Festivals abound in Provence in the summer months. I've been to many, community celebrations in honor of lavender, cheese, pumpkins, hunting dogs, truffle dogs, melons, lemons, gardens…plus many focusing on music and meals.
On Bastille Day, July 14, I head to a neighboring village, Vacheres, for their celebration which commemorates the storming of the Bastille fortress-prison on July 14, 1789, and the beginning of the French Revolution.
The Vacheres fete is mainly about food, an obsession with the French. A school yard is transformed into a huge picnic grounds with long tables under an open-sided tent. There's music, camaraderie, and lots of kissing as everyone seems to know most everyone and air kisses on each side of the cheek are the de rigueur greeting. But the reason for the gathering is to eat. This year it was an aioli festival.
Aioli, garlic mayonnaise, is a favorite in Provence, but also refers to a Provencal dish: boiled vegetables (green beans, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower), hard-boiled eggs and boiled fish (usually desalted salt cod) — all accompanied with the garlic-mayo. It's not my favorite, but at Vacheres it was preceded by an aperitif, a type of cherry punch served with lots of tasty snacks, then followed by cheese and melon, plus all the wine (red or rose) you cared to drink. You could have seconds, even thirds, of the aioli. Not bad for 15 euros ($21).
Marie Terese and her companion on the keyboard provided the entertainment. She does a passable imitation of Piaf and sings other old French favorites. The crowd loved it — lots of clapping and cheering. After her performance, locals took to the stage, an Italian singing opera, a young girl, a group of teens. It was all quite jolly.
Past Bastille Day meals in Vacheres have included paella and a Sardinade (grilled sardines) — my favorite. Another Provencal dish, soupe au pistou, was the focus of a festival in the village of Viens several years ago. Pistou is the Provence version of pesto, but made without pine nuts. The hearty green soup is rich in vegetables — heavy on green beans — and all flavored with pistou.
At that festival you were expected to bring your own dishes and silverware. I showed up without, but was quickly supplied. It seemed strange to be feasting on soup on a hot summer's night, but it was delicious, although after waiting for more than two hours, maybe anything would have been delicious. The fete was supposed to begin at 8 p.m. Hundreds of people, a melange of children, newborn babies, their parents, senior citizens and teens, sat at long, long tables in a park. At 10 p.m. they started banging on the tables. Where's the food? At 10:15 huge cauldrons of the soup, each carried by two men, arrived. I had three bowls, my husband had four, plus lots of wine, a cheese course and ice cream with apple cake. Worth the wait.
The Frenchman next to me explained that each bowl of soup would taste differently depending on who made it (all had been prepared by locals) and how long it cooked. In addition to eating, the French love to talk about food. "It's one of their favorite topics," a French chef once told me.
A meal based on truffles was the star attraction of a festival in honor of truffle dogs. This was a winter festival in a tiny village where there were stands selling truffles, sausages, cheese etc., and truffle dogs who were led to a field where the prized fungi had been buried. They went crazy digging the dirt which covered the truffles. The pricey meal (35 euros/$49), each course enhanced by truffles, was a disappointment. I couldn't detect any special, fantastic tastes.
The only food to be had at the Festival of St. Jean in nearby Mane was grilled sausage. The festival, however, was a winner. The feast of St. Jean the Baptist on June 24 is traditionally celebrated with huge fires. The Mane fete was a pyromaniac's dream.
It began with music, more precisely, the pounding and banging of large drums by a "band" of mainly teenage girls. Their dynamic male leader directed them in different rhythms. The crowd — all ages, all sizes– followed the band up a path of cobblestones, then dirt, to the castle atop a hill. Darkness was aproaching. Lights below began to twinkle. The views of the surrounding Luberon hills were spectacular.
The pounding never stopped. It was hypnotic. Then the torch-distributors arrived. Everyone was given a torch — a type of candle on a long stick. Even small children got torches. The fires were passed from torch to torch so that everyone's torch was burning for the parade back down to the village. The crowd was dense. There were precarious, stony steps to navigate. The path was narrow. Some torches blazed out of control. It was exciting, but scary. No way U.S. fire regulations would have permitted this flaming scenario.
Back at the market place, a gigantic tower of wooden crates had been erected. More drum pounding. Some started dancing. Then the signal was given and the torches were thrown onto the crates. Soon it was a roaring blaze with flames dancing high into the night sky. The crowd moved back to escape the heat. Not a fire truck in sight, but a man stood by holding a hose.
The drums took a rest and a rock band took over. Everyone — well almost everyone — started dancing. First there was a chain dance, with revelers linking hands and dancing around the flames. Then random dancing. Parents with children, children with children, young lovers, teenage girls, old folks. This was a party. And, there was nary an accident.
The Oriental fete in Reillanne, my town, several years ago featured a belly dancer and a mid-Eastern meal of tagine. A regular dance followed the meal, although there were some Oriental sounds which prompted many of the female festival goers to try belly dancing. Very amusing.
I sat with Kenneth and Marjorie, a British couple who were vacationing at the nudist camp outside of town and entertained me with stories of life without clothes. "You never have to worry about what to wear," Marjorie said.
Last year I went to Avignon for the theatre festival which takes place in the town every July, an entire month of theatrical and musical performances at venues throughout the city. I did not attend an actual theatrical event, but enjoyed the pre-festivities in the streets. Costumed thespians, musicians and dancers wander through the narrow streets of the old city, passing out flyers with the hopes of enticing members of the crowd to attend their particular performance. Some actually stop in squares and stage mini-performances. They interact with the crowd. It's wonderful entertainment. I'll go back again soon.
Just a few weeks ago I ventured to Cruis for its annual music festival. A different band plays at each of the small city's squares. There are also strolling bands and a church concert. It's crowded, lively and fun and goes on until the wee hours. But, unfortunately there was little food.
There's no reason to be bored in Provence in summer. For more photos of fetes, click on the photo in the center column.