1940s Archive

An Epicurean Tour of the French Provinces


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The vins rosés of Tavel are the second proud boast of Provence. They are nervous, limpid wines, with a delicate amber-rose color. They are best when they are young, and hey carry deceptive strength. In Provence, as elsewhere, they are served cool, and they go equally well with fish or meat. The pink wines of Lirac and Gigondas have a little less subtlety but are worth trying.

The actual territorial limits of Provence are a little vague. It seems to spill over many borders, bringing its gaiety and its aromatic cooking along. For the purposes of this gastronomic chapter, I have taken the liberty of limiting discussion to the four départements of Vaucluse, Bouches-duRhône, Var, and Basses-Alpes. For a succeeding article, the Côte d'Azur running from Marseilles eastward and the AlpesMaritimes départment have been grouped. Let no one assume that the cuisine of the Comté de Nice and Provence are one and the same. Far from it!

Provence, as thus delimited, included two quite different areas—the foothills of the Alps and the fabulous, romantic triangle of land which fans out toward the sea south of Avignon. It is this latter charmed countryside which attracts visitors from all over the world. At the risk of being guidebookish once again, I can't resist setting down some of the highlights of this perfectly marvelous country, made to order for the artist, the poet, the historian, the archaeologist, and the substantial garden variety of tourist who does the most to make up the dollar deficit. The classic list of towns to visit is in every guidebook, and I have the temerity to repeat it here merely because these sources aren't always so useful in suggesting where the hungry visitor should stop, and where he should whisk by.

Starting at the top of our informal map you find:

ORANGE—A sleepy, close-knit town which preserves two extraordinary reminders of its splendor in Roman days, a triumphal arch and a massive antique theater. The magnificent north wall of the theater is still, after two thousand years, the most imposing wall in Europe. Orange is definitely not a place to stop overnight, but it offers a first-class relay for luncheon or dinner, the Restaurant le Provençal. This is the most up-and-coming enterprise in this somnolent city, an inviting auberge restored in the contemporary Provençal style. A gracious lady, a “cordon bleu emeritus” they tell me, receives her guests and keeps a sharp eye on their needs. The service is able, and the fare (which is less Provençal than the décor) very good. hey have their own way of preparing a terrine and a leg of lamb, and are rightfully proud of their canard aux olives, which was scrumptious accompanied by that limpid sunshine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

VAISON-LA-ROMAINE—Another antique site where excavations have uncovered the eloquent remains of a Roman city, more modest than Pompeii but reminiscent of it. The town is built on both banks of the rive Ouvèze. After visiting the excavations and the hilltop theater, you cross this river by a Roman bridge to be confronted with a semideserted Renaissance hill town whose steep cobbled streets look forbidding indeed. But if you leave your car on the lower level and climb the narrow passage on foot, a true epicurean award awaits you! This is the Hôtel Le Beffroi, as atmospheric a country inn as you will find in many a moon. An appreciative landlord has restored this fine old house, furnished it appropriately, and endowed it with a tradition of fine cooking. His flowery terrace dominates the old Roman town, and you may dine with an inspiring panorama before you. The food is almost as good as the atmosphere, which is intended as high praise.

The idea of installing a temple of gastronomy in some remote hill town is gaining ground in France. Another visit to the old “Ostellerie” in the fascinating, half-abandoned hill town of Pérouges (mentioned in GOURMET, March 1949) tempts me to underscore it as one of the best recommendations in this series.

VAUCLUSE—Deep in a rocky gorge near this little town is one of the most celebrated curiosities in France, the Fontaine de Vaucluse. From a grotto hedged in by cliffs, a subterranean river bursts forth with a roar, becoming in a few yards the placid river Sorgue. Here came Pettarch in the fourteenth century to write and mediate for long years about his beloved Laura. As a result, every institution from cafés to pastry shops and garages seems to be named after either one or the other of the lovers. It is pleasant to report that in the Jardin de Pétrarque you will find a worthy spot for luncheon. This is the Restaurant Philip, whose greatest asset is its idyllic setting beside the newly born stream. In this cool, sylvan spot they provide a good luncheon, highlighting trout, crayfish, and poularde de Bresse for something like a thousand francs, wine included. The setting alone is worth that!

CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE—The archaeologist won't stop long here, except to take a fleeting glimpse at the ruined tower of the old château, but the oenophile and the epicure will find it a haven of contentment. There are two restaurants which merit your consideration. Both of them do justice to the proud name of their city and the vineyards which rise above it. The Restaurant La Mule du Pape is one of them. It is named for the humble mule, the approved means of locomotion for the Pope in the days when Avignon was a papal stronghold. The food has more of the true Provençal character here, and you can order a meal dominated by regional specialties. You can't in most places. They appear to think that too “fragrant” a cuisine drives away the carriage trade, and maybe it does. We indulged in a whole panorama of fragrance: olives, onions, eggplant, brandade de morue, moussaka, tomates provençale, and a luxurious bunch of grapes to tidy up the palate. The wine was just what you would expect—a revelation in just how good Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be.

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