Some thoughts on the vegetarian experiment in Provence
For the last two weeks I was in the Provence, I tried a short term experiment of cooking vegetarian dishes only. Here are some thoughts on that experiment.
As I've stated here before, I'm not a vegetarian though proportionately I don't eat much meat. Therefore, I thought that the experiment should go quite easily. It was easy in some respects, due to the easy availability of an abundance of fresh produce.
However, I realized after a couple of days that I handicapped myself a bit by trying the experiment away from my usual arsenal of Asian ingredients - the only one I had was a small bottle of soy sauce. The reason for this is pretty simple: umami. In Japanese cooking in particular and Asian cooking in general, umami is often added in the form of things like miso, soy sauce, seaweed and so on. In French cooking in general, including Provençal cooking, umami is added in the form of some kind of meat, fish or cheese. A lot of vegetable dish recipes call for some chopped up lardons (sort of like bacon), or some anchois (anchovies), an animal-based stock, and so on. I did allow myself cheese, but I didn't want to add cheese to every dish either. (We ate more cheese on its own, rather than adding it to dishes.)
There are some vegetable based ingredients with umami though: tomatoes in particular. Early tomatoes were everywhere, and I used them almost every day, cooked or raw. Most vegetables have some umami, and I used loads and loads of fresh zucchini (courgettes) and peppers. Onions, shallots and garlic are a good source of glutamates. Beans and legumes, it seems, have their own umami too. I was quite happy with the results most of the time.
I did miss the direct hit of umami that you can get from meat and fish though, and especially from my familiar collection of Japanese umami ingredients. Miso in particular would have been really good to have on hand.
Some umami links:
- Umami Information Center - a very nice, well-organized site
- Society For Research On Umami and Taste
- Umami series on Tigers and Strawberries - some great articles here.
But was it a good idea?
A commenter said this recently:
Why should anybody going to southern France deliberatly give up on fish and meat? This is stupid. Sorry.
It's a good point actually. When you are a food lover on vacation, you probably want to experience all aspects of local food offerings. I was cutting myself off from a portion of the offerings.
If it was my one and only opportunity to go there I probably wouldn't have tried out the experiment. But it wasn't. Provence is just a day's drive away from where I live - about 6 hours total, not counting rest stops. So we go there whenever we can, time and budget allowing, without thinking about it too much. If I were going to somewhere much further away, I wouldn't restrict myself in this way.
In addition, I don't really think that meat per se is a huge feature of Provençal food. On the coast seafood is everywhere - and we did eat seafood at restaurants a couple of times. You will miss out on eating the dried sausages and things that you'll see at every market, and some Provençal classics like daube (meat marinated in wine and cooked with vegetables). But overall it's not a huge loss. Maybe my palate is not refined enough, but I don't see the big deal with things like toureau (bull) meat from the Camargue, for instance, and frankly the fresh sausages and things we get here in Zürich are better overall - or at least, more to my taste - than the ones there. In other regions of France like Burgundy (great beef dishes) or Languedoc-Roussillon (mmm, cassoulet), you will be missing out on a bit more.
But the point is, vegetarians can have a great time food wise in Provence, without feeling left out in any way. There are so many delicious fruits and vegetables around, plus lots of interesting cheeses. I would recommend the self-catering approach to take full advantage of them. See A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence for how I go about this.