While vacationing in Provence, the last thing I expected to discover was wood-fired pizza, extracted deep from the back of a van. Yet while roaming the village region of Le Castellet, I came across Pizza Ignace, a rickety truck parked less than a mile from a motorsport race track built by Paul Ricard, France's pastis magnate.
Curious about the unassuming truck—which broadcasted "Pizza au Feu de Bois," or wood-fired—and its promise of crisp, wood-fired pizza, I pulled into the gravelly lot. A scan of the menu revealed over 40 different pies, all at very reasonable prices (most pies cost between €8-10, or about $10-12 USD), all of which roast in the oven built right into the cab where the front passenger's seat would be. At first, I was drawn to the carniverous-friendly pies, like the "Super Royale" (€11), which is topped with cavatelli, chorizo, mushrooms, and ham, and the "Orientale" (€11), a Middle Eastern blend of merguez and kebab meat.
But the owner insisted that we choose from the lengthy "Les Blanches" category, which feature pies topped with a lashing of crème fraiche. (Only in France, right?) The "Tartiflette" pie (€11)—an homage to a traditional, creamy Savoyan gratin—claimed potatoes, Reblochon cheese, lardons, onions, and crème fraiche as its star ingredients. It's also Pizza Ignace's most popular pie, which was all the endorsement I needed to order it immediately.
I joined the steady stream of customers—mostly construction workers and truck drivers—who lounged in the cluster of plastic chairs arranged around the truck. A pair of rowdy young men, maybe on their way to a party, approached the counter, where they amiably haggled for 20 minutes over the price of the truck's house rosé. (They finally agreed to pay €6 for a refrigerated bottle, and €5 for a room-temperature bottle). It was a lively scene.
We snacked on a plastic tray of socca, a traditional, unleavened Niçoise pancake rarely seen outside of southern France. Made with just chickpea flour, olive oil, and water, the saffron-hued socca emerged from the oven blistery and fragrant with herbs de Provence and black pepper. Cut into bite-sized pieces and dusted with grated Parmesan, the steaming cakes were tender and moist, almost custardy.
Like the Niçoise-inspired apéro, all of the pizzas bear unique Provençal flourishes, too. The dough is made with 20% hazelnut flour, which infuses the pie with its nutty, faintly sweet taste and an unusually nubby texture. For my Tartiflette pie, the chef rolled out the dough into a tissue paper-thin disc. While the dough rested, Ignace prepared the toppings: Tiny, parboiled cubes of potato, lardons, chopped white onion, and his house-blend of Provençal herbs, tossed in a cast-iron skillet with a fat splash of olive oil, which all went in the oven to roast.
After he removed the skillet from the oven, its insides golden and glistening, Ignace dressed the pie with a stack of thin slices of Reblochon, a soft, creamy cows-milk cheese. Then he added the slightly cooled toppings, and handful of cured, black olives, a healthy glug of crème fraiche from a cardboard box, and carefully nudged it into the oven, where it cooked for about five minutes.
When he pulled the Tartiflette pie from the oven, freckled with black char and with a glossy center, it smelled powerfully of the perfumed Provençal garrigue, aromatic with thyme, marjoram, and garlic. The dough, firm like a cracker around the edges, was chewy and tender where it supported the decadent toppings, which came together in heady, savory bliss.
Wood-fired oven pizza trucks may be a hot trend in parts of the United States, but that didn't render me any less surprised when I encountered its French country cousin, deep in the hills of Provence. With its addictive balance of rich ingredients and lightweight crunch, the wood-fired pies at the locals-approved Pizza Ignace is worthy addition to any trip to the touristy Côte d'Azur.
About the Author: Natasha Pickowicz is a San Diego-born food writer currently based in Montreal. She is also the baker at Montreal restaurant Dépanneur Le Pick Up. She contributes to the Kinfolk Magazine, Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Mirror, and Acquired Taste Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @natashapickowiz.