Souvenirs to Take Home from Provence
What should I take home from Provence?
Expect a sensory overload on your first (and every) visit to Provence. In mid-summer, purple-blue lavender rows contour the landscape. Market stalls brim with seasonal produce from blood-red cherries in the spring to the makings for ratatouille in late summer. Then there is the savoury aroma of chickens roasting outside the local butcher. And, only the strong-willed can resist a glass of chilled rosé.
However, none of the above are easy to pack.
Here is our recommended list of souvenirs to take home from Provence.
Souvenirs from Provence
It is impossible to visit a market in Provence without seeing sellers of tablecloths, napkins, and other items for home decor. As a word of warning, beware of quality and place of origin as you may not be buying made-in-Provence products. The original printed Provencal fabrics are called les Indiennes, and they have quite a history.
Currently, there are several manufacturers of made-in-Provence cotton prints for clothing and home decor. Among them, Souleiado, Les Indiennes de Nimes, and Les Olivades based Saint-Étienne du Grès. Since 1948, the Marat d’Avignon® produces fabrics with traditional motifs. The company specializes in materials for tableware and decoration – art de la table.
Buying tip: Local markets usually have vendors selling fabric wares. However, there is no guarantee of origin or quality. To be safe, buy from a boutique or reputable online seller.
In the words of French author Jean Giono (1895-1970), “Lavender is the soul of Provence.” Lavender grew wild in southern Europe long before the Romans used the herb in their thermal baths. Monastery gardens from the Middle Ages included these beautiful plants. The perfume industry in Grasse had established a consistent demand for lavender essential oil by the 19th century.
A traditional handicraft from the 18th century, lavender fuseaux (wands) were included in wedding dowries. Even today, the fuseaux remains a symbol of continued love and future happiness. For a larger fuseau, 100 stalks of fresh lavender (or lavandin) are bound together with a bright ribbon. The lavender flowers are tucked in the centre, and the fabric ribbon weaved through the stalks. It takes about an hour to make a single fuseau by hand. Unfortunately, there are not many artisans continuing the tradition.
Elsa Lenthal, the founder of Fuseaux de Lavande, continues the tradition of this handicraft she learned from her grandmother. Learn more about her work and other artisans from the Alpilles.
La Maison FRANC boutique in Lourmarin carries lavender wands or Coeur de Lavande and boules (balls) that make great Christmas ornaments.
The lavender wands are a gift that will last forever.
Savon de Marseille
The ingredient list to make soap is short; oil, sea salt and alkaline ash from sea plants. All of these are readily available near the Mediterranean coastline in Provence.
A soap making industry has existed in the Marseille area since the Middle Ages and continues. Although, today, there are only a handful of traditional savonneries (soap factories) remaining. The combination of ingredients heat in large cauldrons for two weeks. The mixture transfers to large open pans to harden for ten days. Blocks of soap are cut and stamped on six sides, including the weight in grams. Following a 1688 law, only factories following this ancient methodology have the right to brand their soap with a stamp indicating “Savon de Marseille.”
Beware of “imposters” in markets and boutiques. The real Savon de Marseille must contain 72% oil (olive, palm or a combination). This soap is 100% biodegradable and friendly for sensitive skin.
Le Musée de Savon de Marseille (MuSaMa) opened in 2018 near the Vieux Port in Marseille. This museum-boutique-workshop is dedicated to safeguarding the reputation of Savon de Marseille.
Souvenirs for Cooks
Fleur de sel
Fleur de sel is the “bloom” of salt that comes from Mediterranean seawater. Easy to pack; this is an idea for the food lovers on your list. In Provence, there is large-scale fleur de sel production in the Camargue. The salt flats or salins in the Camargue generate over two million tons of sea salt per year. From April through October, water from the Mediterranean enters into a series of channels and evaporation pans that run some 60km. Over the summer months, the water changes from a salt-water content of 26g to over 260g. As the water evaporates naturally, salt crystals “petals” float to the top for a short period and gathered by hand.
Buy fleur de sel in local grocery stores for the best pricing, or visit one of the salins near Aigues Mortes.
Herbes de Provence
Dried herb blends from Provence are another gift for food lovers. These herb combinations are perfect for savoury recipes, including stews, slow-cooked meat, ratatouille or grilled fish. Traditionally the wild herbs were gathered by hand and dried. Each family might have their particular blend, depending on individual taste and which herbs grew closest to home. In the 1970s, commercial mixes began to appear on store shelves. There is no precise control of the exact herbs or quantities. The most common ingredients in the mixtures are rosemary, thyme, oregano, fennel, sage, bay leaf, dill, basil and occasionally lavender (for the tourists).
Buying tip: Check the prices in the markets, as it may not always be “bon marché.” Look for Herbes de Provence in grocery stores for the best pricing.
Make this: Herbes de Provence Crusted Lamb Lollipops.
The Greeks originally planted the ubiquitous Provencal olive tree some 25 centuries ago. Today, there are over 2000 producers with over 300,000 trees, and that does not include all the trees on personal “plantations.” The olive harvest takes place in the late fall before a deep frost. The harvest is an opportunity for a festive gathering with friends as the picking process is quicker with a few extra hands. Transported to a reputable mill and weighed, the fruit is pressed at a low temperature releasing the heart-healthy olive oil.
Read: Gaining an Understanding of Provencal Olive Oil for more on the annual growing cycle.
Packing tip: Look lighter packing look for olive oil in metal packaging.
Quick escape: Provence Fall Weekend Gourmet Getaway in the Olives