Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
La Maison d’UzÃ¨s
18 Rue du Docteur Blanchard
04 66 20 07 00
PRICE RANGE – EXPENSIVE
When an old favourite disappears it isnâ€™t always easy to embrace its replacement. I adored Les Trois Salons, the restaurant previously housed in the sumptuous 17th-century mansion now transformed into the five-star, nine-bedroom Maison dâ€™UzÃ¨s. While running wine appreciation courses in Provence, it was here that I held gorgeous wine-matching dinners with menus specially created by the talented chef Petter Nilsson. It was the perfect place to celebrate birthdays or indulge visiting friends. But then Nilsson went off to Paris to open La Gazzetta and the doors closed.
It has been heartening to see them open again. UzÃ¨s badly needs more fine dining and La Maison dâ€™UzÃ¨s – fast off the blocks to secure its first Michelin star – widens the limited choice with panache.Â We recently sampled Ã‰motion, the â‚¬55 four-course set dinner menu. (The alternative is Classique Fiction at â‚¬78).
The food is more showy than in the Nilsson era, as is the dining-room with bling light fittings and pop-bright chairs applied like slightly overdone make-up to a fine-boned beauty of a building. Plates came out looking like intricate, colourful works of art, all tiny dots and miniature petals and micro-leaves – sometimes a worrying sign that form is about to lord it over flavour. But no. A first course of cod confit with smoked salt, codâ€™s roe, sauce vierge and brandade was tastily precise; a main course of black-foot chicken with langoustine, borlotti beans, rocket wasabi and sauce suprÃªme better still, the harmony of its elements beautifully achieved.
After these triumphs, a Mont Blanc with ArdÃ¨che chestnut cream, chantilly and ice cream, then a mango tart with chocolate, seemed competent rather than thrilling – but that might just be the verdict of a savoury addict. Every morsel was consumed anyway.Â The only disappointment was around wine – not an exciting selection, particularly at the low-to-middle end of the price spectrum (if â€˜lowâ€™ is the appropriate term to apply to local wines retailing in shops at â‚¬7-8 and costing â‚¬35-40 here). Wine service was slow (we worked our way through an extensive amuse-bouche selection with empty glasses), and contentious too: we were talked out of our red choice and a so-so substitute was opened all in a flash.
Still we welcome La Maison dâ€™UzÃ¨s and look forward to having lunch there soon. For elegant food in an elegant setting, â‚¬25 sounds like a steal.
Thursday, November 13th, 2014
Domaine des Enchanteurs
52 Chemin dâ€™Aubignan
04 90 12 69 82 / 06 73 99 98 26
With just three hectares, Domaine des Enchanteurs is one of the smallest wine estates Iâ€™ve ever seen. â€˜A Barbie doll domaine,â€™ says co-owner and director Bertrand Seube. Maybe, but with a lot more depth and interest than that description might imply.
This promising, micro-managed enterprise certainly isnâ€™t a plaything – or even a hobby. Monsieur Seube has a solid background in wine, having worked for 12 years as technical director of ChÃ¢teau de Pennautier in CabardÃ¨s (a Languedoc property I admire) before the idea of a joint venture with barrel-makers Remond drew him up to this tree-ringed rural paradise close to Mont Ventoux.
â€˜I looked at a lot of places and fell in love with this one,â€™ he explains simply. â€˜The terroir is really unbelievable with a lot of flint to improve acidity in the wines. I honestly believe that the Ventoux is another Priorat in the making.â€™ Letâ€™s hope so…without Prioratâ€™s mad prices.
While continuing to work for Remond as a barrel salesman, Bertrand Seube has upgraded both estate and cellar, securing organic certification from 2013. Of the four wines produced, I was particularly impressed by Songe dâ€™Or, a firm, full-bodied rendering of Viognier and Grenache Blanc, and Ambre CÃ©leste, a zestily lightfooted Muscat de Beaumes de Venise with minimal sugar. The flagship red RÃªve de Rubis, 50:50 Syrah and Grenache, is emphatically stamped by toasty oak – but a bit of barrel action is to be expected in an estate co-owned by a cooperage, I guess.
Friday, November 7th, 2014
FRUIT JUICES & COMPOTES
La Table des Lutins
NEAR MONT VENTOUX
84410 Crillon Le Brave
06 80 66 96 77
For over a decade Manuel Larraux earned his living by foraging for wild mushrooms which he sold to restaurants. Then came a eureka moment and a change of direction. One day while picking wild savory he noticed cherry trees laden with fruit. â€˜I asked for permission to pick the fruit, then went home and made cherry and savory juice on the spot,â€™ he recalls. â€˜That was in 2003. I was almost forty and felt ready to construct a new life.â€™
Gradually he developed other organic juices (or, more accurately fruit nectars – but with a maximum sugar content of only 10 per cent). Pear and thyme, blueberry and heather and my favourite, apricot and rosemary (which you see him picking above), are central planks in a steadily evolving range. Equally important are delicious compotes and conserves made from fruits so perfectly ripe that they require little or no sugar. One of the yummiest is made entirely from black Caromb figs. Add a dollop of organic yoghurt, a drizzle of lavender honey and you have an instant breakfast treat.
Which reminds meâ€¦it was in the excellent Lâ€™Isle-sur-la-Sorgue B&B La Carolâ€™Isle that I first came across Manuelâ€™s exceptional products. Working on a small, artisan scale, he sells to a limited number of high-class establishments from Les Fermes de Marie in the French Alps to CafÃ© Beaubourg in Paris.Thankfully, thereâ€™s an easier way to sample his flavoursome fruit and herb combinations. All can be ordered online.
Saturday, November 1st, 2014
Beef carpaccio with black truffles and hazelnuts
20g black truffles (tuber melanosporum)
400g beef fillet (in one narrow piece)
juice of 1 lemon
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
salt (the ordinary kind)
fleur de sel or Maldon salt flakes
1 Well in advance (up to 2 days if you have access to a professional slicing machine, otherwise just a couple of hours), season the beef with salt and cracked pepper, wrap in cling film and place in a shallow dish in the freezer.
2 A short time before you are ready to serve the dish, remove beef from the freezer and slice thinly. (A bacon slicer will do the job perfectly, otherwise use a heavy carving knife.) Arrange the slices on a plate.
3 Put the lemon juice in a small bowl with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix well, then use a paintbrush to cover the beef slices with this dressing.
4 Roast the hazelnuts in the oven (15-20 minutes at 160C), rub off their skins and chop them finely.
5 Sprinkle the chopped hazelnuts, salt flakes, pepper and finely grated truffle on the beef. You may also add a scoop of truffled celeriac remoulade (the recipe for which is in the same book as this one – see below). Serve immediately.
Saturday, October 25th, 2014
7 Route de PaÃ¯olive
07140 Les Vans
06 27 83 98 57
PRICE RANGE – EXPENSIVE
Iâ€™d love to tell you exactly what I had to eat for lunch at LikokÃ© but itâ€™s out of the question, I’m afraid.Â There were so many dishes, each more startlingly inventive than the one before, that the notebook was abandoned half with through with the words immensely sophisticated, complicated food with exciting flavours underlined three times.
I remember an extraordinary candy floss of duck liver with black pudding and beetroot; a delicious little dish of goatâ€™s cheese with sunflower seed granola and fermented olive oil sorbet; a superb chicken dish called MoambÃ© (see photo) inspired by chef Piet Huysentruytâ€™s childhood in the Belgian Congo; a pigâ€™s skull carried solemnly to the table as the prelude to a rich pork stewâ€¦ And feeling utterly, replete long before we were invited to lick the naked torso imprinted on a square of mascarpone that arrived with the bill.
The rest is a blur of exquisitely artistic plates, theatrical service, daring flavour and texture combinations and a welcome shot of fun. â€˜I create new things all the time,â€™ says Huysentruyt, a Belgian ex-TV chef who ran a simpler brasserie in Les Vans before opening ambitious LikokÃ© in 2013. â€˜I canâ€™t stand restaurants where the same dishes stay on the menu for years. You have to be daring. Il faut prendre des risques.â€™
The ambiance is relaxed and slightly funky, with cowhide or brightly coloured seats; wooden table tops supported by tree trunks and a bit of tree propping up the bar. Do not be fooled. The boss of and his young team of fanatically dedicated chefs, rewarded by their first Michelin star in 2014, couldnâ€™t be less casual in their commitment. My advice? Starve yourself for a week, cancel your commitments for a day and give yourself over to an endless LikokÃ© lunch.
Sunday, October 19th, 2014
WINE ESTATE / B&B
120 Chemin du Long Serre
84330 Saint Hippolyte le Graveyron
09 51 13 01 63 / 06 07 13 11 47
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
Itâ€™s the perfect package for wine lovers: B&B in a gracious old chÃ¢teau where a surge of new blood and youthful energy are producing increasingly worthwhile wines – further proof of how exciting the Ventoux region is becoming. Cerise sur le gÃ¢teauÂ - the icing on the cake – is that the owners are delightful.
Anne-Marie and Bernard Forestier left established careers in IT in Grenoble for what they describe as a quieter life. Taken by the idea of wine tourism they bought ChÃ¢teau Juvenal in 2001, captivated by an old-fashioned charm which they have kept pretty much intact.
Until 2008 their grapes were vinified separately by the local Balma Venitia co-op, pointing to the excellence of ChÃ¢teau Juvenalâ€™s terroir. Then along came the opportunity to team up with a young vigneron neighbour, SÃ©bastien Alban; build a new cellar and produce their own wine from their joint vineyards – a healthy total of 35 hectares. By 2011 they had secured the services of Philippe Cambie, the Mr Wine Consulting of the Southern RhÃ´ne, and of leading US importer Eric Solomon. â€˜Two enormous strokes of luck!â€™ says Anne-Marie. Hmmm, maybe. This lady has the energy and focus that make good fortune happen.
Certified organic since 2012, the wines are well made and expressive. I especially enjoyed the poised white Les Ribes du Vallat, and the red flagship La Terre du Petit Homme, a spicily concentrated 50:50 blend of Syrah and Grenache from 50-year-old vines. I keep thinking how especially delicious they must taste at Anne-Marieâ€™s elegant table dâ€™hÃ´te dinner table, impeccably set for 13 guests the day I called with roast veal en croÃ»te and apricot bavarois ready to go into the oven.
Monday, October 13th, 2014
La Bastide de Caseneuve
CASENEUVE – NEAR APT
Place de lâ€™Ã‰glise
04 90 04 88 96
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
StÃ©phane Delarue worked for the upmarket Relais & ChÃ¢teaux hotel group for 30 years before launching into the hospitality business as a solo entrepreneur. Boy, it shows. The top-to-toe renovation of this sturdy old house – previously a second home for Parisians – was conducted at breakneck speed, starting in January 2014 and finishing in time for the doors to open in May; but attention to detail and a focus on quality run through every bit of it.
The four bedrooms are simple – modest in size and blessedly unfussy – with what you might call luxurious essentials: big, high-spec beds, excellent bathrooms, thick white towels and dressing-gowns comfortable enough to live in for days. Even though the house is in the heart of the village, its outlook to the rear over open countryside gives it a calm, rural feel. I awoke to the tinkly clatter of bells on a herd of sheep far below.
All good, but M Delarueâ€™s breakfast is better still. Served with supreme elegance on a nice little terrace (as you can see), mine included a freshly made fruit salad; thick, home-made yoghurt; several home-made jams in pots specially commissioned from a local potter; delicious bread, viennoiserie and coffee and, in case all that were not enough, a generous bowl of home-made rice pudding.
Mon Dieu! Morning feasting on this scale calls for activity-packed days – long Luberon walks, winery visits, exploration of Aptâ€¦ On the other hand you might just be lazy. A pleasant sitting-room for guests is right beside the breakfast terrace.
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
A tasty tour around Terre d’Argence
Every time I set foot in Terre dâ€™Argence I seem to have a marvellous time. Tucked into the triangle between NÃ®mes, Arles and Avignon, this grouping of small townships may only have been baptised a decade ago – but a history stretching back through two millennia makes it a fascinating region to visit. Close to the RhÃ´ne and the Camargue, it has its own local traditions, its own art de vivre, influenced by both Provence and the Languedoc yet proudly individualistic.
Slightly off the beaten track, itâ€™s attractive without being overrun by tourists so it doesnâ€™t have grandiose notions about itself. In my experience this makes for super-friendly people and keen prices. Go for a full day and you wonâ€™t be bored, I promise you.
MORNING Â Make an arty-crafty plan. You might start in the village of VallabrÃ¨gues, visiting Chaises Lacroix, superb manufacturers of traditional ProvenÃ§al chairs, or dropping into Lâ€™Oseraie to buy traditional basketware from Daniel Benibghi who makes it here in his studio. In nearby Beaucaire, FranÃ§oise Rebord turns out eye-catching pottery.
LUNCHÂ Lâ€™Epicerie de CÃ©cile in the centre of Beaucaire canâ€™t be beaten for simple, home-made food in cheerful surroundings.
AFTERNOON Â Devote it to wine and olive oil. Mas des Tourelles is an absorbing place to visit, its ancient origins so carefully recreated that you can even taste wines made the Roman way. ChÃ¢teau Mourgues du GrÃ¨s is one of my favourite wine estates for quality combined with affordability. (I especially love their whites.) Then turn yourself into an olive oil taster at the Huilerie Co-operative de Beaucaire.
DINNER Â Sample more home cooking showcasing local produce at the Auberge de lâ€™Amandin on the edge of Beaucaire.
STAY Â Check into Domaine des Clos, a delightful big 18th-century farm estate run with flair by enthusiastic foodie Sandrine Ausset. Depending on dates, you may also be able to enjoy her table dâ€™hÃ´te or a cookery class.
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.