The Scent of Provence
Walking along the hillsides and trails of Provence, the fragrance of the garrigue, the scent of sage and rosemary, juniper, thyme, and olive, is pervasive. The aroma is woodsy, a little resinous, and distinct. At Christmas in Provence it’s traditional for the Yule log to be of olive wood, and splashed with eau de vie by the youngest member of the party before being lit.
For the holidays, I’ve created these fragrant bundles (photo above by Thomas Kuoh www.thomaskuoh.com) to reflect the spirit of the olive log and the scent of the garrigue. Keep them in a bowl or basket and rub them between your hands from time to time, until the moment comes to toss one into your holiday fires in your fireplace or to scent a grill.
These are made from hand cuttings of French and Mission olives, rosemary, and sage grown on our small farm in Northern California. The fragrance bundles, with a hang tag that tells the story, make good holiday stocking stuffers or hostess gifts. Holiday Fragrance Bundles.
Another scent of the garrigue is winter savory. This perennial, sarriette in French, is an essential ingredients in Herbes de Provence, along with sage, rosemary, thyme, and sometimes lavender. I use Herbes de Provence to season everything from pork chops to oven-roasted vegetables, but I consider winter savory, on its own, to be an essential ingredient, along with bay leaves, for seasoning beans. So, I created Sel de Sarriette, French gray sea salt combined with winter savory with that pairing in mind. However, I discovered that the Sel de Sarriette boosts the flavor of cottage cheese, for example, and a pinch or so is the secret ingredient in my Bloody Mary.
If you love Rancho Gordo beans (Royal Coronas pictured here at left with Sel de Sarriette)– and most people who have had them do – consider adding La Vie Rustic’s new Sel de Sarriette to your pantry to season your beans. Photo by Thomas Kuoh
Other scents, very earthy ones, abound during mushroom and truffle season. Mushroom season starts about a week to 10 days after the first heavy rains of October and continues until the first freeze. You can tell if the season is in full swing because cars are parked helter-skelter along the roads that cut through or border forests of oak and pine, the favored habitats of apricot-golden chanterelles, plump cêpes (porcini in Italian), ruffle-edged hedgehogs and the highly coveted sanguin, with a concave, creamy orange top brushed in spots with verdigris green.
What to do with the fungal finds? Simply sauté them in olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper and serve along with toasts, followed by a salad, or use them to stuff a plump chicken. Slice and dry the cêpes. The sanguins are often grilled with a little olive oil and garlic, or pickled to serve throughout the year to accompany aperitifs.
If you want to discover wild mushrooms in northern California, head to Mendocino County, where these mushrooms, left, were found. There are guides there who will take you foraging and restaurants often have special mushroom dishes on their menus.
Truffles are a different story.
Truffles (Tuber melanosporum), the black truffles of Perigord, also known as ‘black diamonds’ are abundant in Provence, and today the majority of the black truffles, come from that area, not from Perigord. Unlike mushrooms, which push through the earth as they mature, truffles grow to maturity beneath the earth, primarily in association with the roots of trees, primarily oak. Filaments emerge from the spores of the truffle that then elongate and attach to the roots of the host trees – oaks, hazelnuts, pines, and lindens. From this union mycorrhiza are formed, and eventually the tree’s root system in invaded. Truffiere, or truffle –producing grounds, may be found extensively in the wilds of Haute Provence, but the trufffiere may also be cultivated ground, planted with hand-selected acorns or with young trees that have been commercially inoculated.
Pigs and dogs can scent the truffles’ powerful aroma under the ground, and can locate the truffles for their master. The pigs will want to eat the truffle themselves so their master has to be quick to grab it and substitute a treat for it, such as a dog biscuit. Dogs are far more common today than pigs for hunting, and they prefer the biscuit to the truffle. The masterless wild boars, however, know no limits and it is not surprising to be in the forest and find turned earth ravaged by the boars and the truffles long gone.
Truffles are in season starting in late November through February and sometimes into March, depending upon the year. They are prized for the holidays, and everyone who knows a truffle hunter gets one or two for a special dish. Those who don’t have a truffle hunter friend can buy them at the outdoor markets or the special truffle markets or fairs that are held throughout the season.
Truffle oil has become quite common in specialty markets here in the United States, but try to get a whiff before purchasing – the oil should exude an earthy, not oily, aroma. For a holiday taste of Provence, try the crudité recipe below, which uses truffle oil.
Winter Crudité with Porcini and Truffled Bagna Cauda
Here is my French take on Italian Bagna Cauda, an Italian warm dipping sauce based on olive oil and anchovies. It is full of umami, rich and deeply earthy with dried porcini mushrooms and black truffle oil, plus a little nori seaweed. It’s dark and unctuous and actually looks a bit forbidding, but when I served it at a holiday open house, people couldn’t get enough of it.
1 cup boiling water
¼ ounce dried Porcini mushrooms
2 inch- square Sushi-Nori (roasted seaweed)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 or 3 good quality olive oil packed anchovy fillets
½ teaspoon good quality black truffle oil
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
8 thin carrot sticks
8 very small radishes, a few greens attached; if large, halved lengthwise
8 small cauliflower florets
8 thin rounds of small Scarlet or Tokyo turnips, thinly sliced
8 thin slices fennel
Put the porcini in a saucepan and cover with the boiling water. Simmer over medium low heat until the mushrooms are soft and the liquid is reduced to about ½ to ¾ cup. Add the nori, simmer another 1 to 2 minutes and remove from the heat.
Ina small frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When it is hot, add 2 or 3 anchovies, and cook stirring, until the anchovies begin to dissolve, about 5 minutes.
In a blender, combine the porcini mixture along with the olive oil and anchovy mixture and liquefy. Add the truffle oil and sea salt and liquefy again.
Serve warm accompanied by the vegetables. Serves 6 to 8.