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Rediscovering the Magic of Provence

Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Provence: wonderful restaurants like Maison Drouot in St. Remy de Provence , fabulous wineries like Domaine de la Mourchon and fascinating historic sites like the St. Paul de Mausole mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, starting with this one by Richard Erickson, pictured above with his wife Many Anne Erickson. The stories will explore the beauty, history, food, wine and culture of this amazing place.  I’ll be teaching a similar course in Rioja, Spain this spring (May 21-27): http://www.thewritersworkshop.net/classes/travel-writing-classes/.

By Richard Erickson

We stepped off the train from Paris into the warm Provençale sunshine of Orange in the south of France. My wife had proposed this trip and I was looking forward to the wine, glorious food and the landscapes that inspired Van Gogh. I was also thinking of Provençale paint chips at Lowe’s, the Provençale dishware and the kitchen towels at Bed Bath and Beyond. Would I rediscover the magic of a region that I had known as a young backpacker years ago or would it be an expensive disappointment? We had reservations in La Cité Médiévale of Vaison-la-Romaine, surrounded by vineyards in the heart of the Rhone valley, home to some of my favorite wines. I would soon find out.

I’ve been a chef for many years and helped open a restaurant in New York City called Bistro du Nord which took most of its inspiration from the south of France. I make a wonderful Salade niçoise, serve an authentic grand aioli,  and even put together a credible bouillabaisse that I am not afraid to share with any of our French friends. The idea of traveling all the way from New York to be served overpriced meals by indifferent French waiters and follow my wife around as she shopped did not light me up. I had to admit the opportunity to drink some great wines was rather appealing. It was clear she was going, with me or without me. Needless to say, I signed up.

We received a warm welcome at Maison d'Hôtes de l'Evêché by the innkeepers, Jean-Luc and Aude, transplants from Paris. We had no plans so Jean-Luc took charge, made a few phone calls and set us up for our first meal at a nearby restaurant, Bistro du’O.  We were sleep-deprived from the flight over but it was dinner time so off we went. Having time to kill before our reservation we sat at an outdoor café down the street and had aperitifs. Always eager for something new I asked the helpful server for a local specialty which turned out to be vin de coings, made from quince.

I was starting to feel pretty French when we arrived at our table. After another gracious welcome,  we were seated and ordered a bottle of wine. The choices were from the many vineyards we had seen on the taxi ride up from Orange. The wine list was helpfully arranged by price, on one page the bottles were all 20 euros, the next 25 euros and so on. We hadn’t yet made our dinner choices when a miniature basket of crudité vegetables arrived, tiny multicolored tomatoes, perfect French breakfast radishes, crisp carrots and a small ramekin of anchoide, a classic marriage of olive oil, anchovies and garlic.

We had just selected from the two prix-fixe menus when another amuse-bouche from the kitchen arrived, a tiny glass with a delicate potato-leek potage and shaved summer truffles. We toasted our good fortune with the delicious rosé we had been told was produced just a few kilometers away. The waitress then arrived with our first course, a single giant ravioli with tender delicate mussels inside covered with a saffron-infused mousselline sauce. The bowl it was served in was as stunning as the dish was delicious.

The dining room had filled up without our noticing, a nice crowd that had come to eat and enjoy a bon moment. We felt like we were in a movie, one of those moments when you know you are in the right place at the right time.  We made a note to thank Jean-Luc later.

The main courses arrived and the plates were a feast for the eyes. The perfectly seared breast of Barbarie duck was sitting on a tart cherry sauce. Carrot puree came garnished with thin slices of multi colored carrots and delicate leaves of chervil, a whimsical garden on the plate. The skin on the delicate hake filet was crispy and sat alongside jumbo white asparagus, the season’s first, covered in a beurre blanc made with leeks.

I was delirious with pleasure as we shared our first meal together in Provence. This kitchen was really putting out some first rate food. I was impressed and as a fellow cuisinier would have been more than proud to have served any of these dishes. Our charming server turned out to be the chef’s wife (they owned the restaurant) something we encountered numerous times during our stay. Lastly, she arrived with what the menu described as a vanilla pot de crème, a classic pudding. The humble title of the dish did not do it justice to the cloud-like custard topped with the season’s first strawberries from nearby Carpentras. It may have been the wine, but I had to admit my wife had really done the right thing by booking this trip.

No stay in Provence is complete without a visit to one of the many markets and we eagerly looked forward to the market in Vaison, the largest in this part of southern France. Tuesday morning arrived and my wife and I marched in shopping bags in hand.  We walked quickly through the stalls of clothing, shoes, and jewelry, past colorful dishware, flowers, lavender lotions and piles of gorgeous fabrics in every size and color. We rounded a corner and practically stopped dead in our tracks. Mounds of fresh picked asparagus, white, purple and green, piled high, baskets of bright red strawberries in different varieties from tiny to large, fluffy mounds of lettuce, smooth, curly, colored and glistening. There were beets, potatoes, carrots, and herbs both fresh and dried. Butchers cutting and wrapping fresh meats, next the charcuterie, sausages and all things pork displaying chunky earthy pates and smooth-as-silk terrines of foie gras. Venders of volaille with chickens in varying sizes and colors, guinea fowl, quail and duck.

Everything we had seen on our plates at every meal we had eaten was right here in front of us. I wanted to fill a bag with shiny shimmering eggplants, a huge head of purplish jumbo garlic, a few of the wrinkly ridged bright red tomatoes and a bunch of early onions and head for a kitchen to start cooking right then and there.

The next block had seafood, more variety than I had seen in a very long time. Tiny cockles, clams, and mussels, sea bream, scallops and skate, stuffed squid and prepared salt cod, cooked octopus and beautiful mackerel. I was breathless, my heart literally pounding with excitement but it was now past noon and the croissants and coffee from the morning’s breakfast could no longer sustain me. What could we eat now?

We kept walking and I picked out a beautiful little olive fougasse, the bread emblematic of Provence with the characteristic slashes like wheat on top. Next a small disc of ash covered chèvre, only a week old and some wrinkly black olives from Nyons. The excitement was building, I was no longer thinking of paint chips.

Suddenly one aroma stood out amongst everything else and there I was in front of a small humble looking truck and its proud owner. He was roasting chicken and tiny round creamer potatoes. I was feeling more confident as I dusted off the French learned many years ago, so I asked him about his truck. “Je l’a fait chez moi,” (I made it at home) he said. “It’s great for vacations also. Look I can hook up water, a sink, even take a shower.” He seemed so happy that someone had admired his truck and not just the chickens he was cooking.

I had come for the chickens however and they looked delicious, crusted with the herbes de Provence we had seen seeing all over the market. I pointed to an especially large juicy-looking leg and he enthusiastically told me where it came from. Apparently he had chickens from different farms and of different breeds. I had him add some of the lightly curried potatoes he was roasting in his traveling homemade kitchen, said “Merci , au revoir”  as I walked away smiling ear to ear. I couldn’t wait to sit down and dig in to our “pique-nique.” At the edge of the market were some benches overlooking one of the many ancient Roman ruins here in Vaison-la-Romaine. We unwrapped our purchases and dug in. The chicken was as good as it looked and we felt like traveling college kids again camped out with our bread, cheese and olives. I sat in the warm sun taking stock of all we had done in a few short days. Had I ever really questioned coming here?

Yes, there were dishtowels for sale, torchons, in beautiful Provençale colors and designs and it had been me who had enthusiastically bought some for a friend who was watering our plants back home. We had seen couples, families, cyclists, hikers, everyone friendly and enjoying the casual welcoming atmosphere of Provence. The prices had been quite reasonable overall and the food an eye opener, fresh, bright, clean takes on the Provençale flavor palate.

I will be returning home with a new found appreciation for all things French and especially Provence. We had been here less than a week and I already found myself tentatively raising the possibility to my wife of returning to Provence. And while we’re at it, shouldn’t we go to Lowe’s when we get home? I’d really love to repaint our kitchen.

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