Friday, June 1, 2012

Provence

After several days in the bustle of Paris, my dad and I continued our excellent France adventure in Provence for a little countryside relaxation.  We took the easy 2:45 high speed TGV train down to Avignon and began with a tour of the Palais des Papes, aka the Pope's Palace.


There were two different styles of the building produced at different times by different people and personalities.  You have the more serious Pope Benedict XII that built the Old Palace between 1334 and 1342, and then the free wheeling Pope Clement VI built the more decorative New Palace a decade later.


After checking out the former Pope's quarters, we drove 45 minutes to our hotel Oustau de Baumeniere in Les Baux de Provence.  Les Baux is a beautiful little town nestled in, around and under huge rock peaks that form a valley where our hotel sat.


We lucked into some good dining as the night we arrived was the first time they were serving dinner on the beautiful terrace, surrounded by the immense, jagged rock face.


The restaurant has two Michelin stars, and won our vote as our favorite meal due to the beautiful location, wonderful food, and relaxed atmosphere (vs 3 Star Meurice a few days before).  Maybe it also had something to do with the amazingly large wine list too.


We had wonderful foie gras, the freshest of seafood, and also some tender poultry. 
Each plate had its own vibrant color palette.

 
 

We were also big fans of the cheese and sweets cart, which contained all preserved fruits, but don't worry, there was also chocolate.

 

After a good night's sleep under the darkest of skies with such extreme quiet, we were ready for wine tasting in Chateauneuf du Pape.  We first had to lay a base for drinking all day and we enjoyed a lovely breakfast back on the terrace of our hotel.  A wine tour was the only thing that was going to get us out of our wonderful oasis.


We hired the former hotel sommelier Celine to take us on this tour and show us her countryside.  Celine is a very warm, French woman who was extremely knowledgeable of the area and was able to get us into normally closed wineries to do some tastings.


We started with Domaine de la Janasse, which I have enjoyed in the past, and will again with my new purchase.

We walked through the tiny town of Chateauneuf du Pape, where the pope's would summer.  With views like this, you could understand.  The popes were also instrumental in getting the vines planted as early back as the 14th Century.

 

We had lunch at Le Verger des Papes near the last standing wall of the Pope's summer house on a nice terrace overlooking the area. Celine (and the restaurant management) were a little perplexed and disappointed that we didn't drink wine at lunch.  My dad is new at this and because I was trying to stay on good behavior, we held out until our afternoon tastings.


After lunch, we stopped at Domaine de Beaurenard, one of CNP's first families in the area growing wine.  The domaine has been in the family for 7 generations, and they use a blend of many different indigenous grapes.

 

Our final stop was Domaine Le Pointu where they have a two generation wine family with the son now leading the charge.  They just use two grapes in each wine, setting them apart from others in the area.


I've been to Chateaufneuf du Pape before, and have to say that these are not my favorite wines.  Shocking, I know.  Some of them can be quite strong and very dry, and what can I say, I like to taste the grape in my wine.  That said, I did drink some that I liked (shocking again), but overall, I prefer other French regions to this one.


It was still a great day in the country and vines, followed by a dinner right down the street from our hotel at the cute, La Riboto de Taven.  The small restaurant includes a few rooms to stay overnight, and is set in an equally lovely setting, run by a friendly French couple.



My dad loved his salad with sweetbreads and I loved my fish.  The menu changes daily and features the latest ingredients growing in the fields.

 

The next day we drove about 45 minutes to the popular weekly outdoor market in L'Isle Sur La Sogue. 


People travel from all around to visit this Sunday market that winds around outside, along the canals of the town and includes antiques, clothes, shoes, food, produce, hats, belts, and just about anything else you can imagine - like a police mannequin.

 

It's huge and goes into and around all the streets in the town.  We got there just before the huge crowds started rolling in around 9:30am.  It's always good to get out before the tour buses arrive.


We continued our tour throughout the countryside and stopped in the red covered town of Roussillon.  It's beautiful mountain top is covered in red ocher cliffs...and tourists if you get there too late.

 


Gordes was a quick jump east of here, and is another beautiful town set on a mountaintop, but this one in done in more classic colors.



After a brief stop in St. Remy to round out our date and fulfill our sweet crepe urge, we got ready for our dinner at L'Atelier in Arles.  We wandered the mostly closed and uninteresting town before dinner to look at the ruins (which are in fact interesting), and watch the sunset along the Rhone River.


I had eaten at the now 2 Michelin starred L'Atelier almost 10 years ago and remembered it as a major culinary highlight of my newly blooming foodie life, and was curious to see how it would compare now.  New was an Asian themed room where you are first seated and asked if you want an appertif.  We of course started with a glass of champagne as we did at every meal, and then we proceeded to get 5 different plates.  We weren't sure if they were amuse bouche or if our multi course meal had begun, but we were happy with things like rice krispies and garlic ice cream.

 

After our champagne and 5 courses were finished, we were led into another small room.  This was the room where I had previously eaten.  It turns out our meal hadn't even begun.  It's a no choice menu but you can order a wine pairing or pick your own bottle. 


In total, we ate close to 20 small plates of interesting tastes and textures.  The foie gras in between light pastry with mushrooms and balsamic vinegar was a hit and one of our favorites, along with grilled asparagus with egg and bacon bits, and a Thai flavored fish with galangal and basil.

 
 

The rest was fine.  The tableside, homemade Bearnaise was nice on ok buffalo.

 
 
Some of it blurred into the next, like the 5 different desserts.  5 different cheeses is one thing, but the desserts were overkill (sorry my sweet toothed friends!).

 
 
 

The service was also a bit erratic.  We got a dish that we had already eaten two courses ago.  If we had liked it more, we would have eaten it again.  So the memory was better than the current day reality, but luckily we created many more memories this week.

On our final full day we went to Aix en Provence, which is one of the bigger, more "cosmopolitan" towns in Provence with shops that you'll also find in Paris and much more action going on.  We arrived on one of France's many May holidays so not everything was open, but it still was nice to stroll through the cobblestone, pedestrian streets, and of course there's always a place open for lunch.

 

Our final afternoon was spent at the spa and enjoying our relaxing hotel.  Then we went to St. Remy for our final dinner at La Maison Jaune.  This was quite the sleeper hit of the trip.  They had a lovely terrace with friendly servers.


We had the latest from the garden with a fresh fruit soup and a mix of vegetables on top.  There was also fresh grilled artichokes with a spinach cake.

 

We had interesting pairings of shrimp and chorizo and a perfectly cooked and flavorful lamb.













On our last day, we hiked to the top of Les Baux to see the chateau - and also attempt to work off some foie gras.

The views were breathtaking and you could see our hotel from the top.



It was a wonderful trip with talks of future trips, but not until we dry out and eat a lot of one course meals!


4 comments:

  1. The scenery and the food look amazzzing. My fav restaurant here is call Les Baux which thanks to you I now know is a town and not simply The Bow.

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  2. I can't believe I missed a restaurant! Next time!

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  3. It looks amazing , we are about to do a similar trip in a month , Haidee from Tasmania

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  4. Enjoy your trip Haidee. Hopefully you'll be there while the lavender is blooming, which is supposed to be amazing.

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