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.
Friday, August 1st, 2014
Peppers stuffed with tomatoes, garlic and basil
PROVENCE AND BEYOND
This recipe may not be ProvenÃ§al in origin but it is an easy and delicious way of using superb ProvenÃ§al produce – especially at the moment when tomatoes are bursting with flavour. I cook it ridiculously often yet friends still clamour for more…
4 red peppers
4 medium to large tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, peeled
freshly ground black pepper
20-30 basil leaves
1 Turn the oven on at 180C and lightly grease a baking tray with a little olive oil.
2 Cut the peppers in half lengthways keeping the green stems attached. Remove and discard all the seeds and core so that only the bright red interior remains. Arrange the pepper halves on the baking tray and sprinkle with a very little salt. (Not too much as more will be added later.)
3 Halve the tomatoes lengthways, then cut each half into three equal segments. Fit three segments neatly into each half pepper. Sprinkle with a little more salt and some black pepper.
4 Halve the garlic cloves, then cut each half into slivers. Tuck several of these around the tomatoes in each stuffed pepper.
5 Drizzle olive oil quite generously over each stuffed pepper. Place the baking tray in the oven and bake the peppers for 45-55 minutes, watching them closely after the first half hour and moving them around the tray if necessary so that all cook evenly. The half-hour stage is also a good moment to add 3-4 basil leaves to each pepper half. Continue to bake the peppers until they are fully cooked. They should look slightly brown around the edges but not burnt.
6 Slide the stuffed peppers on to a serving plate and drizzle the cooking juices over and around them. Serve with crusty bread as a first course, or as an vegetable accompaniment to a robust main course like tuna, roast chicken or beef.
Saturday, July 26th, 2014
Avignon Gourmet Tour
AVIGNON CITY CENTRE
06 35 32 08 96
Hopping in and out of Avignon regularly every year for the past ten, I thought I knew pretty much everything there is to know about the papal cityâ€™s food scene. Up to last week, that is, when a tour with Avignon native and dedicated gourmet AurÃ©lie Gilabert (on my right above, discussing olives) opened new doors, introduced new flavours and made three hours fly by at TGV speed.
Launched this spring, Avignon Gourmet Tour combines long-established food landmarks with some much more recent addresses. On our walk we stopped, for example, at Trouillas, a bakery in the same family since 1931 which makes what prominent Avignon chef Christian Ã‰tienne considers the best savoury fougasse in Provence. (Taste the well-filled olive version and youâ€™ll see why.) We also dropped into CafÃ©s au BrÃ©sil, now in the hands of the third generation and voted best coffee roasting company in France in 2012. (Their 300+ teas are equally superb: I won’t easily forget captivating Coquelicot Gourmand.)
On the other hand, La Fine Bouche (in the photo) run by Paul Chatrouillaux is a brand new Ã©picerie fine. (Donâ€™t leave it without sampling the peppery olive oil from Moulin de la Chartreuse, one of Provenceâ€™s oldest mills, in nearby Villeneuve-les-Avignon). And AngÃ©la de BeauprÃ©au has only been treating Avignon residents to her fine hand-made chocolates since last Christmas.
These are just some of the highlights of a tour which also included good artisan ice cream, award-winning sweet fougasse, a tasting of white ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape with local goatâ€™s and sheepâ€™s cheeses (at the wine bar Le 46) – and, unexpectedly, a feast of historical and architectural tidbits. While the itinerary may vary (morning tours take in the brilliant market Les Halles, closed in the afternoon), itâ€™s invariably as well stuffed as you will feel by its end.
Besides speaking flawless English (perfected during four years in Dublin, Iâ€™m happy to report), AurÃ©lie is also fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.
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.