When we think of Provence, the first local dish that comes to mind has to be tapenade. It’s often enjoyed on toast with pre-dinner drinks—something we French don’t mess about with, and which often turns into a whole dining experience, the aperitif dinatoire.
This versatile condiment has many purposes and can turn pasta, poultry, fish and vegetables into a glorious meal. Tapenade takes its name from tapeno, meaning “capers” in the dialect of Provence. Sadly, capers are left out of many recipes, but they are essential for a true tapenade.
Tapeno was originally a paste of capers, garlic and mixed herbs preserved in olive oil, a staple in Provencal kitchens for centuries. Its likely precursors date back to 200 BC but it was officially only in 1880 that Monsieur Meynier, head chef at a restaurant called La Maison Doree in Marseille, invented what we now know as tapenade by adding black olives and other spices to the tapeno. Hence tapenade is indeed a caper paste seasoned with olives, not the other way around.
The clever addition of figs is my family’s tradition, included to make the dish more palatable to children. This is the way I have always consumed it and I was shocked when I discovered it wasn’t an original ingredient of the recipe.
The saltiness of the anchovies is delectable yet unnoticeable—quite possibly one of the most popular dishes I teach in cooking classes, yet so simple.
My guess is that it comes as a surprise to most people when they take their first bite and all those flavours explode in their mouths. Salty, sweet, sour, earthy and aromatic. Close your eyes, you can feel the sun on your skin, hear the crickets in the background and smell the lavender: that’s Provence.