French Food Folly
We decided like so many others to holiday in the UK this summer. We cancelled our planned trip to Greece on the grounds that it was too much – risk, admin, cost, frankly everything – to get there. And we really enjoyed two short trips. One to St Ives & another to the gorgeous Mendip hills outside Bath. Heading west? Check my recommends for eating & drinking in both areas on Instagram – we found some fab places.
And then we got restless. For sun on our faces, for foreign words, for eating & drinking under shady parasols on sun-baked terraces. I am not going to lie, it took a whole day to plan and book every detail of the trip and the appropriate tests. I love a sourcing project – but this was a new level. We figured that if we moved fast, we could fit in a 3-day weekend to the South of France and still leave a healthy window before the first of our kids went back to school.
So we just did it – London to Marseille on a Friday afternoon. In one quick car hop we were eating under the stars at our hotel in Aix. Did we ever feel luckier?! I wonder if 2019 me would have appreciated it as much. Ya right.
So here are some tips for a cheeky weekend away in Provence…
I had no idea that Aix en Provence was just a 40 min drive from Marseille Airport (with flights from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Edinburgh & Bristol). This makes it the perfect weekend destination from the UK. It is a compact city with plenty to see, do, eat & drink. For the more restless, if you have a car, there are a myriad of sun-kissed hilltop villages and pretty fishing ports to keep you busy, fed and watered.
Where to stay
We stayed at Le Pigonnet – https://www.hotelpigonnet.com/en – highly recommend. In return for a short walk (the hotel has a mini bus and taxis are easy to find) you have an amazing oasis to return to. Gardens to lounge, eat and drink in, a lovely pool, a boulodrome and a view of Mont St Victoire. One that was good enough to make Paul Cezanne a regular with his easel.
First to Aix itself – it had everything to reassure you that you were most definitely in the south of France. After breakfast in the beautiful, fountained gardens at the hotel, we hit it’s famous Saturday markets. These are serious events in so many French towns and Aix has it sorted. Saturday means extra – clothes, jewellery, soaps & fragrance, shoes and everything else you might ever (or never?!) need. We passed pretty sun dresses, linens, shoes and a thousand accessories, but my eyes were on the food stalls.
Place Richelme had it all: http://richelme.free.fr/marche.html I love that the produce on display was much as it was when I was dragged around southern French markets by my parents on camping holidays. The fact that it hasn’t changed is a good thing.
Because it’s ALL about how ridiculously delicious it looks. How often does your mouth water at the sight of raw ingredients?! Not even a hint of oil, garlic, chilli or lemon have been added yet but my eyes were telling my taste buds to light up. Four types of rip, scented melon, tomatoes in all heirloom colours, shiny courgettes, aubergines (those pretty variegated ones), garlic in tresses, massive heads of lettuce, bright radish (perfect as an appetiser eaten with butter and rock salt), fluffy skinned doughnut peaches (delicious sliced into a large pitcher with super chilled rose and sparkling water – try it!) and smooth white nectarines.
And then there are the cheese stalls with cool-cave Roquefort (Aix isn’t far), a goat’s cheese that seemed to be on every menu called la Brousse (a little like a fresh, goat ricotta and great grilled) and mature comte. The combo would make a perfect platter with local charcuterie, grapes and breads.
But what about if you don’t want to cook, more to be entertained?! There are many fantastic restaurants to choose from. Brasseries and bistros for more relaxed, local food (think grilled sea bass fillets with fennel and delicious charcuterie salads all the way through to foie gras and decadent mirror-glaze perfect chocolate desserts). We ate at Le Poivre D’Ane in the buzzy Place Forum des Cardeurs which had a small and perfectly formed menu – delicious. If you fancy something renowned, try Top Chef (Masterchef) winner Ronan Kernan’s restaurant, La Petite Ferme. I found that this reviewer had some great restaurant tips for more ideas: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/articles/the-10-best-restaurants-in-aix-en-provence/
There is clearly a strong Asian link, with yuzu featuring on the French menus in dressings, tartare and fish carpaccios. There are also a large number of Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants too. Which is helpful as so many of the French restaurants serve Tues-Sat only (watch that one, weekenders!). Literally something for everyone and so many have divinely converted ordinary pavement areas into beautiful temporary evening dining gardens complete with candlelight, cool foliage and music. The very first time I came to Aix, I was a student and it was a little Chinese restaurant that we ate at on a Sunday evening. We stayed a long time (we were young and in love!), even to the point where the lychee liqueur started tasting really good.
It’s just, well, beautifully French
But ahem, back to 2021… At the end of our market tour, I was sat outside a café with my daughter on the famous La Rotonde fountain roundabout, whiling away time. I was explaining to her how in France, you are most welcome to nurse a drink at your table whilst catching up with a friend and having some good conversation. Take your time. Suddenly the peace was broken by a lady leaned over the café hedging with a loud haler. She started shouting into it loudly. At us. Well, at all the people enjoying a drink to be fair. The new ruling in France is that you need a ‘passe sanitaire’ (equivalent to our NHS QR vaccine code) to enter any restaurant, bar, club, cinema if you are over 16.
Her point was that was against her civil liberties and she and the hundred people around her waving flags and placards were vocal and passionate. So un-English a scene. We bumped into a Danish lady on our way back to the hotel who had lived in the area for over 20 years. In perfect French (why are our Northern friends so amazingly language skilled?) she explained that this happened every week. “The French love a demonstration”. She just smiled and altered her shopping route to a quieter street. I feel there is room for everyone in Aix. Well worth a visit.