PSU students eat, explore Provence

It is winter in Provence, and the early morning sun casts pastel hues across the landscape. Olive trees and ancient oaks dot the rocky hills. In the distance the Alps loom silent and white with snow.

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It is winter in Provence, and the early morning sun casts pastel hues across the landscape.

Olive trees and ancient oaks dot the rocky hills. In the distance the Alps loom silent and white with snow.

In early December, five Portland State students made their way to Provence, France, to open their five senses and learn about the connections between people and food.

They traveled on winding roads toward the rural village of Aups to begin a 12-day field class titled “Geography of Food in Provence.” This was the third year for the program, which is offered by PSU geography professor Barbara Brower.

The region offers valuable lessons about place, people and food, Brower said.

“We’ve got to learn to live more lightly and sustainably on the planet. The French are ahead of us in a lot of ways, and it’s worth seeing for ourselves just how that is,” she said.

The land in and around Aups has been occupied for thousands of years, and still retains the feeling of a natural landscape, punctuated by picturesque farmsteads and villages, Brower said.

“The connections between regional cuisine and landscape are apparent everywhere, so it’s an obvious place to try and understand that relationship.”

Aups is a quaint market village located in the rugged Haut-Var region of Provence, where agriculture must succumb to the constraints of thin, rocky soils and hot, dry summers.

Occasionally, in the dark hours of the morning, shepherds still lead their flocks through the village streets to the outlying pastures.

Home base for the students was Le Jardin du Couvent. Originally built in the 12th century as a Cistercian abbey, it was converted between 1629 and 1639 into an Ursuline convent. After World War II, the structure’s religious and educational functions ceased. An American family acquired ownership in 1972 and completed renovation in 1990. It serves as a vacation home that is rented when the family is not in residence.

The objective of the program is to learn how to understand a place through its food, by observation and inquiry. From close interactions with farmers, bakers and hunters to experiences in bustling markets and cooking lessons from local chefs, students were able to better understand what makes the place unique.

An important message came from seeing how the people of Provence have retained their food traditions: “[Using] quality local ingredients is the big, new trend here in Portland, even though it’s really just a return to the old way of doing things,” said Nathan Eby, a geography student who went on the trip.

“In France, it seems like they never really got away from the idea that people should know about their food and where it comes from,” he said. “They seem to be closer to their food than we are.”

Being from Portland, a city that values local food and sustainable systems, the students were able to broaden their understanding of what “local” and “sustainable” look like in a much older context.

Olives, grapes and truffles are staples of the food-producing landscape of Provence, and for the first time in the program’s history, students were able to explore all three of these aspects of its culinary culture.

Because this was the first class offered in the winter, students experienced the rare and extraordinary treat that are truffles.

Famous French gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called the esoteric mushroom “the diamond of the kitchen.” Costing roughly 1,000–2,000 euros per kilogram depending on the variety, these subterranean gems, which are cultivated close to trees, are only in season from November through February.

Aups is well known for hosting a large truffle market, where gastronomes come from far and wide to get their share of the season. The class experimented with a coin-sized truffle worth 20 euros in a classic Provencal dish, truffle and scrambled eggs, boasting a rich and pungent flavor.

Wintertime in Provence held other culinary treasures that summer vacationers might miss. Summer, with tomatoes, melons, sidewalk cafes and lavender in bloom, is the classic image of Provence.

“Season, of course, makes a huge difference,” Brower said.

“Instead, the group enjoyed more time and patience from the boucher (butcher), boulanger (baker) and the farmers themselves, and the chance to really learn about truffles.”

One highlight of the trip was experiencing cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil production in action at the local olive oil cooperative mill. It was the first day of production for the 2012 season, and large buckets of different varieties of olives had been brought in earlier that day from the farmers in the surrounding area.

The olives were fed into a giant bowl, where two enormous stone wheels powered by a conveyer belt crushed the olives into a thick paste.

“The system of olive oil production that we do is rustic and ancient. It’s the best way to extract the juices,” said Jean Phillip, an olive mill worker.

This ancient pressure process, Phillip explained, creates a sweeter, more transparent and less acidic olive oil, compared to that produced by the more modern centrifugal process.

At the end of the season, the farmers will get back their share of olive oil, which will then be used for personal consumption or sold in markets. Olive oil production is a vital element of Provencal heritage, and cooperative membership is high.

After a long week-and-a-half of exploring and discovering in Aups and the surrounding villages, the class walked away with a better understanding of the connection between the people, the food and the landscape.

Editor’s note: Vanguard reporter Erik Mutzke went to Provence with Brower’s class.