to garnish (optional)
Wash orange and use a vegetable peeler to remove the rind in long strips. Cut off as much of the white pith as you can (it will make the drink bitter) and then cut the peel into thin strips. Place in a large (1.5 litre) carafe or clean jar with sugar and vodka and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add vanilla pod, cinnamon quill and star anise. Pour the wine over the top. Cover and leave in a cool, dark place for at least a week. It will keep for months (strain after a week to remove the spices and peel or they will overpower the flavour). Serve chilled over ice or in a tall glass topped up with soda. Add strips of fresh orange peel and a whole star anise for garnish, if desired.
Annabel says: This wonderful aperitif is made in homes everywhere in Provence, when oranges are in season during the winter. Some people make it with brandy but I prefer the cleaner taste of vodka. Serve straight up over ice or dilute with soda for a spritz.
French Apple Tarts
Ready in 45 mins
1 sheet flaky puff pastry
3 Tbsp butter, melted
¼ cup sugar
1½ apples, peeled, quartered and very thinly sliced lengthways
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake and line an oven tray with baking paper. Cut the pastry sheet in half and then cut each half into three. Brush pastry rectangles on one side with butter and sprinkle each with ½ tsp sugar, shaking off excess back into the remaining sugar. Place pastry rectangles buttered and sugared side down on prepared tray. Using a quarter of an apple per tart, arrange the slices in an overlapping pattern on the pastry rectangles. Brush all over with butter. Bake until golden and crisp (about 35 minutes). Remove from oven, brush the tops with water and sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Dab any dry sugar with water. Grill until sugar is lightly caramelised (2-3 minutes). If not serving at once, they will keep for 2-3 days and reheat well.
Annabel says: A sheet of flaky puff pastry offers a fast track to the most fabulous apple tarts. The trick here is to ensure you butter and sugar the base as this provides a crunchy caramel finish to the pastry.