Wednesday, February 25th, 2015
La Maison d’Odette
2 Rue des FrÃ¨res Albert et Georges Anroux
13600 La Ciotat
06 31 14 21 73
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
Location – thatâ€™s the first thing. Itâ€™s just a one-minute walk from the prettiest stretch of La Ciotatâ€™s old waterfront (see above). Simply but stylishly refurbished, itâ€™s comfortable too. Run by Camille Lhomme and partner Alexandre – the dynamic young couple behind the popular restaurant Lâ€™Epicerie just down the street – La Maison d’Odette even has a touching story. Camilleâ€™s grandmother (Odette) lived in this tall, narrow town house as a young woman soon after the second world war, spending much of her time teaching French to Italian immigrants.
What La Maison dâ€™Odette doesnâ€™t have (unless things have changed since my stay) is a noteworthy breakfast; itâ€™s a DIY situation based on tea or coffee, bottled juice and packeted panettone left in the room. Thankfully matters can easily be improved by a quick hop to the excellent PÃ¢tisserie Duby almost next door.
Thursday, February 19th, 2015
ChÃ¢teau La Dorgonne
84240 La Tour dâ€™Aigues
04 90 07 50 18
Itâ€™s true that great wines can emerge from apparent chaos or dilapidation. Occasionally. (The exquisite ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape ChÃ¢teau Rayas is one striking example.) Conversely, well-tended vineyards and an immaculate cellar donâ€™t necessarily produce the goods. Even so, a commitment to precision often bodes well. This is certainly the case at ChÃ¢teau La Dorgonne whose wines I rank among the Luberonâ€™s best.
It wasnâ€™t always so. â€˜When my uncle, who lives in Cambodia, bought the estate in 1999 it was in a pretty bad state,â€™ explains Nicolas Parmentier. â€˜The house was in need of renovation and a cellar had to be constructed as the grapes had previously been sold to the co-op.â€™ The whole project also needed a dedicated manager, so Nicolas – a lawyer with a PR agency – arrived to run it in 2004.
With regular advice from the leading French soil expert Claude Bourguignon, the first priority has been to put life into the soil and encourage the vines to develop deep roots – processes encouraged by the presence of 16 types of plants between the rows. Hard pruning, green harvesting, hand-picking, careful grape sortingâ€¦ these too play their part in the effort to produce perfect fruit.
Certified organic since 2007, the wines have lovely balance and finesse. While I enjoyed the peachy, zesty ChÃ¢teau white (mainly Rolle and Ugni Blanc), the reds made the deepest impression with their fine texture, vivacity and subtle use of oak. They age well too, as I discovered sampling a superb savoury-but-still-plummy 2005 the other day. A rewarding ten-year-old! Not something that fans of mature wine stumble upon in the south as often asÂ vignerons seem to think.
La Dorgonne is a delightful place to visit, with two self-guided vineyard walks. Be sure to pick up the illustrated guide and youâ€™ll learn about pruning, cover crops and more as well as the estate’s eight grape varieties.
Friday, February 13th, 2015
Fromagerie La Pastourelle
04 94 70 90 00
Life as an artisan cheesemaker sounds romantic, or romantically authentic at least. That may be one reason why Provence is dotted with hundreds of small producers – some excellent but others visibly struggling to make even a feeble living. Against this backdrop itâ€™s intriguing to discover that one of the biggest artisan fromageries in the Var is also one of the best.
Jean and Catherine Fleury have built up La Pastourelle gradually over the past 17 years, he with a useful background in accountancy and she having previously studied homeopathy. Unusually for this part of the world, they make cheeses of all three main types – goatâ€™s, sheepâ€™s and cowâ€™s – rather than specialising in just one. â€˜The idea is to encourage people to buy several different kinds,â€™ says Jean, gesturing at the well-stocked cabinet in La Pastourelleâ€™s terrific shop. â€˜We can probably offer 25-30 different cheeses at any given time.â€™
This bounty is assured by four Abondance cows treasured for their rarity almost as much as for the richness of their milk; 150 shiny-coated Alpine and ChamoisÃ© goats and 70 Lacaune ewes (the species that is used for Roquefort). The Fleurysâ€™ range includes many classics plus a number of their own creations including Chevre Fleur, a goatâ€™s cheese wrung in a tea towel (see photo); a sheep/cow MarbrÃ© and a sheep/goat Coeur de Pirate – heart-shaped, of course. They also sell their own yoghurts and milks, plus breads at the weekend.
The shop, open 364 days a year (but closed 1-3pm), is worth a visit, I guarantee – especially as there are picnic tables outside to facilitate immediate scoffing.
Saturday, February 7th, 2015
La Table de Sorgues
SORGUES – NEAR AVIGNON
Avenue du 19 mars 1962
04 90 39 11 02
I keep meaning to banish the word passionate from my vocabulary. Passionate chefs, passionate food producers, passionate winemakersâ€¦ these geniuses, often self-styled, are so ubiquitous that the term isnâ€™t worth a bean. And then I land into La Table de Sorgues and see how Jean-Paul and Sandrine Lecroq have raised the level of what used to be a decent enough restaurant up ten notches through attention to detail and enthusiasm. Passion by another name.
A recent dinner here was one of the most enjoyable meals Iâ€™ve had in quite a while. A short menu, which changes every week, cleverly allows for flexibility; three fish courses, for example, can be chosen as entrÃ©es or mains or both. The latter may be a sensible option for guests without gargantuan appetites as the smallest menu features four courses (for just â‚¬38), including cheeses from a trolley so spectacularly laden that it would be criminal to skip it. Four courses with tasty apÃ©ritif nibbles and a mise en bouche and a post-dessert and petits fours, that is. How any mortal could manage five (â‚¬52.50) or six (â‚¬62) I cannot see.
Our first courses were both perfect: panfried scallops served with sautÃ©ed wild mushrooms on a crispy ravioloÂ and roast maybe just pipped to the post by Szechuan-peppered crayfish tails in a sauce lifted by the zest of la main de Bouddha (fingered citron). Next, brill fillets gently steamed and served with cockle broth and leeks kept me purring so contentedly that I forgot to ask for a morsel of liÃ¨vre Ã la royale (hare stuffed with foie gras) from the neighbouring plate. Its owner, pronouncing it masterly, polished it off with such relish that he forgot to offer one.
Then that marvellous, old-fashioned cheese trolley (the Lecroqs do the maturing themselves – just as they bake their own bread). And a brilliantly refreshing dessert of raspberries and mangoes on a lime base encircled by a see-through sugar leaf. No faddish nonsense, no bling, no pomposity, no fuss. Just flawless cooking and good service from start to finish. As proprietors of a chÃ¢teau-hotel in the Gorges du Tarn for 15 years before moving to Sorgues, the Lecroqs have honed precious skills.
What else? The wine list is magnificent – stuffed with treasures at prices so fair that you should order a gem. The selection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is especially impressive – appropriately: this grand appellation is ten minutes up the road and en plus the restaurant sits in the birthplace of Paul Avril of Clos des Papes. We defected to Burgundy, though, for a thrilling Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet.
Sunday, February 1st, 2015
Prawns sautÃ©ed in pastis
With spring well on the way (in Provence, at least), Iâ€™m in the mood for cleaner, fresher flavours. This super-fast, easy dish comes from Everyday French Chef run by enthusiastic francophile Meg Bortin.
Meg writes: â€˜This recipe takes about three minutes from beginning to end. The gambas may be served as a starter or as a main course, accompanied by a salad of dark leaves, pasta with pistou, ProvenÃ§al tomatoes or whatever takes your fancy.â€™
Serves 3-4 as a starter, 2 as a main dish
12 raw gambas or large prawns
1 clove garlic
1 sprig thyme or 1 pinch thyme leaves
1 small dried cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons pastis (or another anise-flavoured spirit)
1 Peel and mince the garlic.
2 Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium flame. When the oil is sizzling, add the garlic and the gambas. Sprinkle in the thyme and cayenne.
3 Lift the gambas to check them after about 30 seconds. If they have turned pink underneath, flip them over. Keep checking until all the gambas have been flipped.
4 Now lower the heat slightly and add the pastis. It will sizzle and bubble. Cook another 30 seconds.
5 Serve immediately accompanied by a dry white wine or a dry rosÃ©.
Sunday, January 25th, 2015
La Fontaine du Cade
04 75 37 78 82
Although factory tours arenâ€™t necessarily inspiring, a visit to Melvita has obvious attractions – like the opportunity to browse through delicious products and see an interesting, eco-friendly building. But the thing I enjoyed most was the realisation that a man with a passion for bees and plants could begin by cooking stuff up in his kitchen and 20 years later launch one of the most significant organic cosmetic companies in France. It would seem that Bernard Chevilliatâ€™s passion for an ArdÃ¨choise also played a role in transplanting him from Bordeaux to near Lagorce.
Jump forward a decade further and Melvita is a major enterprise within the mammoth Lâ€™Occitane cosmetics group. In fact the two brands share production facilities, with the ArdÃ¨che plant focusing on items for the face and Manosque turning out goodies for the rest of the body. Within each factory ingredients are kept separate, however, since Melvita is certified as 100% organic whereas Lâ€™Occitane is not.
Back in 1983, the first product made was the now-famous hexagonal beeswax soap Itâ€™s still a bestseller (which, by the way, I can heartily recommend) – and honey remains an essential ingredient in a number of Melvita products: only right and proper for a company whose name means â€˜honey and lifeâ€™. Acacia honey has recently been found to be particularly effective for regeneration of the skin.
But there are hundreds of other key elements derived from plants, vegetables, flowers, trees and algae. Roses from Iran, Argan oil from Moroccoâ€¦ these are just two to show how wide the sourcing net has spread. The sales network likewise: 80% of production is exported, with Asia and Russia topping the market league. â€˜The Japanese love Melvita almost as much as they love Chanel,â€™ we hear on our tour.
You donâ€™t have to travel to the ArdÃ¨che to find the products, of course; theyâ€™re widely available in pharmacies and online. Another of my favourites is the gentle but effective Gommage Corps (body scrub) – ideal prep for a lasting ProvenÃ§al tan.
Note: Melvita factory tours are free. They should be booked in advance and last about an hour.
Monday, January 19th, 2015
ROUGIERS – NEAR BRIGNOLES
04 54 37 32 32
In season from November to March, the highly prized winter truffle (tuberum melanosporum) is at its very best in January. Thatâ€™s why so many restaurants across Provence are currently offering blowout truffle menus; and why so many gourmands – visitors, especially – are wondering where on earth to buy this wildly expensive delicacy without being ripped off.
Since inferior specimens are often passed off as the real McCoy, a reputable source is vital. All very well for locals who know somebody with truffles on their landâ€¦ but outsiders may be best advised to approach an established company – like Hugou-Dumas, truffle specialists for over 20 years. â€˜For a long time our main business was to sell eggs, trout and crayfish from our land here,â€™ says Gilbert Hugou. â€˜But my father got into the habit of giving our best customers truffles on special occasions because we have them on our land. Gradually truffles took over.â€™
Although the company processes some truffles, most are sold fresh – especially to CÃ´te dâ€™Azur and Paris restaurants. M Hugou senior still sets off for the capital at 4am every Monday to show clients his wares – which vary, by the way, according to season. Truffles of some variety or other are on offer all year round and different months see different mushrooms alongside them – chanterelles, cÃ¨pes, morilles, girolles, trompettes or pieds de mouton.
The day I visited, deliveries were on their way to Lâ€™Abbaye de la Celle and Les Gorges de Pennafort – top establishments which will tell you something about the reliability of this outfit. Conveniently for gourmets on the loose, anybody can drop by and make a purchase. You may even meet the company dog, appropriately named Alba.
Tuesday, January 13th, 2015
ChÃ¢teau de Vaudieu
Route de CourthÃ©zon
04 90 83 70 31
NO APPOINTMENT REQUIRED
When the canny Gigondas nÃ©gociant Gabriel Meffre bought ChÃ¢teau de Vaudieu in 1955, he must have known that he was on to a good thing. Towards the northern end of ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape, this stately property built by a Marseille admiral in the 18th century came with 100 hectares of vines – a vast estate in this neck of the woods. Slimmed down to 70 hectares – still sizeable, to say the least – Vaudieu is now run by Meffreâ€™s grandsons Laurent and Julien BrÃ©chet (who also own Domaine des Bosquets in Gigondas).
The vineyards entirely surround the chÃ¢teau – a rare state of affairs in an area where most wine producers own multiple, scattered small parcels of land. Yet, despite being in one big plot, Vaudieuâ€™s land is geologically quite varied. â€˜We have three soil types,â€™ explains maÃ®tre de chai Christophe Schurdevin. â€˜Galets and red clay; sand and sandstone; and also limestone and flint which particularly suits our whites.â€™
For a very long time, apparently, this estateâ€™s reputation has rested primarily on its white wines, no doubt explaining why white grape varieties occupy 15% of the total vineyard area – more than double the appellation average. Although I wasnâ€™t aware of this white supremacy when tasting the chÃ¢teauâ€™s range, the single vineyard Clos du BelvedÃ¨re (100% barrel-fermented Grenache Blanc) immediately stood out as the star performer – layered and gloriously rich yet also fresh and lively.
The reds (including a Lirac, Plateau des ChÃªnes) seemed a shade closer to competent than exciting – lavish renderings of ripe fruit underpinned by super-smooth tannins, a hallmark of consultant Philippe Cambie. Nevertheless this is an ambitious estate worth watching. Itâ€™s still too soon to judge the full impact of five swish concrete fermenters installed in 2013, for instance. They were designed specially for Vaudieu by dvtec in Saint-Laurent-des-Arbes, a company that also dreamt up innovative tanks for ChÃ¢teau Cheval Blanc.
Wednesday, January 7th, 2015
Auberge du MarchÃ©
VELLERON – NEAR CARPENTRAS
276 Rue du Jas
04 90 20 18 31
What guts to open a new restaurant on Christmas Eve! SÃ©bastien and HÃ©lÃ¨ne Duhoux launched the Auberge du MarchÃ© in the small village of Velleron on 24 December 2013. Having heard good reports of it from Bertrand Seube of Domaine des Enchanteurs, I booked for a Sunday lunch just before Christmas 2014. Kitchen and service were both so finely tuned that it was hard to believe this baby wasnâ€™t yet one year old.
Except that M Duhoux has cooked in a string of well regarded restaurants in France and abroad; and he and his wife worked together in Brittany before migrating south to the sun.Â Their stage set is an attractive room where pared back, modern dÃ©cor is enhanced by an old floor of patterned tiles. Starched white cloths and napkins, generous and gleaming wine glasses and – most important of all – a friendly welcome – suggest a performance underpinned by serious effort.
And so it is. A first course of panfried scallops on fish-stock-enriched potato purÃ©e with parsley emulsion (see photo) is delicious in its simplicity – but not outshone by sole and spider crab in a vanilla and citrus broth with young spinach tucked underneath. A main course of roast monkfish with squid ink pasta and a sweet-sour sauce of piquillo peppers is also terrific – cooked with precision and offering rich, reverberating flavours.
Desserts, by comparison, are a little lacklustre – and not helped by elaborate but pointless squiggles of sauce. The wine list, on the other hand, is splendid, offering a superb selection of local stars plus a nice smattering of top performers elsewhere in France. Our only gripes? That it should mention the wines on offer by the glass. And that somebody should correct the drastic English on the menu. Paillasse de pomme de terre, for example, is a much more elegant thing, cooked by a much more competent chef, than youâ€™d ever guess from the translation â€˜doormat of potatoâ€™.
Thursday, January 1st, 2015
Had enough fancy, festive food to last youâ€¦ well, another month or so? Omelettes are comforting, nourishing, quick and may even be ritzy if made with marvellous wild mushrooms like ceps (otherwise known as porcini).
This recipe and photo come from Barbara Schuerenberg who runs Cuisine de Provence, a highly successful cookery school in Vaison-la-Romaine. You donâ€™t have to be exact about the quantities of ingredients; they will be determined by your own preferences – and your hunger!
large handful of fresh cep mushrooms
small handful of bacon pieces, cubed
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 finely chopped, mild onion
knob of butter
salt & pepper
a few chives, snipped (optional)
1 SautÃ© all the ingredients except the eggs (and chives, if used) in butter in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until nicely browned.
2 Add the eggs, lightly beaten and seasoned with salt and pepper.
3 Allow the mixture to cook on a medium heat until the bottom of the omelette is golden brown and the top either still slightly runny or set, according to your taste. Decorate with chives if wished, slide on to a warm plate and eat immediately.
Friday, December 26th, 2014
OLIVE OIL MILL
Le Moulin du Flayosquet
04 94 70 41 45 / 06 09 39 65 72
Now that new olive oil season is here again, you may fancy the idea of seeing the oldest olive oil mill in France as much as I did – especially when you hear that it has been in operation for close to 800 years. But thereâ€™s a much more important reason to visit Max DolÃ©atto whose family have been running Le Moulin du Flayosquet for five generations. His oils are made differently from most, and they are superb.
â€˜They are all hand-decanted,â€™ he explains, â€˜so aromas arenâ€™t lost and there is absolutely no water content.â€™ In practical terms, after the olives are pressed DolÃ©atto and two helpers skim off the pure oil which rises to the top of the vats every day for a week. Solids (with a certain water content) are left behind, obviating the need for centrifugal blending or filtration.
The result? Purity and extra intensity of flavour as well as the complexity that comes of cultivating 30 olive varieties on different soils with different exposures. â€˜A bit like wine,â€™ I murmur, thinking of the different grapes from different vineyards which make up your typical CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne. â€˜Yes, a bit,â€™ he agrees, â€˜but even more complex!â€™
Max DolÃ©atto focuses on five types of oil: one made from early-fruiting Bouteillan with a green-apple bite; Tradition, a grassy blend of 12 varieties (which I particularly like); Picholine, with a slightly astringent end-note; rich, dense Authentique, made from seriously ripe olives; and a citrus oil flavoured with kumquat, clementine and lemon (terrific on sugar-dusted strawberries, simple fish or a duck salad).
As his production is limited, he sells most of it in the shop wedged into his old mill – which is just as he likes it. â€˜My oils need to be explained.â€™ Small quantities can be sent by mail order on request; his metal bottles travel well, and splendid packaging in strong ProvenÃ§al colours will remind the lucky consumer of where they come from. Not always the case with the identikit modern design that has dressed so many gorgeous local products in bland international clothes.
By the way, if you doubt his claim that many olive oils contain water, putting a few bottles in the fridge for a day or two should settle the argument. Any water content shows up as little white flecks.