Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
Courgette spaghetti with parmesan
REINE SAMMUT – AUBERGE LA FENIÃˆRE, LOURMARIN
For 6 people
Juice of 2 lemons
100g parmesan cheese
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sundried tomatoes (preserved in oil)
A few basil leaves
Wash the courgettes, then use a mandoline to grate them into spaghetti-like strands. (Alternatively, you may use a shredder with a serrated blade.)
Chop the basil leaves finely and combine with the olive oil. Add lemon juice, salt, pepper and mix through the courgettes. This acidic vinaigrette will â€˜cookâ€™ the courgette spaghetti.
Use a potato peeler to make parmesan shavings. Distribute the courgette spaghetti between the plates and drizzle with olive oil flavoured with basil. Top with the parmesan shavings and slivers of sundried tomato.
Taken from Mes Cours de Cuisine: Reine Sammut Ã La FeniÃ¨re de Lourmarin, published by Ã‰ditions du ChÃªne â€“ www.editionsduchene.fr.
Reine Sammut is chef-proprietor of Auberge La FeniÃ¨re.
Thursday, September 25th, 2014
ChÃ¢teau de lâ€™Ange
04 90 72 36 41
Ã‰dith MÃ©zard has been embroidering beautiful fabrics for almost 30 years. â€˜I started to do it because I love it,â€™ she says. â€˜Câ€™est une passion! But in fact I am also trying to save a dying tradition. There are so few hand-embroiderers left that we should be a protected species.â€™ She waves vaguely towards the upstairs studios where six ladies stitch relentlessly all year round.
Although plenty of customers drop in to buy already-embroidered linens (or some of the many smaller gift items that Madame MÃ©zard sells to attract passing trade), much of the work she undertakes is done to order. Fine cotton or linen sheets may be embroidered with initials or romantic phrases. â€˜A lot of people love beautiful bedlinens. Iâ€™m convinced that they encourage a sounder sleep, and they neednâ€™t necessarily be expensive.â€™ Personalised tablecloths and napkins are also popular – perhaps emblazoned with childrenâ€™s names or a house name.
Orders take about four weeks to complete and may end up in any corner of the globe. â€˜Sometimes we have to embroider Chinese or Arabic characters which can be complicated. We often wonder if we are doing them correctly.â€™ Probably is the answer. Everything here speaks of attention to detail – right down to the deliciously subtle scent of Madame MÃ©zardâ€™s Blanc linen spray.
Friday, September 19th, 2014
HÃ´tel de l’Europe
12 Place Crillon
04 90 14 76 76
PRICE RANGE – EXPENSIVE
Enfin, enfin, enfin! I have no idea why it took me so long to visit the HÃ´tel de lâ€™Europe, a grand Avignon instutition with a list of satisfied guests stretching from Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and John Stuart Mill through to Picasso, Salvador Dali and Jacqueline Kennedy. Fear of insufficient grandeur on my own part, perhaps – or an insufficiently stuffed wallet.
Foolish. Lunch here one sunny Thursday turned out to be one of the best treats of the summer. The hot bustle of the city is only metres away, yet, shaded by a massive plane tree, the restaurant in the courtyard of what was once an imposing 16th-century mansion is calm and cool. Hah, proper linen – none of your ersatz easy-care polycotton, thank heavens, with fine old cutlery and highly polished glasses too – yet thereâ€™s nothing starchy about the atmosphere.
Starting with a â‚¬38 weekday three-course lunch and working up, the menus read well, presenting ProvenÃ§al produce in a way that sounds neither too predictable nor too gimmicky. Then the food arrives and there are gasps all round. It looks exquisite and tastes even better, every element carefully thought out so that it enhances the whole.
Look at the foie gras with strawberry jelly in the photograph, for instance. (We strayed, I must confess, from the menu dâ€™affaires, tempting though it seemed.) The yellow dots are a tangy apricot purÃ©e whose acidity cuts the richness of the dish – served, by the way, with bitter cocoa bread for the same reason. Superb. Roast crayfish comes with a deep-fried basil leaf and courgette flower whose warm crunch contrasts with a beautifully concentrated tomato sorbet.
I ask chef Bruno AngÃ©lis whether his approach has changed during the 14 years that he has worked at Lâ€™Europe. â€˜I cook with more precision now,â€™ he reflects, â€˜and am probably less inclined to mess up superb local produce.â€™ He talks about his 12-course dinner tasting menu – always written at the last minute as it is determined by whatever foodstuffs catch his eye in the market. I believe I have a duty to try it.
Saturday, September 13th, 2014
Route deÂ CourthÃ©zon
04 90 83 70 51
APPOINTMENT NOT ESSENTIAL
From various tastings of ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape, CuvÃ©e du Vatican lodged in the back of my brain and eventually worked its way on to the to-visit list. Itâ€™s easy to find: within walking distance of the town, a cream-painted building clearly emblazoned with the Vatican name. Except that since the 2010 vintage, the main ChÃ¢teauneuf wines from this family producer go under the name ChÃ¢teau Sixtine. CuvÃ©e du Vatican is now used only for CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne, CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne Villages and an entry-level ChÃ¢teauneuf.
This is the latest change in an estate that has evolved significantly in the 25 years since Jean-Marc Diffonty joined forces with his father and grandfather. Today most of its 15 ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape hectares are in the appellationâ€™s three most revered terroirs: the sandy soil near Rayas, the stone-strewn plateau of La Crau and the plateau of Beaucastel.
â€˜Previously most of our vines had been mainly on galets. I was determined to add other terroirs – otherwise our wines would have been too jammy and alcoholic. My other contribution was to make sure that the various varieties were planted in appropriate places.â€™
Of the key varieties, Grenache represents only 40% of the typical red blend. Diffonty particularly values MourvÃ¨dre for its acidity and ageing potential; Syrah, trained on high trellises to ensure easy ripening, is important to him too. â€˜Weâ€™re almost organic,â€™ he says, pointing out his pheromone traps in the photo, â€˜but we prefer to avoid the bureaucracy that certification entails.â€™
ChÃ¢teau Sixtine is an impressive wine, certainly – rich, complex, vibrant and a major quality step up from the simpler Manus Dei du ChÃ teau Sixtine. Whether it quite merits a cellar-door price of â‚¬42 is less certain.
Sunday, September 7th, 2014
HOTEL / RESTAURANT
MURS – NEAR GORDES
Rue du Brave Crillon
04 90 72 60 31
PRICE RANGE – RESTAURANT UPPER END OF MODERATE; HOTEL MODERATE
Years ago, on what was billed as a gourmet cycling tour through the Loire Valley, I discovered that hotels with rudimentary (or frankly dismal) bedrooms might well be redeemed by spectacular food. Accommodation standards have climbed up steeply since then, thank heavens – but there are still occasional reminders that in France food easily comes first.
The brand-new proprietors of Le Crillon, Marc-Antoine Nivresse and his Argentine partner Giselle, have made a few immediate improvements to their eight bedrooms (decent beds, crisp linens) and envisage more – but the kitchen is and will remain the raison dâ€™ÃªtreÂ of this old village inn. â€˜Our chef Edward Cristaudo worked at the Michelin-starred Maison du Parc in Nancy and is determined to win a star here too,â€™ says Le Crillonâ€™s energetic young owner.
If not yet quite at Michelin star level, M Cristaudo is a rising star; and M Nivresse has the good sense to provide tableware elegant enough to show his food off to best advantage. A summer dinner enjoyed on a pretty terrace under an arch of jasmine across the street from the hotel showed both promise and panache. The line-up: cold pea and mint veloutÃ© with goatâ€™s cheese; seared, sesame-coated tuna with pak choi and shrimp froth; then the zestily refreshing dessert in the photo: pink grapefruit in campari jelly with Bulgarian yoghurt.
Exceptionally good bread and a small but carefully chosen wine list added to the experience. The only down-side? Vulgar, noisy, wealthy locals at the next table – but the fact they had eaten here five times in the space of a few months can only be seen as a positive sign.
STOP PRESS! AFTER ONLY A FEW MONTHS IN MURS, CHEF EDWARD CRISTAUDO IS APPARENTLY LEAVING LE CRILLON IN MID- SEPTEMBER AMIDST RUMOURS THAT THE HOTEL IS FOR SALE…
Monday, September 1st, 2014
Fig, goat’s cheese and poached pear salad
PROVENCE & BEYOND
This is one of my favourite late summer lunch dishes. With variations (slivers of air-dried ham, for instance, or pine nuts instead of walnuts), youâ€™ll come across it all over Provence and in Italy too – but in fact this recipe comes from the Belle Isle Cookery School in Northern Ireland, my home land. Itâ€™s important to make this salad only when you can get your hands on luscious, fresh figs.
2 ripe but firm pears
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon sugar
4 fresh figs, quartered
160g goatâ€™s cheese
40g walnut halves
100g rocket leaves
50g salad leaves
For the dressing
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
sea salt and black pepper
1 Peel and halve the pears and place them in a small saucepan with the bay leaf and sugar and just cover them with water. Put a lid on the saucepan and turn on the heat. Bring to the boil and poach the pears 2-3 minutes or until just softened. Remove the pears from the liquid with a slotted spoon and allow to cool.
2 Whisk together the salad dressing ingredients.
3 Turn the grill to medium and place the figs, goatâ€™s cheese and walnut halves on a lightly greased baking tray. Grill for approximately 5 minutes until the cheese starts to soften.
4 Wash and dry the salad leaves and place them on a large serving platter with the rocket. Slice each pear half into 3-4 slices and place these on top of the leaves. Break up the goatâ€™s cheese and place it on the salad along with the quartered figs and walnut halves. Re-whisk the dressing, drizzle it over the salad and serve immediately.
Tuesday, August 26th, 2014
La Bastide de BrurangÃ¨re
167 Chemin des Rols
06 75 24 59 29
PRICE RANGE – EXPENSIVE
When she decided in 2010 to migrate south from Courchevel and create an upscale B&B, Catherine Gastaldi had two obvious advantages: a background in hotels and luxury ski chalets, and a Savoyard partner in the carpentry business. With vast expanses of rustic timber, the 19th-century bastide near Carpentras which they completely overhauled has more than a touch of the Alps in its aesthetics.
Otherwise, from a dÃ©cor point of view, itâ€™s the standard modern mix of putty-coloured paint, the odd splash of colour and the occasional bling chandelier. What counts most is space. There are two large bedrooms and three positively enormous suites, all with sleek, generously proportioned bathrooms. Add to these one big salon for quiet lazing, another with a billiards table, a sauna and hammam plus two outdoor pools (heated and unheated) and youâ€™ll see this is the kind of place where guests need never get in each otherâ€™s way.
There is no lazy morning buffet: freshly squeezed juice, freshly made coffee, fruits, yoghurt, breads and viennoiserie, cheese, eggs, or ham if wished are served individually, as all decent breakfasts should be. In summer the setting for this feast is a magnificent courtyard with a fountain – rather like a private village square.
Thursday, August 21st, 2014
FranÃ§oise Rebord Ceramics
1 Rue Roquecourbe
04 66 68 28 32 / 06 78 64 87 16
A potter for 14 years, FranÃ§oise Rebord has travelled the world in order to refine her technique and ignite her inspiration, Canada, Greece and Japan turning out to be particularly fruitful. Even so, her work is imbued with the bold colours of Provence. Stroll by her workshop window just off Beaucaireâ€™s main square and my bet is that youâ€™ll be struck first by her daring palette, then by her pleasing forms.
Bowls or giant platters like those in the photo would give the simplest meal a festive air – not to mention arty individuality since every piece is unique. â€˜Inspiration can come from anywhere,â€™ she says. â€˜Nature, travels, museumsâ€¦â€™ Her work expresses sure-footed exuberance with a certain delicacy – not an easy combo to pull off.
Besides focusing on her own ceramics, FranÃ§oise loves running classes for children and visitors. Check out her website for details, then head for Beaucaire – a town with plenty of other worthwhile addresses, as this site demonstrates.
Saturday, August 16th, 2014
RESTAURANT WITH ROOMS
La Bastide des Magnans
Route de la Garde-Freinet
04 94 99 43 91
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
In my notes about a visit to Bastide des Magnans the word FASTIDIOUS is scribbled in large letters. Attention to detail runs right through the restaurant which Christian Boeuf has run since 1999 in a former silk worm farm dating from the early 19th century, with five bedrooms converted for guest use a few years ago.
The place is immaculate; the food sourced from tiny local producers, carefully cooked and prettily presented. On top of that you have the feeling of being well looked after: on the day I dropped by, three waiters kept a well-trained eye on a small dining room – and no doubt these days the ratio out on the terrace is the same. M Boeuf worked for 13 years in the restaurant he opened in the Vins de Provence HQ in Les-Arcs-sur-Agens before setting up here. His background as a serious restaurateur rather than a fleece-the-tourists chancer shows.
The pavÃ© dâ€™ombrine you see in the photo – a fish like sea bass, served with a dill sauce, tiny vegetables and purple mash – was the highlight of a thoroughly enjoyable lunch, with sweetbreads in feather-light flaky pastry with asparagus to start with (it was spring – Iâ€™m catching up), and bourbon vanilla crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e to knock the stuffing out of the afternoon.
The wine list is predictably strong on Provence wines (extra marks for the selection ofÂ 50cl and 37.5cl bottles) with an exceptional champagne section; the southern RhÃ´ne, not so very far away, lags a fair bit behind. Still, this is an address worth hanging on to, as its strong local following suggests.
Monday, August 11th, 2014
ICE CREAM SALON / CAFÃ‰
L’Ã‰cume des Glaces
8 Place Sadi Carnot
13600 La Ciotat
06 28 25 50 11
If the sun is enough to trigger an appetite for ice cream, the sea air intensifies it into an insatiable lust. Pas de problÃ¨me in La Ciotat where, just one block back from the port, you can lap up (or lick up) exceptionally delicious home-made sorbets and ices in about 50 flavours.
StÃ©phane BesanÃ§on cooked on board boats all around the Med and far beyond before setting up shop in the centre of La Ciotat in 2005. â€˜ At first it was very simple. Only milkshakes, ice creams and cakes – not even coffee,â€™ he recalls. â€˜Then we added juices, lunch snacks and drinks. Our salads and savoury tarts are really popular.â€™
Maybe so (you eat out on the square, weather permitting) – but for me the ice creams are the main draw. StÃ©phane and his partner Catherine Tolvaly use a special machine to introduce air into the mixture as it churns, resulting not only in a light, silky texture but less reliance on sugar.
Apart from staid old vanilla, the bestsellers are chocolate sorbet with piment dâ€™espelette, mint sorbet, pistachio ice cream and lemon and ginger ice cream. But you might be equally tempted by some of the latest creations showcasing ingredients like tonka beans and szechuan pepper. Heavens, there is even a Guinness sorbet. An as Irishwoman, I approve.
Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
In praise of chambres d’hÃ´tes
ALL OVER PROVENCE
Since this blog took life over four years ago, the most positive trend Iâ€™ve noticed is an increase in the number of terrific chambres dâ€™hÃ´tes dotted across Provence. They come in all shapes and sizes; some modern, some traditional; some mainstream and some close to wacky. Their prices range from the upper end of inexpensive (this is the south of France, remember) to five-star-hotel level – with the majority, including an address bookâ€™s worth of gems, falling somewhere in between.
What the best have in common, apart from an attractive location, are these three things:
1 An owner who genuinely enjoys have people to stay in his or her home. Otherwise rattiness creeps through, especially towards the end of a busy season. B&B hosts should be prepared to help guests plan itineraries, choose and book restaurants and repeat the history of their house a thousand times if need be – without being intrusive or over-effusive. A delicate balancing act.
2 Solid comfort with no skimping on top-quality beds, good bathrooms (with hot water, please, at all hours), and the provision of small but welcome extras (hairdryer, bottled water, guestsâ€™ mini-kitchenâ€¦) As for wifi, it should be more widely realised that this is not a luxury but an essential.
3 A decent breakfast, with freshly brewed coffee or tea instead of stuff that has been stewing for hours; good juice – freshly squeezed if possible or from a local organic producer if not; yoghurt and some fruit; fresh breads and croissants from the best bakery within reach, plus a selection of home-made jams.
Click on the HOTELS/B&Bs tab at the top of the homepage and youâ€™ll find heaps of chambres dâ€™hÃ´tes where a stay is likely to be memorable for all the best reasons. Here are a dozen that I particularly like:
La Carolâ€™Isle (for space and calm) and Le Clos Violette (for character), both in the centre of town; Poppy Salingerâ€™s La Bastide Rose not far away for elegance and gardens filled with modern sculpture.