Joy of Dining: Provence
|October 3, 2012||Filed under France, Gordes, Provence||
According to WebMD’s fitness and calorie calculators, each of our 20 minute walks from the rental maison to nearby restaurants burned enough calories to compensate for not much more than half a glass of vin rouge or a tablespoon of foie gras. Et alors? We didn’t care. We were on holiday!
My friends and I returned recently from a dream-like week in the heart of Provence, France, near the spectacular village of Gordes, indulging in the gastronomic abundance of the region. We almost convinced ourselves that the French paradox would apply to us since we tried so hard to dine like locals. Alas, we ate but we didn’t stay so mince.
One evening found us at Le Vieux Bistrot in Cabrieres d’Avignon, but there was nothing “old” about the youthful service and innovative presentations. Seated on the terrasse in the warm September night, I ordered beef tartare which was served deconstructed on a chopping board: sparkling beef in a canning jar, a raw egg in its holder, spices and sauces and roasted potatoes on the side.
“How are you going to eat that?” exclaimed one of my friends. After a moment of consideration, it was decided that all the ingredients were to be dumped onto the board and mixed with as much bistro-like flourish as I can muster. Voila!
Before my trip this year, I fondly recalled being at an off-the-beaten-path restaurant near the slopes of Gordes some fifteen years ago, where all the tables were set in a magical enclosed courtyard under uplit plane trees. To my very pleasant surprise, Le Mas Tourteron is still there and Chef Elisabeth Bourgeois continues to serve hearty traditional dishes.
On this visit, my satisfying meal consisted of a supremely flavorful veal tongue salad, a whole rabbit stewed in a cast iron pot, a stunning cheese plate – including the local creamy Banon wrapped and aged in chestnut leaves, and an over-the-top dessert table with a dozen selection such as luscious baked apricot topped with meringue. No one makes meringue like the French!
Our week in Provence was not all about eating out. In fact, dining at “home” produced some of the most memorable meals. There is always a farmers’ market somewhere in the Luberon, the region of Provence made internationally popular twenty-three years ago by Peter Mayle’s book “Year in Provence,” and where some of France’s most beautiful hilltop villages are located, like Gordes, Roussillon, Bonnieux and others.
Market day in Gordes is on Tuesday. Luckily for me, some of my friends are very good cooks. The ingredients for that night’s dinner came from the stalls: a variety of olives, cheeses, hams and pates to start; a gazpacho made of fresh tomatoes and herbs with all the fixings; a dish of three different sausages and sauteed vegetables, enhanced by l’huile de truffe; a rich beef stew; a great fresh salad; and moist gateaux accompanied by nougat of pistachio and almonds, the latter sliced off a massive wheel at the market.
To celebrate my upcoming birthday, a more formal dinner at the house was prepared for us by Chef Damien Gillon from Bonnieux. After the menu was decided earlier in the week, we used our tour of the southern Rhone region to select wines for dinner.
A spectacular dinner was created and enjoyed: pan seared foie gras with caramelized apple with ginger, paired with a Rasteau vin doux naturel; baked yellow bass with summer vegetables, with a refreshing white Vacqueyras; duck breast roasted with honey and lavender on fresh fig tart and potato cake, with a hearty Gigondas; grilled lamb with rosemary and carrot mousse, with an earthy Chateauneuf-du-Papes; and chocolate cake with impressive towering flares, accompanied by champagne Veuve Clicquot.
After dinner we danced until 2 am. FYI: dancing burns more calories than walking.