A Guide to Secret Provence
Author: Sophie Dening
Photography: Nicole Franzen
Among a puzzle of bumpy farm tracks between Villes-sur-Auzon and Méthamis stands La Ferme du Pezet, a stone-built mas where balmy evenings unfold beneath a giant horse chestnut strung with lightbulbs. Before chef-patron Pascal Morin took over the restaurant 21 years ago, the tables were virtually in the vineyards. Now there's a smart paved terrace with a little wall to stop you falling into Château Pesquié's grenache, but the feeling of being surrounded by wine country is still thrilling. The vines extend in leafy lines towards the west and, 29 kilometres to the north, mighty Mont Ventoux loses its shape gradually as dinner heads towards nougat glacé.
When Marc Valentini, an organic winemaker and fruit grower based a couple of kilometres away at Saint-Estève, looks out towards the setting sun from the dinner table, he leans back and spreads out his arms. "This living valley of ours - it's unique, it's generous, it's beautiful," he says. Valentini starts work far too early to be over-sentimental about the land, but now that the day's heat is receding and there's a great big magret de canard in front of him - with mash, baked tomatoes and a syrupy nectarine sauce - he can emote happily.
Hôtel Crillon le Brave
The glass of Ventoux AOC in his hand is from Domaine de la Massane at Bédoin, one of 130 wineries in the appellation and at the heart of the Vaucluse department. Apart from its wine, this mountainous region bordered by the Rhône to the west and the Durance River to the south is famous for the legendary Ventoux, the hardest climb in the Tour de France. Valentini's own domaine, Grand Vallat, is tiny and well respected. When he retires next year, he can do so with pride, a creator of wines that joyfully express their terroir.
Thirty years ago, most of this fertile bowl, south-east of the Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC and north of the Lubéron, produced grapes for the local cave coopérative and more or less gluggable table wine. Growers began to do their own thing during the 1980s and, now that Gigondas and Vacqueyras are in the money as Burgundy prices hurtle towards absurdity, the Ventoux AOC is becoming more and more interesting.
Lavender fields, Sault
Near Flassan - a staging post for cyclists about to tackle the big hill - Paul Vendran tends the same grapes that his father, Albert, sold to the co-op, only he grows chardonnay, as well as viognier, is now certified organic and his reds are structured enough to age a little. His Ferme Saint-Pierre makes a prettily rustic dégustation stop, an unflashy shed of a winery among lush foothills - though, Vendran tells me, he is so used to the view it doesn't wow him much. Domaine Le Van in Bédoin is an organic vineyard, referred to in France as "bio". Its Zinc des Potes syrah is made with carbonic maceration, a Beaujolais technique that creates light, fruity, chillable reds. Then there are newcomers, such as Englishman Graham Shore at Domaine Vintur near Caromb, who acquired his patch of fully mature vines in 2010 and has already been festooned with awards.
The pace of change for visitors to the region has been slow and steady, too. Belgians and Dutch on two wheels are hooked on its Tour de France thrills, and there's a hard core of Anglo expats who came for a summer and stayed. Compared with the Lubéron and the Riviera even more so, the Comtat Venaissin (the valley's historic designation; it was a papal enclave until the 1800s) is Provence untouched and untouristy. Some of its prettiest villages don't even have shops, let alone boutiques. The spectacular produce in the markets - Carpentras strawberries, melons from Cavaillon, Venasque cherries, Caromb figs, white and green asparagus from Monteux - doesn't always translate into great restaurant food, but you'll eat like a cardinal if you know where to go.
Dishes at Restaurant Jérôme Blanchet at Hôtel Crillon le Brave: purple potato gnocchi, seasonal vegetables and Burgundy truffle (top), sea bass carpaccio with Espelette pepper, crisp Provençal snails and caviar (bottom).
One of Valentini's recommendations is a drive to see Patricia Carreaux, a cheesemaker high up at Col Notre Dame des Abeilles, a wild eyrie on the route from Villes to Sault. As you leave the fertile basin behind and climb to meet the mountain's bare shoulders, hardy trees crouch to tough it out against the mistral. It feels like the edge of the map, with nothing but scrubby steepness from here to the first outposts of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department. Madame is taciturn (what did I expect from a lady who lives on a hilltop with a herd of goats?) but her smallholding is all charm, with a sweet and friendly guard dog, roses by the door of the low-tech crèmerie, and potted herbs for sale. Her handmade cheeses - crottins from frais to sec - are €1.50 a piece, and count as a true flavour of this part of France.
On the approach to Sault, a village under UNESCO protection, a single rogue lavender field appears on the right, then another. Then, as I take a hairpin bend, an immense counterpane of green, gold and purple unfurls, which will last until the harvest in mid-July. Sleepy Sault is on the tourist map, with the odd coach in the car park in summer, even on non-market days. Come for an ice-cream, a couple of fantastic food shops, and the lunch of an oenophile's dreams.
After a sniff around the Maison des Producteurs, which sells the local spelt grain and all items lavendery (sweets, honey, baby bath, dried lavender flowers), I head for Yves et Virginie, a pair of impeccably kept side-by-side produce stores to plan a picnic around. The saucissons are house-made, and the lamb ham - Yves' original invention, he says, made from boned-out gigot - is from local animals. His little shop is garlanded with cured sausages, terrines in jars (pheasant, wild boar), taxidermy and the diplomas to back up his proud demeanour. The counter is a neat-looking feast of caillettes, aka Provençal faggots, goat's cheese wrapped in cured ham, jambon persillé, carrot salad and stuffed vine leaves.
Yves et Virginie
Close by is Le Provençal restaurant, endorsed by every sommelier in the region. There are simple, enjoyable dishes here, such as chilled aubergine timbale with tomato coulis, then garlicky pork medallions or duck with olives, and Paris-Brest or peach ice-cream to end. Both the interior and shady terrace are plain and low key, and it's cash only for lunch menus around $24; nothing screams "amazing Loire/Burgundy wine list", yet there it all is: magnums of Didier Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé, 1996 Clos Rougeard, and Corton and La Tâche grand crus at low mark-ups. As I lunch with a humble glass of Mâcon-Villages, I see the manager of André Boyer, the beautifully panelled nougaterie that sells the elegant almond sweets called calissons, on her way home for lunch, closely followed by her grey cat, Mimi.
Some of the most ambitious cooking hereabouts is served on the panoramic terrace of Hôtel Crillon le Brave, a rambling, historic concatenation of eight ancient houses in a village that was all but abandoned after World War II. Crillon is stylish and luxe, with two restaurants, a bar, a swimming pool with a view, and a chic spa housed in old stables. Big, cool, calm suites are decorated in soft greys and mauves, with traditional tomette floor tiles, massive wardrobes and paintings by fêted local artist Julian Merrow-Smith.
Hôtel Crillon le Brave
Chef Jérôme Blanchet, previously at top chef-finishing school Le Chantecler at the Negresco in Nice, started at the Crillon three years ago, and has won a local following and wide reputation. The old Provençal tropes were dismissed and regional flavours embraced with aplomb. This means prettily plated lamb and pork from Ventoux, wild trout from L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, game and mushrooms in season, foie gras from the Negresco's supplier, Bresse chicken, Breton lobster and cheeses from Carpentras legend Claudine Vigier. After dainty amuse-bouches of aubergine tempura and lentil gazpacho, a precise and vivid dish of crab royale comes with a gelée of tomato water from super-ripe tomatoes from Eygalières, creamy burratina, beetroot crunch and cornflower petals. Sommelier Bénoît Liébus has matched the crab with a grenache-roussanne-clairette from Domaine de Fondrèche, near Mazan. Across the valley, all the greens change to the same smoky blue as night falls.
It's easy to assume that the hotel, which comprises 28 rooms, seven suites and a standalone two-bedroom house, occupies the entire village, but there are 250 other houses in Crillon, and when I step out of Maison Philibert (each grand stone building is named for a former resident), I remind myself I am in a public street, not a hotel corridor. There are private nooks to repair to: the pétanque piste above the pool, and a quiet little adults-only sun trap for imbibing Henri Bardouin pastis on a lounger. Lunch is crudités and club sandwiches on the terrace; the jollier second restaurant, a cosy courtyard with eyefuls of bougainvillea, fig and olive trees, has a blackboard menu of soupe au pistou, goat's cheese salad, spelt risotto, and custardy cherry clafoutis.
Château de Mazan
The hotel can arrange truffle and wine weekends, and cycling sprees, or simply direct guests to that day's nearest market. It's a 10-minute drive to the small town of Bédoin, whose traders do nicely from the velophile dollar. The modest main drag is lined with cafés and bistros (my favourite is the family-run Gousse d'Ail for truffle-stuffed guinea fowl, or gigot with garlic), and resounds with street commerce every Monday morning.
Avoid the saucissons and soaps - any local will tell you the quality is better in the supermarket. Check out olive-wood bowls and chopping boards, etchings and laminated tablecloths in jaunty Provençal repeat patterns; virtually everything here is "artisanale", even fridge magnets of puppy photos. For something truly handcrafted, head up a set of stone steps near the Centre Culturel to find the Poterie Brueder, where Louis and Virginie Brueder make, fire and sell wonderful stoneware bowls and plates, glazed in flaming red and black. For a snack to go, Lou Cigalou is the bakery that supplies Hôtel Crillon le Brave; the cannelés and focaccia at Olivero-Ravel are good, too.
Smaller and more strollable, the Saturday market at Pernes-les-Fontaines takes place along the pedestrianised canalside Quai de Verdun, and is truly charming. Look out for the straw baskets called cabas, mountain cheeses such as tomme de brebis, rosy garlic, picholine olives, and the strawberries, melons, cherries and apricots attracting the longest queues. The rôtisserie chicken, quail and guinea fowl look, smell and are good, and don't miss tarts sweet and savoury, made in a pizza van by a guy called Denis. Twenty organic producers - of spelt pasta, Camargue red rice, Ventoux chickpeas, fruit juices from Flassan - are represented by a woman called Isabelle and her tiny green trailer.
Cheese at Bédoin farmers' market
Among the honey producers here, as well as in Bédoin and Carpentras, are Edmond Ziaja and his wife, who have a farm near Pernes and move their 700 colonies as far as Sault and Banon, according to season. Ziaja is a former electrician who has been a bee man since his teens, and now concentrates on apiculture, making wonderful lavender, acacia and chestnut honey, as well as heady garrigue scented with wild Provençal herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary.
Good, simple places to eat in Pernes are the restaurant at organic vineyard La Camarette, and Côté Jardin grill, just by the market. In Saint-Didier, a short drive to the east, an unexpected village find is Régalia, run by the charming Renaud Boisson and Yuko Kai, who offer refreshing respite from regional cuisine via handmade sushi, gyoza and even chawanmushi. In Venasque, a picturesque, unspoilt village perché surrounded by forest and rock formations, Les Remparts is a modest yet excellent place to dine next to big open windows, among paintings by the owners' friends, on dishes such as a tomato Tatin or tiramisù Provençal with pesto, confit quail with anchoïade, spiced magret de canard, and classic crème brûlée or île flottante.
I came across Régalia thanks to a tip from Joanna King, who makes and sells organic wine with her husband, James, between Venasque and Méthamis, the latter a medieval village overlooking the Gorges de la Nesque, with virtually zero tourist traffic. Château Unang, passed down among the bishops of Venasque until the end of the 17th century, is worth visiting for a wine tasting just to experience what Joanna calls "the amazing soul or feeling about the place".
From a wine point of view, the domaine has its own geological designation; the soil is called "sable d'Unang" and, intriguingly, crops up in the Gigondas AOC, too. Unang's wines have a particular freshness, thanks to the cooler mornings in this protected part of the valley. Sample them and take a walk round the vineyard without an appointment, or reserve a picnic dégustation at a private table set in the formal gardens with fougasse, goat's cheese, tapenade and caviar d'aubergines, plus wine, naturally, fruit, and nougat from Saint-Didier. Joanna also puts on cheese and wine tastings with Claudine Vigier.
Incomers from the Vendée (which makes them foreigners, they tell me), Philippe Danel and Marie Pirsch found Domaine du Tix in ruins in 2001, surrounded by four hectares of table grapes and all but hidden in the woods between Mormoiron and tiny, pretty Blauvac, below the chapel at Notre Dame des Anges. They've grown their winery from scratch, forging a completely new life and vocation, and produce what Danel describes as "a departure from aggressive hunters' wine", full of complexity and elegance. Next door, rurally speaking, is Domaine des Anges vineyard, where the now-retired Malcolm Swan pioneered interesting winemaking in the Ventoux during the 1970s and 1980s.
Domaine du Tix
Mazan, a no-nonsense market town on the way to Carpentras, has a glamorous Marquis de Sade connection in the shape of Château de Mazan, built for the Sade clan around 1720 and the depraved aristo's home at the time that he created France's first theatre festival in 1772. Frédéric Lhermie and his mother bought the mansion in 2001 and restored it in sober, elegant style, bringing paintings and antiques from their family home, and decorating each of the 30 rooms individually.
The restaurant has a terrific reputation for refined gastronomy - especially fish and seafood, often lacklustre in the Vaucluse. Chef Franck Pujol is Breton, hence the special lobster menu alongside the truffle menu, which pairs seared red mullet with truffled parmesan cream, and rhum baba with truffle ice-cream.
Carpentras is the capital and commercial centre of the Comtat Venaissin, with a population of 30,000, and an historic old-town quarter with remarkable façades, a Roman arch, a 14th-century synagogue and 15th-century cathedral. The market that takes place every Friday is immense, and a leisurely walk around it makes a good introduction to the city. Among excellent shops is a pair of unmissable specialists. La Fromagerie du Comtat Vigier, established in 1982 by a couple from Lozère, is run by their daughter Claudine who not only attends to her cheeses and her customers with great sensitivity, but also nurtures her suppliers, fosters an impressive local network, and plays ambassador for French cheeses overseas.
Vigier is not wholly about cheese. A gaze around reveals saffron from Pernes, jam made with Cavaillon melon, truffled artichoke cream, pork terrine laced with lavender, and wines from Unang, Fondrèche and Paul Vendran. But the selection of goat's cheeses alone is an education: Chevrotin des Aravis from the Haute-Savoie, chèvre lauze du Fraischamps from Le Beaucet (the prettiest, with edible flowers), Saint-Gens from Mont Ventoux, rolled in chestnut ash, wine-washed picodon from Dieulefit. Ask about the house specialities, too: Fourme des Dentelles, injected with muscat de Beaumes de Venise, le Petit Colonel en Vadrouille, made with apple macerated in Pommeau, or the Brin d'Amour, a Corsican sheep's cheese with Ventoux herbs.
Turn right out of Vigier and walk down rue d'Inguimbert until reaching rue l'Évêché. Turn left to have a drink in the square; turn right for a world-class chocolatier and confectioner so brilliant that Japanese admirers have collaborated with the owners on a branch in Tokyo. Pâtisserie Jouvaud is a third-generation enterprise, established in 1948, and a delight. Polished wood, brass and gleaming glass form a reassuringly old-school backdrop for Florentines, calissons, candied fruits, chocolate slabs studded with nuts, huge meringues called rocailles, cream cakes, orangettes and dragées.
It's very smart in Jouvaud, with its sophisticated lollipops and the chic yet restrained homewares section. There are cute reminders here that we're not far from the ploughshare or the hoe: marshmallows in seasonal fruit flavours, and little bags of "olives" made from grilled almonds in green-lacquered dark chocolate.
The Pays du Ventoux is fruitful above all, from the grape to the olive and the juicy cherry. Small producers are highly visible, with their single-product stalls at the tiniest markets. "It feels very real living here," says Joanna King. "There are still small farmers in the village who work their asparagus or cherries. We drive around thinking, gosh, this is just our trip to the shops or the school run, but it's so beautiful."
Our driving tour of the Vaucluse department starts in the Provençal city of Avignon, where rental cars are available at the TGV train station; Hôtel Crillon le Brave and Château de Mazan are each about 40 kilometres away. Avignon is about three hours from Paris by train; a France Rail Pass is available at raileurope.com.au.
Château de Mazan
Family-run luxury hotel with fine dining. Rooms from about $185. Rue Bernus, Mazan, +33 4 90 69 62 61
Domaine des Anges
Two self-catering apartments and a house are available from the end of April to the end of September/mid-October, with a swimming pool among vineyards. Apartment from $725 per week. Mormoiron, +33 4 90 61 88 78
Hôtel Crillon le Brave
Small luxury hotel with a gastronomic restaurant. Rooms from $230. Place de l'Êglise, Crillon le Brave, +33 4 90 65 61 61
City chambre d'hôtes in an 18th-century inn with cookery classes. Rooms from about $220. 36 Place du Docteur Cavaillon, Carpentras, +33 4 90 51 99 98
Le Mas au Portail Bleu
Small, stylish B&B with swimming pool. Rooms from $130. 102 Chemin de la Mayolle, Aubignan, +33 4 90 62 61 10
EAT AND DRINK
439 Chemin des Brunettes, Pernes-les-Fontaines, +33 4 90 61 60 78
Route de Méthamis, Malemort-du-Comtat, +33 4 90 69 91 37
Les Chèvres des Marins
Col Notre Dame des Abeilles, Monieux, +33 4 90 64 04 23
221 Quai de Verdun, Pernes-les-Fontaines, +33 4 32 80 93 32
Domaine de la Massane
880 Route de Carpentras, Bédoin, +33 4 90 65 60 81
Domaine du Tix
Quartier Notre Dame des Anges, Mormoiron, +33 4 90 61 84 43
Domaine Le Van
Route de Carpentras, Bédoin, +33 4 90 12 82 56
Route de Malaucène, Carpentras, +33 4 90 28 82 72
La Ferme du Pezet
L'Eau Froide, Villes-sur-Auzon, +33 (0)4 90 61 70 62
La Ferme Saint-Pierre
953 Chemin Pontillards, Flassan, +33 4 90 61 89 96
La Fromagerie du Comtat Vigier
23 Place Maurice Charretier, Carpentras, +33 4 90 60 00 17
La Gousse d'Ail
Rue Portail Olivier, Bédoin, +33 4 90 12 82 02
Place de la République, Bédoin, +33 8 99 37 71 28
Le Cours, Bédoin, +33 4 90 35 02 49
40 Rue de l'Évêché, Carpentras, +33 4 90 63 15 38
Rue Porte des Aires, Sault, +33 4 90 64 09 09
14 Le Cours, Saint-Didier, +33 6 22 15 69 00
36 Rue Haute, Venasque, +33 4 90 66 02 79
La Maison des Producteurs
Rue de la République, Sault, +33 4 90 64 08 98
140 Chemin des Treilles, Bédoin, +33 4 90 12 84 31
Yves et Virginie
Rue de la République, Sault, +33 4 90 64 01 16