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.
Saturday, December 20th, 2014
V comme Vin
Place du Septier/Place Carnot
04 90 04 77 38
Thank you, Peter Mayle, for putting me on the trail of this knockout shop – an address bizarrely missed in a full decade of combing the Luberon for exceptional wines. Recently I read somewhere that Monsieur Mayle ranks it among the best wine shops in France. Now that Iâ€™ve finally visited V comme Vin, sitting inconspicuously on a quiet Apt square, I agree.
Launched in 1990, the business has been run for many years by Thierry Riols and Sylvain Curtil (in the photo), two brilliantly knowledgable and ardent wine enthusiasts. Originally called La Cave du Septier, it changed its name when an expanding internet presence demanded something catchier. â€˜Back in 1998 we were among the very first cavistes to sell online,â€™ Sylvain explains. â€˜Now internet sales account for 30 per cent of our turnover.â€™
Unlike many retailers, these two believe in the importance of getting out of the shop and into vineyards to taste, taste, taste. The result is a tremendously exciting wine selection mixing established greats with inside-track discoveries. Of the 1,000 bottlings on offer, about a third are RhÃ´ne, as you might expect, including most of the producers I especially admire (the majority featured in individual posts on this site). Burgundy is also covered with flair; the top names in Bandol are here; the Languedoc-Roussillon section has been thoughtfully expanded to represent the new energy down there; and the champagne range is sumptuous.
If Bordeaux lags behind, it is not by accident. â€˜Burgundy is more important to us than Bordeaux because we prefer to deal with individual producers – not nÃ©gociants,â€™ says Sylvain Curtil. â€˜Anyway, Bordeaux is focusing increasingly on China.â€™
Asked to grab three favourite bottles from the shelves, he plumps for Bastide du Claux Malacare Syrah from the Luberon (â‚¬10); Jean-FranÃ§ois Ganevat CÃ´tes du Jura Les Chamois du Paradis (100% Chardonnay, â‚¬22); and Nicolas Rossignol Pommard Les Vignots (about â‚¬40). Prices start at under â‚¬5 and go up to multiple figures – for spirits as well as wines. Japanese whiskey is hot.
Saturday, December 13th, 2014
The bubbly glass of Biot
BIOT – NEAR ANTIBES
Encapsulating a mass of tiny bubbles, the glassware of Biot is so famous that you might imagine it rooted in centuries-old tradition. In fact it dates only from the mid-1950s. The hill village of Biot overlooking the coast near Antibes had been an important centre for pottery from the 16th century until the early 1900s; then mainly agricultural until Fernand LÃ©ger and other artists arrived to give it an arty edge.
Itâ€™s touristy, certainly; a visit one Sunday during a weekend on the coast revealed so many visitors drifting in and out of so many glassworks that it seems I am not the only person to have lusted after a Biot water jug for an eternity.
The RaphaÃ«l Farinelli studio at the bottom of the hill makes an interesting starting point – for glass as art, however, rather than glass for the dinner table. The pieces on offer range in style from exquisite toâ€¦ well, outsize versions of animal glass ornaments. As for the prices, they seem to be aimed at CÃ´te dâ€™Azur Ferrari drivers – making the traditional bubbly Biot glass on sale elsewhere seem like a brilliant bargain.
A clatter of glass companies offer fairly similar wares in the delicate colours that are typical of Biot – pale apricot, apple green, lavender, lemon, rose and so on. Iâ€™m delighted with my curvy, sky-blue jug, bought at the Verrerie du Val de Pome for under â‚¬50; although I might just as easily have made a purchase at the Verrerie de Biot or some other studio. By the way, the business of trapping the bubbles was developed in 1956 by Eloi Monod, a ceramic artist who discovered that molten glass reacted rather dramatically to a sprinkling of bicarbonate of soda.
More information on www.biot-tourisme.com
Sunday, December 7th, 2014
La Nougaterie des Fumades
GARD – NEAR LUSSAN
Hameau de Boisson
04 66 24 26 85
Iâ€™m not a bit surprised that the lemon and thyme nougat made by Sylvie and Philippe Dura earned a gold medal earlier this year from the Militants du GoÃ»t association which promotes the best Gard produce. Itâ€™s delicious. What did take me by surprise was Sylvieâ€™s comment: â€˜Itâ€™s excellent with fish en papillote.â€™
In the dozen years since they moved from Nice (where Philippe ran a restaurant) to launch a nougaterie deep in the Gard, the Duras have created 36 kinds of nougat – all of the soft type, made without artificial colourings or flavourings. Rosemary, lavender, fig and nut, rose, cherry, apple and cinnamon, truffleâ€¦ these are just a few that caught my eye when I dropped into their workshop-cum-shop in a vaulted 16th-century cellar beneath the ChÃ¢teau dâ€™AllÃ¨gre.
But nougat with fish – really? â€˜They can all be used in cooking – even with meat or fish,â€™ Sylvie insists. â€˜For example, you should try carrÃ© dâ€™agneau with a nougat crust, or scallops with a mandarin nougat butterâ€¦The current sucrÃ©-salÃ© (sweet-salty) trend is helping us a lot.â€™ As further proof she points to a book of 40 nougat-rich recipes inspired by Fumades flavours and published by Hachette Cuisine.
Lemon and thyme has become their bestseller, closely followed by caramel with fleur de sel. Next comes the good old traditional variety – 50 per cent of it made up by fat French almonds which are oven-toasted before being added to the egg white-sugar-honey mix. This one will find a place on hundreds of Christmas tables, surely.
Monday, December 1st, 2014
ALL OVER PROVENCE
Little discs of chocolate decorated with dried fruits and nuts are particularly popular around Christmas in Provence. Among the â€˜13 dessertsâ€™ (more accurately small, sweet things) which form part of the traditional ProvenÃ§al Christmas meal, four are termed mendiants because they represent the mendicant monastic orders: raisins for the Dominicans, dried figs for the Franciscans, hazelnuts for the Augustinians and almonds for the Carmelites. Chocolate mendiants can be decorated with these four things – or pretty much any combination of dried fruits and nuts that takes the cookâ€™s fancy.
They couldnâ€™t be easier to make and you donâ€™t need to worry about precise quantities of ingredients. Simply start with the amount of chocolate that you want to use and have your choice of toppings to hand.
Good-quality dark chocolate (65% cocoa solids)
A variety of about four toppings – e.g. almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins, dried cranberries, dried apricots (quartered or chopped), dried figs (quartered or chopped), candied orange peel, chopped crystallised ginger
1 Line a baking tray with baking parchment.
2 Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl which sits snugly above a saucepan of warm water. Heat the water until it just begins to boil, then turn off the heat. Let the chocolate continue to melt slowly above the hot water, stirring it occasionally.
3 Depending on whether you prefer large or small mendiants, use a dessertspoon or a teaspoon to spoon the chocolate on to the baking tray to form rounds, leaving a gap of about 5cm between them.
4 Tap the baking tray on the work surface gently so that the chocolate spreads out smoothly with no air bubbles.
5 Place your assortment of dried fruits and nuts on top of each mendiant before the chocolate sets.
6 Leave in a cool place until set, then carefully remove from the baking parchment.
Tuesday, November 25th, 2014
HOTEL / RESTAURANT
Auberge de Banne
Place du Fort
04 75 36 66 10
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
A large swathe of Provence shuts its doors from Halloweâ€™en until Easter, or from late November until early March. A huge pity as winter can be magical with dazzling skies, the scent of woodsmoke in the air and black truffles for the occasional gastronomic blast. Three loud cheers, then, for this cheerful, comfortable hotel-restaurant which stays open 365 days a year.
FranÃ§ois Dumas, an interior architect originally from the Southern ArdÃ¨che but working for a time in London, became so frustrated by the limitations of local hospitality on visits home that he decided to convert a fine old house on Banneâ€™s main square into a 12-room hotel. Itâ€™s modern-retro in style: modern as far as the bedrooms and bathrooms are concerned, with touches of nostaligia downstairs – especially in the brasserie-style restaurant with its dark red seats, marble-topped tables and black-and-white film star photos. (Catherine Deneuve has already visited and signed hers.)
Food is simple and hearty to suit ArdÃ¨chois appetites. Breakfast, served on the verandah, weather permitting, raises the usual buffet experience up a notch with coffee or tea served individually at tables creditably decked with white cloths and large white napkins. Factor in the pretty backdrop of Banne – an alluring little village – and youâ€™ll be glad you stopped by.