In the second of our regular series, Jon Bryant ventures beyond the trendy boutiques to taste the sweet and savoury life in the historic Provençal town
Many residents of Aix-en-Provence seem far too sophisticated to be thinking about food. They drift around the fashion boutiques, trying on suede boots, stopping for a café serré beside a stone fountain and phoning their interior decorators. The truth is that they are thinking about food all the time and how they can possibly keep their slender figures while filling up on lavender honey, goats’ cheese, chocolates from Puyricard, truffle-flavoured oil, olive tapenades and, most of all, the delicious calissons d’Aix. The clothes shops are just an excuse.
Aix has giant food markets which can rival any in France. Every morning on Place Richelme, local producers cram their stalls in between the plane trees. Besides the usual cheese and charcuterie, you can buy Provençal saffron, virgin olive oils, jams and lavender biscuits. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, Place de la Madeleine and Place des Prêcheurs have a fresh produce market. Fruit from these markets were picked up by the artist Paul Cézanne for his still lifes – his studio was up the road.
Cézanne used to spend the early evenings enjoying a drink at Les Deux Garçons brasserie with his friend, the writer Émile Zola. Every guidebook mentions ‘Les 2G’ but, with its gold and dark green Empire style interior and reassuringly grumpy waiters, it is still my favourite place in Aix to have a coffee and watch the people stroll up and down Cours Mirabeau – and sometimes, you even get a small calisson to go with it.
At first glance all calissons look the same, a white lozenge with a creamy yellow filling underneath set on a crispy base, so I went to visit Léonard Parli’s confiserie near the station to discover the truth. The sweet first appeared at the wedding feast of ‘Good King René’, Count of Provence, and his second wife Queen Jeanne in the mid-1400s and developed a reputation for protecting people against the plague.
The base is a communion wafer and the sweets are traditionally ‘blessed’ on the first Sunday in September. The taste is a singular, old-fashioned fusion of delicate almond paste, orange syrup and candied melon, topped with a thin layer of icing. Calissons would be extremely difficult to make at home but the almond paste is available from my favourite food shop in Aix, L’Épicerie, in the shady Place des 3 Ormeaux.
It was opened in 2009 by Virginie Gausseran and her husband Georges, who chose Aix “because it’s the most authentic town in the region.” The interior is a larder from paradise with glass jars and metal canisters sporting charming art deco labels and lids requiring special tools to open them. With its racks of tiny beldi (preserved lemons), chilli-pepper jelly, pistachios enrobed with anchovies, bottles of squid ink and salad sprays of bergamot and coriander, it is easy to while away an afternoon there just browsing.
“Our typical customer is a modern woman in her thirties,” says Mme Gausseran. However, L’Épicerie has a sideroom full of whiskies and brandies, and its own-label champagne (in stylish vertical stripes). Beside the till are a basket of marshmallow bears and a stack of chocolate Eiffel towers. The couple’s best-selling product is Château d’Estoublon olive oil from a farm near Les Baux-de-Provence, but they have some extraordinary produce sourced from abroad, as well as local delicacies of jams, black truffles, cheeses, rose-scented wafers and, of course, calissons.
Most pâtisseries in Aix have their own window of calissons, but for other sweets and delicacies, head for Rue d’Italie, where a new chocolate shop arrives almost every few months. At the far end of the street, opposite the fromagerie Lemarié which sells tomme aux fleurs (a cheese wrapped in edible flowers) and the olive oil boutique Place aux Huiles, is an Italian delicatessen. No one in there speaks French; but there’s laughter, limoncello and free panettone for anyone buying a leg of cured ham.
Rue Mignet has La Maison de l’Espagne where you can buy Rioja wine, earthenware bowls to make a crème brûlée, castanets and a flamenco dress (dancing classes next door). Beside the cathedral on Rue Gaston Saporta is a Greek delicatessen, with several Thai and Vietnamese takeaways further down the road. There is a well-known English ‘kids’ club’ called The English Bubble, with a British grocer attached selling lemon curd and mint sauce. A Japanese sushi bar can be found on virtually every corner and Aix even has its own Chinatown just south of Place de la Mairie.
As international as Aix is, the town remains unmistakably French and the queue at the new cheese shop, Fromagerie du Passage off Cours Mirabeau, often goes round the corner. It’s open until 11pm and has a cheese-based restaurant upstairs (hence the late opening) and the coolest fridge I have ever seen. Inside are giant slabs of Emmental and Gruyère with oversized bowls of fromage frais and yoghurt. Manager Christophe Clavère tells me that, like virtually every other fromagerie in France, his best-sellers are Roquefort, Camembert and Comté, but there are plenty of local goats’ cheeses to savour. He even stocks a good Stilton.
As for the accompanying wine, much of the production in the Pays d’Aix area is dedicated to rosé. Expect to pay less than €7 for a nice bottle, which the locals drink with grillades and barbecues throughout the summer. The weather is so mild that barbecues and open-air pizza ovens are still firing well into the winter, so the fruity rosé season extends pretty much all year. For something more full-bodied, try Château Simone from the tiny Palette appellation beside Mont-Sainte-Victoire. If you don’t want to leave town, both Nicolas and L’Épicerie stock the wine, the latter having a wall of dusty, shop-refracting magnums.
And to go with the giant hunk of cheese and a glass of red? The French don’t eat water biscuits, so you have to decide which bread and which baker to choose. It’s probably the most common question in France: where do you buy your baguette? In Aix, the question was made easier three years ago with the arrival of Farinoman. He sounds like a superhero and for many Aixois, he is. Benoît Fradette opened his bakery just off Place des Prêcheurs and now has a cult following. What makes his bread different, he claims, is the amount of time the dough is left to ferment. He doesn’t want to say too much – and there are a lot of other excellent bakeries in Aix – but most people agree that his bread is incredible. There’s only one problem – he comes from Québec!
ACCOMMODATION REVIEW LA MAISON DAUPHINÉ
In an elegant town house a stone’s throw from Cours Mirabeau and the Place des Quatre-Dauphins fountain is this stylish ‘urban gîte’. La Maison Dauphiné has three apartments for rent in this former school, each one about 50 square metres, with a fully equipped kitchen, Wi-Fi and room cleaning service.
The location, in the heart of the Mazarin quarter, means you can walk to the local markets in less than five minutes, stock up at the butchers and cheese shops and stroll along Rue d’Italie, which owner Véronique Kadri describes as “a little village all to itself”.
La Maison Dauphiné, she says, is “for people who want the luxury and security of a hotel but with a more intimate ambience.” Breakfast can be prepared in the apartment or taken at the nearby Bastide du Cours café on its heated terrace. The owner runs a contemporary art gallery downstairs and each apartment has original artwork and photographs.
Apartments start from €195 a night or €950 a week.
La Maison Dauphiné
14 Rue du 4 Septembre
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 38 22 54
LES BONNES ADRESSES
• Farinoman Fou
5 Rue Mignet
• Boucherie Fassetta
53 Rue Espariat
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 26 08 67
• La Fromagerie du Passage
55 Cours Mirabeau
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 22 90 00
12 Cours Mirabeau
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 26 06 78
7 Rue Rifle-Rafle
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 21 13 26
• Léonard Parli
35 Avenue Victor Hugo
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 26 05 71
• Les Deux Garçons
53 Cours Mirabeau
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 26 00 51
27 Rue d’Italie
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 38 07 41
• L’Épicerie (above) Place des 3 Ormeaux
Tel: (Fr) 4 42 57 45 91