With a food industry that grew up serving the Popes, Avignon has long been a centre of gastronomic excellence. Jon Bryant finds out more
When the Popes lived in Avignon in the Middle Ages, banquets were an important part of life. They needed a regular supply of excellent food to cater for the palace’s prestigious guests whose refined tastes lead to a vigorous cultivation of the lands around Avignon and a dramatic expansion in its vineyards.
Avignon actually behaves as if the Popes are still in residence. Its fresh produce and wine shops are some of the best in France. The gastronomic hub is Les Halles covered market whose giant front wall is covered in vegetation, hanging vertically thanks to a clever design by botanist Patrick Blanc.
The smell of freshness hits you as soon as you walk through the doors and are confronted by long aisles of amazing food. Shiny courgettes balancing on rows of pumpkins, wooden crates of wine, wicker baskets brim full of sea urchins and crabs, rose-flavoured sea-salt, pots of olives, round trays of spices and gleaming cabinets of charcuterie and goats’ cheese.
Second row on the right, third stall down is a green stall with an almightly new fridge (the previous one lasted 45 years) and a cabinet of Saint Nectaire, doorstep slabs of Conté de Jura and Emmentaler.
“People love my Beaufort d’été,” says Valérie, owner of Les Fromages de Valérie, “it HAS to be made in the summer!” “People usually come and buy cheese for the week. We have a lovely Banon goats’ cheese and some excellent Pecorino.” She says “people know that Les Halles only sells top-quality products, and that’s why it is so good to have a stall here.”
A few blocks down is the busy bakery Panissain with lots of eccentric hats hanging over the piled-up loaves like nursery mobiles. If you bring a hat for the baker on a Sunday, he’ll give you a free loaf. Next door and opposite the market’s art gallery at the rear of the building is a steel kitchen where, every Saturday morning at 11 o’clock, they hold a cooking class, given by a local chef. Ingredients for La Petite Cuisine des Halles are sold at stalls in the market – a printed sheet tells you which ones to go to.
The Saturday I visited, Thomas Garcia from the Garde-Manager in Saint Etienne du Grès was making Craquant de chicons à la gueze. There wasn’t much left within two minutes of the demonstration ending.
Avignon’s most renowned butcher, however, was in business long before the vertical vegetation of Les Halles, even before the word ‘organic’ had anything to do with food.
Boucherie St Didier staff are dressed in red and black pinstriped jackets with a white apron hanging off just one shoulder. Stuck to the outside glass is a photo of the same butcher’s shop from 1936 before they had any refrigeration and the joints of meats were hanging outside next to a calf’s head and chubby sausages coiled up on the table.
Today, the shop occupies the same corner site. They sell the same cuts of meat and the counter is full of prime steak, legs of lamb, skinned rabbits, poultry and a side cabinet of pies, sausages and some terrines artisanales.
I asked the butcher about Avignon’s culinary specialities and he showed me some local andouillettes sausages, locally-produced pâtés and, of course, the Daube d’Avignon. Almost no one else had ever heard of it, but he explained it’s like a Provencal daube stew, using the same herbs but is made with lamb and white wine instead of beef and red wine.
Across the road from St Didier’s is Avignon’s finest fine grocer’s, the Fine Bouche, opened by Sandrine Cahelo by four years ago. She sells gourmet delights, everything from giant slices of honey and lavender nougat to poutargue de muge (at €21 for 110g – a real delicacy), foie gras, organic teas plus a selection of olive oils, caviars and crystallised violets which she says are great to put in a glass of champagne.
Safe to say, if there’s a celebration in Avignon, they may not toast with champagne. The city is the capital of the Côtes du Rhône, a wine-growing region which includes such stars as Châteauneuf du Pape (will Francis ever visit?), Gigondas, Beaumes de Venise and Vacqueyras.
At Le Vin Devant Soi (a playful reference to the Romain Gary novel), down a cobbled street off the place de l’horloge, they have 32 bottles permanently open for tasting in a special distribution cabinet. It’s a clever idea from two friends, Stéphane Gilbert and Laurent Mersier, who met at military school in Paris. “We give you a tasting card for 5,10, 20 euros or more, and a glass, and there’s a fantastic selection to taste from,” says Gilbert. They work with the best small producers in the south. The bottles are ‘loaded’ onto a piston and kept fresh with nitrogen which allows them can stay ‘open’ for a few weeks.
If drinking isn’t your thing, then the pinky, tangerine-coloured Papalines d’Avignon, available from the city’s patisseries, are filled with Origan du Comtat, a liqueur composed of around 60 herbs gathered near Mont Ventoux. A perfect fix for dealing with the Mistral wind that blows for half the year or for a picnic while dancing on the bridge.
LES BONNES ADRESSES
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 27 15 15
Open every morning from Tuesday to Sunday 6 am to 1.30 pm (2 pm at the weekend)
2, rue des Trois Faucons
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 82 50 09
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 86 20 63
CHOCOLATES AND PASTRIES
Festival des Glaces
2, rue de la République
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 86 04 27
22, rue Saint Agricol
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 86 24 72
35, rue Saint Agricol
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 85 59 41
Les Fromages de Valérie
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 27 36 16
Le Vin Devant Soi
4, rue du Collège du Roure
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 82 04 39
11, rue du Vieux Sextier
Tel: (Fr) 4 84 15 82 71
La Fine Bouche
9, place Saint-Didier
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 82 65 69