What to know before you go
France is a country abounding with rich culinary traditions. The food diversity is inspiring and quite often overwhelming – we’re often left with the question, How can we fit it all in? Even within the confines of Provence, the ability to eat an intricate salade Niçoise one afternoon & a fragrant bouillabaisse the next is enough to make your taste buds spin.
Far from a guide to the “what” of Provencal meals, this is an outline of the “how” – how meals are eaten in the south of France.
The first meal of the day is generally a quick affair. Much like their southern cousins in Italy, the French prefer their petit déjeuner to consist of a croissant, or similar type of brioche, and a coffee. Coffee choices range from an Italian-style espresso, café crème (coffee with milk also known as café au lait), or a cappuccino. Although you will find pastries so light & buttery you’ll be tempted to have a second or even third, don’t expect the same quality from French coffee. Apart from kissing-cousin Nice, Italians still corner the market in the bean-brewing biz.
*tip: Picking up a pastry at a local boulangerie will save you money, but having breakfast in a café is a necessary South of France experience. Order a heaping coffee, pull up a chair, and plan to stay as long as you like.
The long-standing, long lunch is alive & well in the South – that is, if you’ve got the time. A leisurely meal is considered a luxury for many, and although it’s still practiced, the French stay longer at work to compensate for their mid-day break. It’s also common for shop owners to close their doors between the hours of 12:00pm-2:00pm; sometimes as late as 4:00pm. This is seen most often in smaller towns or villages, with stores in bigger cities like Aix-en-Provence staying open all day.
A full lunch in Provence follows the same menu format as dinner, with entrée (starter), plate (main course), and dessert options. There are no set requirements to order all of the courses, and you can just as easily find patrons ordering a glass of wine & a bucket of moules frites as digging into a crêpe at a portside café.
*tip: For low-cost lunch options, many boulangeries offer takeaway sandwiches and/or salads for quick meals on-the-go. Alternatively, collect your own sandwich fare from the local market & set up your own mid-day picnic.
We’ve got your apéro, entrée, plat, & dessert, but have you got the stamina? Dinner is the star of meals in France, and the South is no different. The warm-up act, or l’heure de l’apéro (happy hour) is alive & well in the hearts, and stomachs, of many a Provençal citizen.
A traditional Provençal aperitif at a bar or restaurant is a light affair. Drinks might include a glass of wine, a spritz, a Pastis, or other cocktail. There are no hard & fast rules for drink choice, but the Pastis is the symbolic drink of the South & favored by many (mostly men). Usually only one drink is taken, and accompanied by small dishes of nuts, chips, or other snacks. Aperitifs at friends’ homes or before a dinner party can be a more elaborate affair.
Menu offerings vary greatly, but will most certainly include entrée, main dish, and dessert options. Be sure to take note of the rich & varied seafood offerings found particularly along the coast. At dinner, although not obligatory, it is more common to order all of the courses. Restaurants also offer set menu options known as the formule. Formule combination vary, but you will usually be given two options to choose from for your entrée, plate, & dessert (see photo below). The higher the price, the more “sophisticated” the choices & your menu may or may not include an aperitif. The menu formule is quite popular & often the best value of the evening.
*tip: Restaurants will also offer set-menu options during lunch; be sure to look for the formule de midi when ordering.