Le Castellet, France: A Wood-Fired Pizza Truck in Provence

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Click photo for a closer look. [Photographs: Natasha Pickowicz]

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pizza Ignace

Near Circuit Paul Ricard (map) and Hotel du Castellet (map) Phone: 06 68 64 02 45