During the past few decades, when the automobile has reduced the adventure of traveling over the highway between Paris and the Mediterranean to an entirely casual affair, a few traditions have gradually established themselves. One of them is that a rapturously epicurean, hang-the-expense, overnight stop (or maybe two of them) should occur along the way. Thus a string of the very finest restaurants in France now await the traveler about midway. Among them are the celebrated shrine of Point, Restaurateur, at Vienne, the Hôtel de la Poste at Avallon, the Hôtel Côte d'Or at Saulieu, the unobtrusive Hôtel Bourgeois in Priay, the Hôtel Barattero in Lamastre, the Restaurant Pic in Valence, not to mention the garland of gastronomic glories in Lyons.
Another tradition, slightly less gustatory, is that an incidental visit to the luminous, mystical plains of Provence is almost an obligation. Barring mortal combat in one of the above-mentioned kitchens, or a raging tempest along the banks of the lower Rhône, I cannot imagine anyone's being disappointed in either of these pre-Riviera diversions.
Provence is a strange land of alternating poverty and plenty. Some of its barren, hilly stretches are austere and melancholy, relieved only by rolling acres of olive trees and clusters of live oaks. Then suddenly you come into a brilliant, lyric garden in the delta of the Rhône, a fabulously fertile area where low fields of vegetables and berries adjoin orchards heavy with cherries, peaches, pomegranates, and almonds. To protect such delicacies from the mistral, the devastating north wind which occasionally swoops down in winter, long hedges of cypresses have been closely knit together down through the years, forming a somber hurdle against the elements.
The farmhouses are low and colorful, often pinkish, mauve, or pale green, and their tile roofs are weighted down with stones to keep them from being blown away in winter. These farmhouses and their regimented hedges of cypresses, together with the inevitable olive tree, a gnarled dwarf flashing its silvery mantle, constitute the hallmark of Provence. A haunting perfume lingers over the countryside. It is undefinable, but it seems to contain a dash of lavendar, the odor of ripe melons and drying figs, the aroma of pure olive oil blended with a suspicion of fennel, thyme, and saffron, and, of course, a gentle breeze of garlic.
The Provençal climate is idyllic most of the time. The villager takes shelter from the hot summer sun under the thick foliage of plane trees. When it gets too chilly, there is a pleasant glassedin café terrace to welcome him. Everything seems to conspire to make this a nice relaxed place where people talk and gesture a lot, play boules under the trees, and don't try to work too hard. There is joie de vivre here, and plenty of laughter, good wine, late hours, and amorous smiles.
They love their food, too. Theirs is a good country cooking, boldly spiced and haunted by that ”truffle of Provence,” garlic. Pure olive oil replaces butter in most of the cooking. “A fish lives in water and dies in oil” is a Provençal truism. They aren't boastful about their meat, although their salt-marsh mutton is more than presentable, but what they do to that fish of theirs!
Bouillabaisse, bourride, baudrois, brandade—each a strange local word denoting an exotic method of sublimating the “fruit of the Mediterranean”—are fixtures in most Provençal households. They dote on morue, salt codfish, manipulating it in strange and delectable ways which would stand emulation in other countries. Their celebrated aïoli, a sort of mayonnaise, unctuously blends finely ground garlic, egg yolks, and olive oil. Their snails, while not so sumptuous as the ocher-shelled giants from Burgundy, are just as delicious—and “fragrant.” The eggplant, the onion, and the “apple of love” (tomatoes to us) are their chosen vegetables. Melons, peppers, and black olives are a ritual part of their hors d'oeuvres. The ripe fig is their cherished fruit, and they have a weakness for sweets, especially glacéed fruits and melons, nougat and chocolates.
Not that all natives of Provence are gastronomically minded. Take, for example the exposed citizen who watches over the flocks of sheep grazing on the hills of Camargue and in the swampy lowlands of the Scamandre. It's a hard life, and the famished shepherd will eat about anything. Herons, gulls, or any available fowl, even though it gorges itself on fish and tastes accordingly, is acceptable. He will eat fox when he has to. He soaks the carcass of the fox in the Rhône to make it tender, then hands it in a strong wind for a few days until it loses some of its strong perfume. Finally, after soaking it in vinegar, he cooks it in wine.
One wine reigns supreme in Provence — the ardent, soul-warming Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The sun-soaked slopes in this part of the Rhône Valley produce a wine of enviable richness and body, imbued with the color of purple sunsets and the subtle bouquet of ripe raspberry. At one time no wine name was more abused and misappropriated (unless, perhaps, it was Chablis), but the laws on appellations have restored to Châteauneuf-du-Pape its fine integrity. The subject deserves more exploration, and if you want to see how noble this wine can be, try a bottle of a good year from one of these properties: Château Fortia, Château de la Nerthe, Cabrières-lèsSilex, Château des Fines-Roches, Château de Vaudieu, Domaine de Nalis, Clos de Papes, or Château Rayas. There are two good inns at Châteauneuf-du-Pape whose cellars contain many of these crus. Château Rayas, by he way, produces a remarkable fruity white wine running over 15 degrees in strength.