Seven years ago, my husband, Nicolas and I, made our home in the French Riviera city of Toulon—located about 45 minutes by car from Marseille and one hour east of the beautiful university town of Aix-en-Provence. Unlike its more glamorous neighbors along the coast (Saint Tropez, Cannes, Bandol, and Cassis)—tourism is one of Toulon’s secondary industries—so the city stays “open for business” all year long. And you’re never more than a 10-minute drive to the Mediterranean from any point within the city.
Given the slower pace of life in France, and the preference given to leisure time over work, my life in Provence feels much less stressful than when I lived in the U.S. I’ve adopted the habits that make living here so pleasurable…including shopping for food on a daily basis. Being able to shop and cook high-quality meals, at a cut-rate price, is one of the greatest pleasures of living here.
If the weather’s nice, which it is most of the year, I’ll often walk in to the center of town. My walk takes me along the beach to the port-side cafés and restaurants of downtown Toulon and up through the daily Provençal market on Cours Lafayette. The market is incredibly cheap. The other day I picked up everything I needed to make a traditional ratatouille—three eggplants…five tomatoes…three bell peppers…and two zucchinis—for $3.20. I also got a great deal on honeydew melons: three melons for $3.50, as fresh and sweet as could be.
On the same street, Cours Lafayette, you’ll find at least four or five bakeries (a baguette is less than $1.50), a cheese shop or fromagerie (prices vary, but you can pick up a round of fresh goat cheese for about $3), and several butcher shops (ground beef is about $4.70, with prices for more “noble” meats going up from there).
On the weekends, we might enjoy a meal out on the port or near the Mourillon beaches of Toulon (from which we are 10 minutes away on foot). Restaurants vary greatly in price…but if you talk to the locals you can usually find the best deals. We like to go to a restaurant called Emeline Dans Sa Petite Cuisine (Emeline in Her Small Kitchen), where, as the name indicates, you can watch the chef prepare your meal in an intimate and friendly setting. A lunch special costs $17.20, for which you get a main course of your choice. This can be filet mignon stuffed with chorizo or a tuna steak topped with a pineapple and ginger “tartare” to name a few. In addition, your dessert will be a “café gourmand:” a gourmet coffee with a selection of mini-desserts, normally molten chocolate cake, crème brûlée, and a small éclair or scoop of ice cream.
We also enjoy taking day trips and attending local festivals. This past weekend we attended the annual fig festival in the fig “capital” of France: the village of Solliès-Pont. I love these food festivals because the ambiance is very open and friendly. Plus, the locals really know how to throw a party. There’s a morning parade where a “Mardi-Gras” style band performs, guided walks through the fig “farms,” a welcome aperitif (champagne with fig liqueur), and a four-course meal in the evening at the foot of the village’s medieval chateau. For $35 you have your choice of rosé or red wine…a starter of melon and Parma ham…grilled-beef kabobs…and “tri-color” ratatouille for your main dish…a cheese course of brie, and an apple tart dessert with coffee. A truly special way to spend your evening in the South of France.
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