Monday, July 21st, 2014
HOTEL / RESTAURANT
Les Gorges de Pennafort
04 94 76 66 51
PRICE RANGE – EXPENSIVE
â€˜Câ€™est gargantuesque!â€™, a local man exclaimed when I told him I was booked into Les Gorges de Pennafort for dinner and an overnight stay. Never was an adjective more apt. So lavish is the culinary approach of Philippe Da Silva, the Michelin-starred chef who has made this address half an hour from the coast a magnet even for people normally glued to the Croisette, that by the petits fours stage the few steps from table to bed could barely be accomplished.
Lavish but well-judged is how Iâ€™d sum it up – generous rather than ostentatious, with just enough innovative tweaking of familiar flavour combinations to make â€˜neoclassicalâ€™, M Da Silvaâ€™s definition of his style, spot-on. As sometimes happens in grand restaurants bursting with lobster and foie gras and truffles, I enjoyed some of the less flamboyantly luxurious dishes most. As an amuse-bouche, for example, cream of peas with nut froth and a drizzle of perfect olive oil was unsurpassable. Less is more, and more is too much, I found myself thinking again when dessert turned up: five desserts, served to everybody in the room.
But this is ungracious carping because dinner at Les Gorges de Pennafort was a superb treat – even for a lone diner. (People-watching and placemats inscribed with hundreds of terms for gastronomic excess helped to pass the time.) Super-attentive, friendly staff helped to create a relaxed atmosphere in a formal, marble-floored, orchid-laden room which might otherwise have felt stiff.
Wine prices here hit wallets hard (cripes, â‚¬65 for a very basic CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne!), but at least the selection is impressive with plenty of high-profile Bordeaux and an extraordinary list of vintage champagnes.
I can strongly recommend staying the night – or maybe a few days. Bedrooms are modern, spacious and well equipped; bathrooms vast and ritzy; breakfast – ah, that breakfast. On the tray: two freshly pressed juices, two fruit salads, yoghurt, a basket of brilliant viennoiserie, EchirÃ© butter, great coffee. A queen couldnâ€™t ask for more. The price: â‚¬20. Iâ€™ve paid â‚¬17 more than once for mediocrity.
Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
CÃ”TES DU RHÃ”NE
1 Place de la Fontaine
06 89 38 08 29
Only a trickle of wine writers put down their critical pens to immerse themselves in the messy business of making their own wine. It takes guts. Amy Lillard has them, together with crackling energy and sunny American positivity. So La GramiÃ¨re, the small estate which she and husband Matt Kling set up in 2004, goes from strength to strength.
A couple of lucky breaks helped, Amy would claim. After university in Colorado and a summer guiding luxury bike tours around the south of France, she landed up in Gevrey-Chambertin in 1992, staying on to work through three harvest seasons. â€˜Locals thought I was hanging around looking for a husband,â€™ she exclaims. Instead she happened upon influential French wine critic Michel Bettane who was working on the Burgundy section of the Bettane & Desseauve guide, then brand new. â€˜He offered to teach me how to taste, then took me along to assess hundreds of CÃ´te dâ€™Or wines. It was amazing – I was 22 years old!â€™ The collaboration with Bettane was to continue for two decades.
Winters were spent back in Colorado working in a shop to learn more about the business side of wine. Then, after a spell with a Californian winery, came the chance to work for Kermit Lynch, a major US importer of French wines. â€˜Kermit was a huge influence,â€™ Amy recalls. â€˜I got to taste absolutely everything.â€™ She also got to meet future husband Matt, a computer wizardÂ who was a customer in Kermit Lynchâ€™s Berkley store.
Nextâ€¦ marriage, a spell in Paris and finally, in 2002, a move south to the UzÃ¨s area where the couple bought a huge village house. â€˜We thought if ever we got around to making wine, weâ€™d could do it in our garage.â€™ Which is precisely what happened until this summer: they have just relocated to Vers-Pont-du-Gard to be closer to their 6.5 hectares of vines in nearby Castillon.
Enough history. What about the wines? While the range includes easy quaffers like the rosÃ© in the photo, the two top reds are infinitely more serious. La GramiÃ¨re (green label), an 80:20 Grenache-Syrah blend, is a finely judged wine that Iâ€™ve enjoyed through several vintages; notes of leather, thyme, black pepper and and black olives deliver a deliciously savoury edge. The 100% Grenache (grey label), a more recent creation made to showcase the fruit of old vines in the best years, is better still – ripe, concentrated and lingering with fine tannins and plenty of acidity. Both are made using only wild yeasts and without the influence of oak.
Friday, July 11th, 2014
Les Pierres Sauvages
83890 Besse sur Issole – near Brignoles
04 94 80 18 73 / 07 60 39 72 57
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
The Hans Wenger wishbone chairs, soft terracotta walls and polished concrete floors all point in the same direction: pared-back style. Gabrielle Choisy and her architect partner Gil have created a super home that will fascinate anybody interested in design; it takes its name Les Pierres Sauvages from the title of a book by French architect Fernand Pouillon about the exquisite Abbaye de Thoronet not too far away.
This pleasantly relaxed house with its jars of wild flowers and baskets of hedgerow fruits suffers from neither the cold minimalism nor the studied formality that so easily rob modern interiors of life. Â Thatâ€™s probably because Gabrielle and Gil are convivial, easygoing people who love having guests to stay.
It helps that Gabrielle is a talented cook, serving terrific table dâ€™hÃ´te dinners fairly regularly at her long oak table as well as stupendous daily breakfasts; mine included seven home-made jams and six local honeys as well as her own granola and a freshly baked cake.
With a keen interest in wine, she also offers guests half-day outings to interesting local wine producers in her funky 2CV.
Sunday, July 6th, 2014
Avenue des Goums
04 42 18 79 79
Scrutinise the most striking terracotta pots in Provenceâ€™s handsomest gardens and you may well find they come from Ravel. Now run by the fifth generation, Julie Ravel (above) and her sister Marion, this firm dating from 1837 makes garden containers so perfectly proportioned that just dropping in to admire them is a pleasure. If you have a garden begging to be beautified, so much the better – and it doesnâ€™t have to be anywhere near. â€˜Weâ€™ve even sent pots to Australia without any problems,â€™ Julie reports. â€˜Breakages are rare.â€™
For the traditional pots a mix of three clays is used, the most important coming from a village 15km away. The techniques for washing and purifying them to a plasticene-like texture ready for the companyâ€™s 16 potters to spin into shape has changed little over the years; in fact, one long-serving potterâ€™s wheel is made from the steering wheel of a jeep left over from the Second World War.
â€˜The major changes have been in design,â€™ Julie stresses. â€˜Our father had studied fine arts, so when he took over in the 1980s he began to introduce some new styles and gradually our pots came to be seen as decorative objects rather than purely functional containers.â€™
The current bestseller is the CamÃ©lia pot, with a thick band top and bottom, and the round-bottomed amphorae-like jarres which I love are racing back into fashion. With retail prices ranging from â‚¬8 to â‚¬1,800, itâ€™s difficult to leave empty-handed.
Ravel also makes ProvenÃ§al tableware (in both traditional and way-out colours). The latest addition to this sizeable complex is a fabric and table linen shop named after the sistersâ€™ fabric-manufacturing grandfather, PhilogÃ¨ne. Everything in it is made by a 100-year-old company in the north of France which matches Ravelâ€™s profile as comfortably as its pottery.
Tuesday, July 1st, 2014
Apricot and lavender jam
The beautifully unctuous apricot jam which you’ll come across in just about every worthwhile B&B in Provence is made around this time of year, when whole crates of apricots cost only a few euro in the markets. â€˜Lavender adds a subtle flavour to the finished jam and also discourages mould,â€™ says Karen Burns-Booth, whose recipe this is. Have a look at her enthusiastic, half-francophile blog lavenderandlovage.com.
Makes 1.8-2kg jam
1200g fresh apricots, stoned and cut in half
1kg white sugar
juice of 1 large lemon
sprigs of lavender (flower heads, free of insecticide)
1 Layer the apricots and sugar in a large preserving pan, add the lemon juice and leave overnight.
2 When you are ready to make the jam, put enough sterilised jam jars to hold the total quantity to warm in a very low oven, and place a few saucers in the freezer. (You will need these to check the set.)
3 Place the pan over a low to medium heat and allow the sugar to dissolve slowly. As soon as the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat up, bring the jam to a rolling boil and allow to boil for 10-20 minutes, stirring it every now and again, until a set has been achieved (see 4 below).
4 After 15 minutes, to check for a set, take one of the cold saucers out of the freezer, place a teaspoon of jam on it, allow to cool for a few seconds, then push it with your finger. If a wrinkly skin has formed on the jam, then it has set. If not, boil for another 5 minutes and do another test.
5 When the set stage has been reached, remove the jam from the heat and allow it to settle for 15 minutes before pouring it into warm, sterilised jars. Place a sprig of fresh lavender on top of the jam in each jar and seal while still warm. Label the jars when cold.
Thursday, June 26th, 2014
B&B / SAFFRON PRODUCER
Safran du Soleil
Lieu dit Les Agros
4170 Route de Seillans
06 78 36 95 39
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
On the south-facing site of an old farm outside the stacked-up town of Bargemon, Patrick ThÃ©venot has created a small patch of paradise. This traditional caravan, commissioned from a Romanian carpenter with romantic escapes in mind, tells only part of the story. Whether you stay in it or in a more conventional room in the former bergerie, the experience will be special because your friendly host is a chef turned saffron grower.
â€˜I wanted to produce a luxury product which I could use in both a sweet and a savoury context,â€™ he explains. â€˜Saffron was the answer. I had my first harvest in 2011.â€™ Guests benefit both from a nifty little shop stocking a range of saffron-related products and – more especially – from the possibility of a three-course table dâ€™hÃ´te dinner featuring saffron in subtle and intriguing ways. Breakfast in Patrickâ€™s bright, modern home is enticing too, including freshly squeezed orange juice and a different highlight like crÃªpes or madeleines each day.
Safran du Soleil is often booked for family events – and no wonder because, with its peaceful atmosphere and pretty pool above the saffron terraces, itâ€™s the kind of place that any small group would enjoy. Your host will even go to the trouble of arranging decorations in the appropriate colour – white for a wedding, red for a ruby anniversary or whatever. â€˜I really want people to have happy memories of their time here – especially if the date is a significant one.â€™ There you have it: a man who goes the extra mile in a heavenly spot.
Saturday, June 21st, 2014
RESTAURANT WITH ROOMS
La Table de Fanette
FOX-AMPHOUX – NEAR BRIGNOLES
Le Mas dâ€™AimÃ©
04 94 80 72 03
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
At some point during lunch here a few months ago, Pascal AimÃ©, who manages front of house, described his wife Fanetteâ€™s cuisine as home cooking. Is he crazy? From the subtly balanced flavours on her carefully arranged plates, itâ€™s as plain to see as the ProvenÃ§al sun that Fanette AimÃ© is not your average cook but a fired-up chef with enviable flair.
How brilliant that, over the past ten years, this couple has been able to run such an attractive, successful restaurant at their home, an old olive farm in the wilds of the Var. Working only with fresh produce in season they serve a set menu, the details of which remain a surprise until each dish arrives.
Hereâ€™s what I fell upon greedily. Amuse-bouche: truffled barigoule dâ€™artichauts served in a tiny fluted dish. First course: caviar dâ€™aubergine rolled in a sliver of courgette with basil chantilly, and beside it on a parmesan tuile, a tasty mÃ©lange of leek, red pepper and morsels of chorizo. Main course: chicken fillet with butternut squash ravioli, baby carrots and a truffled cream sauce. Dessert (as per photo): mandarin mousse, mandarin cake and apple compÃ´te with mimosa syrup (it was early spring, as you can guess). It honestly couldnâ€™t be faulted – especially for â‚¬27, with keenly priced local wines.
Bearing in mind the magnificent summer terrace, pool and two bedrooms, you might even have the good sense to stayâ€¦ and fit in several meals.
Monday, June 16th, 2014
Domaine Les Louanes
04 75 37 75 09
Iâ€™d driven more than half-way home from a visit to JÃ©rÃ´me Poudevigne near Balazuc before it struck me. Why on earth didnâ€™t I buy a few bottles of Lâ€™Encre de Sy, the 100% Syrah wine about which Iâ€™d heard good enough reports to want to go and see him in the first place – and which was definitely my favourite on the day?
With notes of ripe berries, chocolate, leather and a flourish of black pepper, this dark beauty was densely flavoured yet elegantly put together, its rich flavours draped silkily around a juicy core. The price? Under â‚¬9. Damn! Frustration so intense is a good sign, though, of this young producerâ€™s capabilities.
Still working with his father and grandfather (who had previously supplied the local co-op), JÃ©rÃ´me has applied high standards to his fledgling estate since taking over a dozen years ago after studying oenology in Montpellier and Bordeaux. Reducing the vineyard area by almost two-thirds (to just 4.5 hectares), he has adopted an organic approach; introduced a gravity-flow system to the old cellar; and begun to buy a few second-use Seguin Moreau barrels every year so all of his reds can mature in oak for at least 12 months.
As well as the impressive Encre de Sy, check out an 80:20 Merlot-Syrah blend Symbiose, and – if you like weighty whites – a barrel-fermented Viognier, La Part des Anges.
Wednesday, June 11th, 2014
340 Chemin de la Royante
04 96 18 99 76
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
Hereâ€™s a first from my latest adventures near Marseille: a peaceful night in a room called Sacristie opening into a private gothic chapel. Morning prayer isnâ€™t always so easily accommodated in the dash from bath to breakfast.
But thatâ€™s only one of the intriguing aspects of La Royante, an 18th-century bastide on the edge of Aubagne with vast gardens and charming, interesting owners. Sophie and AndrÃ© Levisse, both originally from northern France, lived a high-octane life in Singapore for 10 years until college-age kids and a yearning for the warmth of the midi prompted a change of continent and pace. They certainly know how to make guests feel welcome.
Prettily laid out on fine linen and china in the decidedly grand dining room, Sophieâ€™s breakfast is a magnificent spread encompassing, as well as all the usual elements, local cheeses, estate olive oil, fresh fruit saladâ€¦ even a fruit crumble on the morning of my stay. Enough to power guests around Marseille and up to Aix, or down to Cassis and out into the Calanques. Besides being a soothing decompression chamber in itself, La Royante is perfectly situated for Bouches du RhÃ´ne exploration.
Friday, June 6th, 2014
VALLABRÃˆGUES – NEAR BEAUCAIRE
6 Rue Carnot
04 66 59 18 70
For anybody like me with a weakness for good wickerwork, Daniel Benibghiâ€™s studio is a mesmerising place to visit as well as the setting for dangerous shopping. Bread baskets, cherry baskets, laundry baskets, pet baskets, cradles, bullâ€™s heads, kitchen chairs, garden seatsâ€¦ youâ€™ll find them all here, and more. In Danielâ€™s hands, basketry even provides doors for a Paris TV journalistâ€™s kitchen cupboards, as the photo above proves.
Serendipity accounts for the fact that he is here. Laid off 25 years ago from his job as a lift servicing engineer and determined to spend more time fishing, Daniel made himself a fishing basket. Having noticed that the quality of imported basketwork was unimpressive, he soon enrolled for a training course at the Ã‰cole Nationale de Vannerie. Bingo. VallabrÃ¨gues, traditionally known for basketwork from locally grown willows, became his HQ.
â€˜My log baskets cost â‚¬75 but theyâ€™ll last for 15 years,â€™ he says, pointing out his strong, tight weaving, â€™whereas one at half that price will probably break after a year.â€™Â Besides keeping his one-man production line going (kitchen accessories are in highest demand), Daniel Benibghi also runs basketry coursesÂ for small groups. â€˜Youâ€™d be surprised how many people say theyâ€™ve always wanted to make themselves a basket – bankers and nurses especially.â€™ Figure that one out if you dare.
Sunday, June 1st, 2014
Grilled red mullet with tomato and saffron sauce
Sauce vierge has a base of peeled and diced tomatoes and shallots, with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and fresh herbs – usually basil and flat-leaf parsley. It is often served with fish and shellfish, and is also good with steamed asparagus and courgettes. It is beautifully versatile: it can be served just-made crisp, or marinated and infused, and either cold or warm. It also allows itself alliances with spices such as vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. Here Iâ€™ve included saffron as this is the way I first tasted it, made by French friends in Antibes many moons ago.
8 red mullet
olive oil, for basting
For the sauce vierge
4 ripe yet firm tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and finely diced
4 small shallots, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons capers
juice of 1 lemon
a handful of basil leaves, chopped
a handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
pinch of saffron strands
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Before preparing the barbecue, combine all the sauce ingredients, give them a good stir and leave the flavours to develop while you have a glass of rosÃ©.
2 Rub the fish all over with a little oil and grill on the barbecue for about 5 minutes each side.
3 Serve with the sauce vierge, and some good crusty bread to mop up the juices.
Taken from Nobody Does it Better – why French home cooking is still the best in the world by Trish Deseine, published by Kyle Books