Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
North Luberon wine tour
MÃ‰NERBES TO APT
When friends reveal their plans for visiting the Luberon, theyâ€™re usually thinking of the north with its famous perched villages like Gordes, MÃ©nerbes and Bonnieux; ravishing red and ochre cliffs at Roussillon; and the gracious old Cistercian abbey of SÃ©nanque surrounded by fields of lavender. Wonderful, all of it – if rather clogged with tourists, especially in high summer. But theyâ€™re forgetting something vital and exemplary. Wine.
Youâ€™d be forgiven for imagining that, being the most southerly appellation in the entire Southern RhÃ´ne, the Luberon might be too warm to produce anything much worth drinking. But youâ€™d be wrong. The massive Montagne du Luberon which divides the region horizontally acts like a giant chilling device, providing the cool nights that slow down grape ripening enough to guarantee fresh-tasting wines of remarkable finesse. Vineyards on both its northern and southern sides benefit. Here comes a suggested tour of some top addresses in the north – and Iâ€™ll cover the south in a couple of weeks.
WINE ESTATES TO VISIT Â Start with the doyen of them all, Domaine de la Citadelle directly below MÃ©nerbes. The wines made by Alexis Rousset-Rouard are among the Luberonâ€™s finest and come in a range wide enough to suit all pockets. The estate is also well geared to visitors with an attractive shop and a fun corkscrew museum. For a complete contrast in terms of scale and sophistication, Domaine Ruffinatto run by La Citadelleâ€™s former vineyard manager is also worth dropping into.
Then drive east to Bonnieux where long-established ChÃ¢teau La Canorgue is the front-runner – a reliable source of organic whites, reds and rosÃ©s of the highest order. Only a stoneâ€™s throw away, up-and-coming ChÃ¢teau Les Eydins is making its mark with highly individualistic, character-stuffed wines. Serious wine buffs might also consider making an advance appointment to visit Guillaume Gros near Maubec, one of the Luberonâ€™s most accomplished young vignerons.
EATING Â La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon in MÃ©nerbes is a good spot for a light lunch; Maison Gouin, a butcherâ€™s shop, offers simple dishes to delight carnivores in Coustellet; or try Lâ€™ArÃ´me in Bonnieux.
SLEEPING Â La Bastide des Magnans is an attractive B&B in Lacoste; but if youâ€™re planning to do some shopping in Apt, it would be worth driving a bit further to stay at the luxurious B&B Le Parfum des Collines near Auribeau. Hotel luxury? La Bastide de Capelongue, a Relais & ChÃ¢teaux member outside Bonnieux.
SHOPPING Â Apt is rightly famous for its markets – the farmerâ€™s one on Tuesdays and the big general one on Saturdays. And you wonâ€™t find a better wine shop than V Comme Vin.
Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
If you love beautiful pottery (as most food enthusiasts do for its capacity to add colour and style to the simplest table), Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie is well worth visiting. Between the Cevennes and the RhÃ´ne Valley, north-west of Avignon, north-east of NÃ®mes and only a five-minute drive from UzÃ¨s, this arty little town is packed with studios specialising in pottery and ceramics of different kinds. If some donâ€™t appeal others probably will, so your journey is unlikely to be fruitless.
At the latest count, Saint-Quentin is home to 23 potters, most of them with workshops in the network of narrow streets that make up the centre ville. A proud boast – although the town which became a centre of pottery in the Middle Ages because of the quality of its clay had around 80 workshops during its heyday in the 19th century. Decline later set in so severely that a whole, precious tradition was almost lost. Only since 1984 has a revival been underway.
To grasp this rich history, start your visit at the MusÃ©e de la Poterie MÃ©diterranÃ©enne, an attractive small museum with two main collections – one dedicated to the traditional pottery of Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie and the other presenting pottery objects of various kinds which were in common use in countries bordering the Mediterranean.
Right next door is Terra Viva, a gallery whose superb exhibitions show exciting examples of modern ceramics by top names in the field – some French but many from further afield. Here youâ€™ll see jewellery and striking sculpture as well as magnificent platters and pots.
Then itâ€™s time to stroll around – keeping an eye out for the decorative tiles that have been used to enhance Saint-Quentinâ€™s streets. You wonâ€™t have progressed far before you realise that every style of pottery and ceramics imaginable are on offer – from chunky to refined; from stoneware and earthenware to porcelain and raku. If you need an energy boost in order to keep going, drop into the CafÃ© des Potiers, conveniently located on Rue de la Fontaine – as are the museum and Terra Viva.
Especially recommended: Terralha, a weekend-long festival during which 40 leading European potters are invited to display their work around the town. This yearâ€™s event will run from 11 to 14 July. More details from terralha.fr.
Thursday, May 7th, 2015
ALL OVER PROVENCE
Asparagus is always firmly linked with Easter in my mind – prompting the posting of that simple but popular recipe for tender green asparagus with lemon vinaigrette last month. But, arriving back in Provence a week or so ago, I was delighted to find the season still in full swing. Hence the market purchase above – the basis for an admirably greedy supper for two.
This whole, glorious glut has sent me delving for information about a vegetable that seems to have retained an aristocratic air ever since Louis XIV took a shine to it at Versailles, making it all the rage after a long period of neglect. My part of France, the Gard, is one of the main areas for asparagus production in France – along with the HÃ©rault, to the south-west, and a particular pocket of the Luberon. So important for asparagus cultivation did the land between the towns of Lauris and Cavaillon become in the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to the rich, alluvial soils of the Durance river, that the asperge verte de Lauris is still recognised as a cultivar of key importance.
Although 85% of all the asparagus grown in France as a whole is white and only 15% green, in Provence itâ€™s the green stuff that disappears off market stalls in the greatest quantities, even though it commands a higher price. (Our green asparagus cost â‚¬6 a kilo, compared with â‚¬4 for the white.) In fact, 40% of the entire crop is sold in markets – a remarkably high percentage compared to other vegetables.
The great benefit for market shoppers is that it has probably been picked only hours before. That means that the heads are still tightly closed and the stems firm – not always the case with the bendy specimens on sale in supermarkets. Cook it without delay or, if you must keep it for a day or two, follow the advice of my lady vendor and place it in the vegetable drawer of your fridge wrapped in a damp tea towel.
What it goes with best, apart from vinaigrette? Beurre blanc, hollandaise sauce or melted butter; goatâ€™s cheese or Parmesan; eggs; salmon; ham; veal. Get stuck in – itâ€™ll only be around in pristine condition for another week or two.
Friday, May 1st, 2015
PROVENCE AND BEYOND
Provided that you can get your hands on good-quality, fresh tuna, this easy dish makes a beautifully summery first course – light, juicy and refreshing. Although the Italian approach involving shaved Parmesan and rocket is popular (even in Provence), I prefer just a light scattering of summer herbs or micro-greens mixed with grated lemon zest – plus a dressing of top-notch olive oil and lemon juice to keep the flavour zingy.
For elegance, itâ€™s important to slice the tuna wafer-thin. Although this can be done a short while in advance, to achieve the best flavour and texture itâ€™s best not to assemble the dish until the last minute.
250 g loin of tuna (very fresh)
4 tablespoons best quality extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs (e.g. chives, chervil, dill) or micro-greens
crystallised sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 Chill the tuna well in the fridge for several hours or in the freezer for 15-20 minutes. This will firm up the flesh and make it easier to slice.
2 Slice the fish as finely as possible. Any slices which seem a little too thick can be made thinner if you place them between two sheets of baking parchment and roll them with a rolling pin or the side of a bottle.
3 Just before you are ready to eat, paint each plate with a little of the olive oil. Divide the tuna slices equally between the four plates, laying them out attractively.
4 Grate the zest of the lemon and mix it with the chopped herbs.
5 Squeeze the lemon and paint or carefully spoon the juice over the exposed surface of the fish. Just use enough to wet it a little – without leaving any pools of juice.
6 Scatter a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper over each plate, followed by the herbs mixed with lemon zest and a drizzle of the remaining olive oil.
7 Serve without delay – with fresh, crusty bread and, ideally, a glass of stylish rosÃ©.
Saturday, April 25th, 2015
Lulu’s ProvenÃ§al Table
At least a dozen years have passed since an Irish food writer friend urged me to acquire and devour Luluâ€™s ProvenÃ§al Table. I didnâ€™t, until just a couple of months ago – but that is probably all to to good. This down-to-earth cookery book has made a much more powerful impression now than it might have back then because it enshrines the sort of simple, authentic southern French food that has become increasingly difficult to find.
First published in 1994, it is a celebration of the dishes and wines enjoyed by the American food writer Richard Olney over many years at the prominent Bandol wine estate Domaine Tempier. Madame Tempier – â€˜Luluâ€™ – was an inspiring cook and the gracious hostess we would all love to be, capable of rustling up a feast without ever leaving her guests unattended or appearing flustered.
Olney, a gifted writer, did more than merely translate 150 of her most admired recipes with care. He anchored them seasonally, socially or historically, linking them to the rhythms of life on a Bandol wine estate from the 1960s to the 1980s. Itâ€™s important to keep this period firmly in mind while you read the latest edition (published by Grub Street in 2013), because it reproduces the original text without reference to dates – occasionally shunting the reader into a time warp. The absence of photographs is another reminder that Luluâ€™s laden table is long gone.
That said, this is a book that any food-loving Francophile will enjoy perusing – and using. Itâ€™s stuffed with ProvenÃ§al classics – grand aÃ¯oli, salt cod purÃ©e, leg of lamb stuffed with tapenade, duck with olives, apricot tart – alongside plenty of slightly more unusual dishes. From a particularly strong fish section, monkfish grilled in fig leaves is top of my to-do list.
And a visit to Chez Panisse – something Iâ€™ve neglected for years, just like this book – has now become a must.Â In her foreword, written with great warmth, Alice Waters credits Lulu as a key influence on her now-famous restaurant in Berkeley, California.
Luluâ€™s ProvenÃ§al Table by Richard Olney is published by Grub Street.
Sunday, April 19th, 2015
Au Fil du Temps
PERNES-LES-FONTAINES – NEAR CARPENTRAS
51 Place Louis Giraud
04 90 30 09 48
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
I was such a strong admirer of Au Fils du Temps under Julien and Claire Drouot that it took quite a while to summon the enthusiasm for a return visit to inspect the new rÃ©gime. It neednâ€™t have. Iâ€™m happy to report that, with JÃ©rÃ´me and Angelina Campanelli at its helm, this little restaurant within easy striking distance of Carpentras has kept every ounce of its appeal.
Itâ€™s still bright, charming, unpretentiousâ€¦ and, judging from a recent lunch, the food is still knockout. Of Armenian descent and trained as a chef in Marseille before building up wide experience, M Campanelli creates dishes every bit as individualistic – and every bit as subtle – as his clever predecessor.
The deliciously fresh flavour of a sea bass and prawn tartare delicately combined with elements of coriander, sesame, haricot bean and rice wine vinegar in just the right proportions is still with me. A main course of lamb cooked for 24 hours and served on a neat square of tomato-infused petit Ã©peautre (see photo) is the kind of thing you might find yourself lusting after any old time. This is real food, cooked with panache and served with elegance rather than ostentation.
As for dessertsâ€¦ a yummy roast pear flavoured with piment dâ€™EspeletteÂ and served with wickedly alcoholic pain perdue plus a scoop of lightening sorbet underscores the wisdom of choosing the three-course menu du marchÃ© (â‚¬30).
Look carefully at the first page and youâ€™ll see that the Campanellis credit an impressive list of local suppliers.Â A small but well chosen wine list rounds things off to perfection. A bientÃ´t!
Monday, April 13th, 2015
Les Vignerons d’EstÃ©zargues
CÃ”TES DU RHÃ”NE
Route des GrÃ¨s
04 66 57 03 64
NO APPOINTMENT REQUIRED
Hardly any wine co-operatives feature on this blog. Why? Because, generally speaking, small, dedicated producers tend to make more interesting wines, besides having a more interesting story to tell. But this co-op in the commune of EstÃ©zargues in the Gard is exceptional. For one thing, it has just ten partners: dedicated vignerons, several with outstanding terroir. (The proportion cultivated organically, currently 50%, is steadily rising.) For another, it has a remarkably gifted oenologist. Put all that together and what do you get? Some seriously good wines.
â€˜Weâ€™re into minimalist winemaking,â€™ explains Denis Deschamps, the man who has brought purer fruit flavours and increased precision to the wines here over the past 15 years. Unusually for a co-op, cultured yeasts are eschewed in preference to the wild yeasts present on the grape skins. Very little sulphur is used at any stage; the wines are not fined and only lightly filtered.
Among the score of wines made at EstÃ©zargues, I have two long-standing CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne Villages favourites. Domaine GrÃ¨s Saint Vincent Signargues is a deliciously juicy red with alluring raspberry and loganberry aromas and a nice touch of firmness in the finish. Domaine dâ€™AndÃ©zon Signargues is a bigger beast, typically 80% Syrah, 20% Grenache, with sumptuous black fruit flavours and a smooth, solid body.
A newer, slightly pricier discovery is Syâ€¦Signargues, made only in the best vintages – mainly Syrah from a few parcels of 50- to 60-year-old vines, aged in used barriques for one year and matured in bottle for a further year. Beautifully concentrated and peppery with a hint of earthiness, itâ€™s the kind of red that could see you through the chilliest evening with a smile.
Tuesday, April 7th, 2015
SALERNES – NEAR DRAGUIGNAN
Quartier les Launes
04 98 10 43 90
Around the small town of Salernes youâ€™ll see plenty of striking patches of red terrain. Eyecatching – yes, but a reminder of so much more. Earth rich in iron oxide has made this small pocket of the Var a centre of ceramics for 7,000 years – a fact celebrated in style at this museum housed in a former tile factory.
Open to visitors from now until the tourist season ends in October, the Maison de la CÃ©ramique Architecturale (as it is properly known) plays a dual role with aplomb. First, it presents the history of a town which developed its earthenware industry so successfully that, in the early years of the 20th century, it had 53 factories and 1,200 employees. By that point, tableware had been supplanted, as its main output, by tommettes – traditional, hexagonal ProvenÃ§al floor tiles. The whole manufacturing process is well explained.
But this is also a fantastic exhibition space for contemporary ceramics, mounting several shows every year. I admired the winning entries in an international 2014 competition to design and produce a hand-made tile (led by Pakistan, Iran and France); the 2015 results should be visible soon. But the ground floor displays heaps of other beautiful objects by leading ceramic artists – including the 15 who are based in Salernes today. At least half a dozen are in the town, so you can easily drop into a few studios after an educational hour or two here.
Wednesday, April 1st, 2015
Tender green asparagus with lemon vinaigrette
ALL OVER PROVENCE
Provence goes green at this time of year, with asparagus on offer in every market, vegetable shop and restaurant. Although youâ€™ll also see the white variety, slender, tender green stalks (grown with particular success in the Luberon and the Gard) far outnumber and outshine them. Chefs dream up elaborate dishes – often all-asparagus menus, in fact – making this rather grand vegetable a spring equivalent to winter truffles; but in my book simple is best.
Itâ€™s hard to beat perfectly cooked green asparagus with a lemon vinaigrette, a chunk of crusty bread and a suitable white wine – ideally one thatâ€™s young and fresh with a touch of tangy minerality. Two that work well: ChÃ¢teau Mourgues du GrÃ¨s Les Galets DorÃ©s from the CostiÃ¨res de NÃ®mes and Domaine de la Citadelle Viognier from the Luberon.
The procedure below is so elementary that it can barely be described as a recipe. Quantities will be determined by your tastes, and the number of people at your table.
bundle of slender fresh green asparagus
best quality extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
small blob of Dijon mustard (optional)
1 First start the vinaigrette. Finely grate some lemon zest into a few tablespoons of good olive oil. Season with sea salt and pepper and leave to infuse.
2 Bring a large, deep pan of salted water to the boil and have a second large pan of very cold water ready nearby.
3 Break or trim the woody ends off the asparagus spears. Plunge them into the boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears and whether you prefer them to be fully cooked through or with a slight bite (recommended). The second they seem right, use tongs to quickly move them into the pot of cold water so that they stop cooking and keep their bright green colour.
4 Leave for 1-2 minutes, then carefully lift the cooled asparagus on to a clean tea towel or several layers of kitchen and gingerly pat dry. Arrange on a large plate.
5 Add enough lemon juice to the vinaigrette to make it tangy but not bitter. (The proportion of lemon juice to oil will probably be about 1:4.) Add a little mustard if liked (bearing in mind that too much may spoil the flavour of your wine). Immediately spoon the vinaigrette over the asparagus and serve at once.
Wednesday, March 25th, 2015
Domaine de la BouÃ¯ssiÃ¨re
Rue du Portail
04 90 65 87 91
Pushy people tend to get themselves into print faster than retiring, gentle types. Maybe that is why Iâ€™m only writing now about Thierry Faravel whom Iâ€™ve admired for years. Working in tandem with his brother Gil since the death of their father in 1988, this quietly reflective winemaker is celebrated for wonderfully shapely, ageworthy Gigondas.
As a double-bass player, his first ambition was to become a full-time musician – so, given the fashion for influencing vinification with appropriate harmonies, should we expect Mozart in the cellar? â€˜That would be ok for sweet winesâ€¦ but Iâ€™d prefer something more bracing.â€™ His objective, he says, is to make des vins droits, des vins tendus – upright wines with a certain tension. With pure fruit, reviving acidity and very fine tannins, they are masterpieces of elegance with precision – so if you fancy big RhÃ´ne whoppers you have come to the wrong place.
Working alone rather than with a consultant (â€˜Iâ€™ve never found one who will look at the vineyards and listen to what we want to achieve, rather than impose a systemâ€™), Thierry Faravel has gradually honed his own techniques. Having experimented with small oak barrels and bigger 600-litre casks, he is happy now to use traditional outsize foudres – a new one purchased every year. â€˜They make wines that are more refined, with a clearer identity.â€™
While most of his grapes are de-stemmed, he is not averse to including a small proportion of stems in some vinifications. â€˜Oenologists are terrified of stems in case they give a green streak, but I think they can add nice, fine tannins and an attractive little touch of menthol.â€™
With 9 hectares in Gigondas and 2.5 hectares in Vacqueyras, Domaine de la BouÃ¯ssiÃ¨re has expanded into Beaumes-de-Venise (5 hectares) since the 2012 vintage. While I have always enjoyed the Vacqueyras – more refined and less sickly than many – the Gigondas remains my favourite. Dark, peppery and subtly spicy with a firm mineral undertow, over six or seven years it develops a savoury splendour which marks it out as one of this appellationâ€™s finest wines. Not that you need to wait that longâ€¦
Thursday, March 19th, 2015
Le Clos Saint Antoine
CALLAS – NEAR DRAGUIGNAN
26 Chemin des Costes
04 94 67 95 85
Considering the prodigious amount of superb olive oil that Provence produces, it seems strange that decent vinegar is in such short supply. â€˜I love cooking, and I was shocked that good vinegar was so difficult to buy,â€™ says David Doczekalski, who took the plucky step of setting up his own vinaigrerie in 2005.
â€˜I went to Italy and Spain to learn,â€™ he explains. â€™Iâ€™m self-taught because no training was available.â€™ Artisan vinegar could scarcely hope for a more enthusiastic advocate. Showing off his Bordeaux barrels and demi-johns, Doczekalski describes the18 to 24-month process whereby good Provence wines of all three colours are converted into vinegar, following the rhythm of the seasons. They are then flavoured with plants, woods or spices before being bottled and sold, either in his small shop or on the internet.
He is particularly critical of cheap balsamic vinegar. â€˜Itâ€™s made from caramel powder, so itâ€™s horribly sweet and useless for salads which need a good kick of acidity.â€™ I couldnâ€™t agree more, and was especially impressed by his carefully crafted version which tastes lively and refreshing. I also think his wild fennel and thyme vinegars are inspired creations for fish.
Drop in for a chat and heâ€™ll have you enthralled in five minutes. You can even buy your own pottery vinaigrier, made to his design, if you fancy being able to produce high-class vinegar of your own in a mere six weeks.