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Stories from our Travelers

Learning Through Cooking in Aix-en-Provence, France

Mathilde and her assistant in the kitchen

The authors at the market

Tomatoes ready for stuffing
Story by Olivia Cicci
Photographs by Caitlin Cote

[From Fall 2016] It’s a typical summer day on the streets of the historic section of Aix-en-Provence, France. You see a fresh food and flower market on each corner, many fashionably dressed French children walking in bunches, and even more motorbikes buzzing throughout the streets. However, if you listen very closely, you can hear the chatter of 10 newly-introduced individuals coming from behind the blue shutters of a second story window: a talkative French native and her charming assistant; three middle-aged sisters from Sweden; a shy and quiet professor on sabbatical from a university in Oklahoma; an elderly married couple from Australia; and two 21-year-old college students from Texas. So what is it that has brought together this unlikely group of individuals? I can answer that question in one word: Food.

All of us came together for one common goal, to learn some basics of French food and culture, taught to us by Mathilde, of L’Atelier Cuisine de Mathilde. We started the day by meeting at a fountain in one of the many places (plazas) in Aix. Mathilde began by telling us some stories about the history of Aix, such as why it was built on a hill and how it expanded throughout the years. Then we ventured to a small market around the corner, where we negotiated with vendors for the freshest of fruits and vegetables. After all the marketing, it was finally time to head back to the kitchen and get cooking.

Whoever said that you have to eat dinner before dessert was clearly wrong, because we started by making the desserts. We made hazelnut cookie crisps and a form of raspberry mousse, which had gelatin as its key ingredient. All of us in the class were intrigued to learn that gelatin in France isn’t in powder form, but instead is composed of clear paper-like sheets.

After preparing the desserts, we began prepping a traditional French appetizer, tapenade. We made four different varieties of tapenades and other spreads, ranging from traditional to sun-dried tomato. I’ll tell you, only the French can make sardines and snails taste that good. We ate the tapenade on fresh French baguettes that we had bought at the market that morning.

Finally we moved on to the main course, which included a variety of fresh vegetables stuffed with a combination of pork, veal, and beef. As we prepared the squash, tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions to be stuffed, we put all the scraps in a bowl to be blended together and combined with cream and spices to make a sauce. Then we stuffed the vegetables with the meat and placed them in the oven. Before long, we heard the ding of the oven timer and it was time for our meal. All ten of us sat down and enjoyed our French meal, family style.

In my week-long trip to France, I learned more about Provençal culture in my half-day cooking class than the rest of the trip combined. On your next trip, I’d recommended breaking down the language gap and cultural barrier through cuisine.

If You Go

Aix-en-Provence, generally known as 'Aix,' is a small city in the south of France, about 20 miles north of Marseille. It is known for its abundant food markets, hundreds of fountains, and as the birthplace of painter Paul Cezanne. Cezanne's atelier on the outskirts of the old town is well worth a visit.

Aix can be reached by high-speed train (the TGV)in about 4 hours from Paris' Gare Lyon. The Aix station is located about 10 miles outside Aix proper. Taxis or buses are available at the station for the ride into town.

Alternatively, the Marseille airport (with connecting service from Paris and many other European hubs) is about a 1/2 hour drive from Aix.

L'Atelier Cuisine de Mathilde offers cooking classes in French and English.
58 rue des Cordeliers, 1st floor (2nd American floor)
Tel. +33 (0)6 72 83 98 28

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