Just one of the many delights of a Provencal summer are the long evenings which offer the perfect excuse to throw an informal al fresco dinner party. The heat of the day has given way to a comfortable heat, the air is deliciously scented and the air is filled with the song of the cicadas adding an atmospheric soundtrack to dine to.
Forget complex recipes and instead make the most of the abundant fresh produce available in local markets to create quick and easy dishes that will be savoured by all. Chill the Rosé, decorate the table with some sprigs of lavender and make the most of what will be a memorable evening with friends and family.
I hope the recipes below will help you create your own, perfect Provencal evening, wherever you are in the world.
Une entrée (starter) – Tomatoes with breadcrumbs and anchovies
Start the evening with an amuse-bouche consisting of a few bowls of olives laid out on the table for your guests to enjoy. Provencal olives are some of the finest in the world and you will have no trouble sourcing these from the market. Whilst you’re at the market pick up some beautiful fresh tomatoes for your starter. Tomatoes are always abundant at this time of year and using them as the centrepiece for this dish works brilliantly.
- 1 large tomato per guest. Should be reasonably firm as you will need to slice in half
- Small tin of anchovies
- Large bowl of breadcrumbs – whizz up that leftover day-old baguette!
- 2 garlic cloves
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- Olive oil
- Fresh herbs – I would suggest a typically Provencal mix of rosemary, thyme and oregano
On a large baking tray or other suitable dish, place the halved tomatoes (cut side up) in a single layer. Drain the anchovies making sure you reserve the oil and then halve each anchovy. Slice the garlic finely and then dot each tomato with half an anchovy and some of the garlic, pressing these ingredients slightly into the tomato. Season with a little pepper but no salt (the anchovies add enough saltiness) and drizzle over the reserved anchovy oil.
Finely chop the herbs and then combine these with the breadcrumbs and lemon zest before scattering on top of the tomatoes. Drizzle on the olive oil.
These can now be left lightly covered in the fridge until you are ready to cook. They will take 30 to 40 minutes in the oven at 180C – so you can pop them in a preheated oven as your guests arrive giving you time for a pre-dinner glass of Rosé before sitting down to eat.
Le plat principal (main meal) – Roast Provençal chicken, new potatoes and mesclun green salad
It can be hard to juggle entertaining guests and time spent in the kitchen preparing dinner… and complex is not always best anyway. With the warm weather, this simple but stunningly tasty Roast Provençal Chicken and salad is the perfect choice and as a bonus, won’t take you hours to prepare either.
- 1 or 2 whole chickens (or maybe more depending on the number of guests!)
- Fresh herbs – to include rosemary and thyme
- Olive Oil
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Roughly chop most of the herbs and garlic and mix with a little olive oil and seasoning. Chop a couple of lemons into quarters. Rub the garlic and herb mix over the chicken skin. Stuff the cavity with the remaining herbs (these can be whole, not chopped) along with some whole garlic cloves and 4 or 5 lemon quarters. Place the chicken(s) into a deep roasting tin along with the remaining lemon quarters and put in the oven. The chicken will need 1hr 45mins. Check every 30 mins and baste the chicken with the juices which will accumulate in the pan.
Fresh new potatoes are hard to beat for flavour and need little else other than some seasoning and butter. To add just a little extra oomph, we’re also going to throw in a handful of capers and parsley.
- New potatoes
Prepare the potatoes by halving and placing in a pan of cold water to stop them discolouring. 30 minutes prior to serving dinner, boil a kettle full of water and drain the cold water from the potatoes. Place on a high heat and pour over the boiling water. These will need approximately 20 minutes cooking time. When they are tender, remove from the heat and drain. Put a decent knob of salted butter in the pan, a handful of capers, ground pepper and roughly chopped parsley and mix through. Serve in a pre-heated dish with the butter mixture from the pan poured over the top.
Mesclun is the Provencal word for ‘mixture’ which gives this salad its name.
- Salad leaves – chervil (cerfeuil), arugula (roquette), dandelion (pissenlit), chicory (chicorée), radicchio (trévise), curly endive (frisée)… or whatever takes your fancy in the market!
- Walnut Oil
- Balsamic Vinegar
Take your mixed leaves and place in a serving bowl. Crush a couple of garlic cloves and add 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, 1 tbsp. olive oil and 1 tbsp. walnut oil. Mix well with a little seasoning. Mix the dressing through the leaves just before serving. If you have any leftover fresh tomatoes these could also be served, sliced and with a little balsamic and olive oil drizzled over the top.
Serve the chicken roughly carved on a platter with the juices from the roasting tin poured over alongside the potatoes and salad. And don’t forget to serve with fresh bread and butter without which no French meal would be complete!
Le fromage – The cheese course
The French have their cheese course before dessert which I personally think is very sensible! Although this course is optional it’s great fun selecting a variety of cheeses to serve from the supremely well stocked cheese stall that you are guaranteed to find at any French market.
Typically cheese in France is served on its own with no bread or crackers… but a glass of Vin Rouge is a must! Toasted pecans or walnuts along with some grapes are a popular addition in lieu of bread.
Le dessert – Cherry clafoutis
Cherries are a common sight in markets across Provence at this time of year and lend themselves perfectly to this classic French dessert.
- 600g fresh pitted cherries
- 3 large eggs
- 80g plain flour
- Vanilla extract
- 150g sugar
- 350ml milk
- Flaked Almonds
Grease a suitable baking dish with the butter. Place the cherries in a single layer across the base. They can sit closely together… if they are too spaced out then use a smaller dish. Using an electric whisk combine the eggs, flour, vanilla extract, milk and 100g of the sugar until they form a smooth batter. Pour the batter over the cherries and then sprinkle the remaining sugar over the top along with some flaked almonds. Bake at 180C for approximately 45 minutes or until golden brown. A knife inserted into the mix should emerge clean. You can cook this in advance and serve slightly warm or even cold from the fridge if you wish.
Le Café, un digestif
Finish dinner with coffee and a digestif… Armagnac is a strong brandy which is produced in the South West of France or you could even try Limoncello which appears on menus across Provence. Although traditionally an Italian drink, Limoncello is also produced in a town called Menton located on the edge of the Côte d’Azur.
Su Stephens is Owner of Olives & Vines. Olives & Vines is a luxury holiday company based in the South of France offering stays at their beautifully designed holiday house and boutique hotel in Le Castellet.