Okay, so say Marseille just isn’t your cup of tea. You’ve given it a chance, but still, you came to France to be in “what you think of when you think of France.” You want leafy boulevards and beautiful squares and that life lived just a bit more slowly. Good news: You’re still in Provence, and Provence’s charming darling Aix-en-Provence is just a half hour away.
One night, we drove just a bit north to visit the beautiful, chic town of Aix-en-Provence (or just simply Aix) for dinner. It’s not night-and-day to Marseille, but there is a difference between Marseille and Aix. Whether that’s because Aix is a major university town or that it was home to Roman thermal spas back in the day (and actually I think there is still a spa or two left). Its fountains are famous, so it’s no reason Aix is called the City of a Thousand Foundations, though that number might be an exaggeration. Along the Cours Mirabeau, the mansion- and tree-lined promenade through town, is where you’ll find those cafés and shops and people spending leisure time or strolling day and night that you’ve dreamed of.
Aix is a good place to slow down, enjoy life, and take it all in. So now might be a good time to break down some of the finer parts of French gourmet culture that are highly valued. Things such as terroir or appellation, for instance. Terroir and appellation are related terms in that they both refer to location. Terroir (derived from terre, meaning land in French) is all of the environmental factors that contribute to a crop’s characteristics. These factors can be broad factors like climate and soil type, but each of those could be further broken down into microclimate or geomorphology. This basically means that where things grow and what they are exposed to impact the taste. In theory, you can taste a difference between grapes grown on one side of a hill that gets more sunlight than the other side of the same hill; or the same varietals of grapes grown at different elevations.
Appellation is a legal distinction, and are defined geographical areas in which something is grown. These boundaries are determined by a governing body within each country (if any governing bodies exist) and sets standards on the naming of things. In France, for example, that is appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC); in Italy, Denomination di Origine Controllata (DOC). You’ll see those acronyms on wine bottles when the vineyard or wine meets the criteria.
Most people think of wine when they think of terroir and appellation. But there’s much more application, especially in terms of appellation: coffee, cheese, spices, honey, meat, lentils… lavender even, in France (!) … have their own legal status when produced from certain regions. Take Parmesan cheese, for example. I’d bet that the average person doesn’t realize that the name Parmesan comes from an actual region/city in Italy—Parma—or that the cheese is actually called Parmigiano-Reggiano. True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese can only be labeled as such when it comes from the Parma-Reggio Emilia regions of Italy. The European Union has the most sophisticated and extensive system of appellation protections, though legally the EU systems is on enforceable in the EU. (“Parmesan” cheese produced in the United States or France can’t be sold in Europe under the name Parmesan… but Kraft is free to label whatever it is they sell as Parmesan stateside.)
Some people criticize appellation system as too bureaucratic or irrelevant or limiting innovation. To some, cheese or wine or ham that is made using the same techniques and traditions shouldn’t be limited in name to production in one region. But appellation also celebrates the history, agricultural and gastronomical pride in a region. Appellation also helps to preserve traditional methods by maintaining production standards as part of the certification process. I appreciate that, though I also appreciate things that taste really good.
In Aix, I searched out some calissons, a confection that Aix is known for, made up of ground almonds and orange peel and melon confit. (The linked website describes calissons as “one of the crown jewels of Provence terroir.) The dinner we had in Aix celebrated what tastes really good. I had some traditional Provençal aïoli with the accompanying vegetables, plus some seafood and escargot. Just wonderful. And of course this was alongside a glass of rosé (AOC Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence!), in what was the brightest, most glaring ice bag ever. It was awesome.