Travel can become a double-edged sword. The more you travel, the harder it is to achieve those precise moments of awe and amazement that you seek. But I like to think that instead of dulling my sensitivities, my travel experience has improved my ability to identify the beautiful and unique elements that differentiate this country from that one, the things that make a place special.
We spent the new year period staying at a friend’s house in Cavaillon which is in the Vaucluse Department of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France. The converted barn replete with ancient timber beams and shapely plaster walls is nestled between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence and some of the most charming villages of the Luberon region. I’m familiar with the character of the Mediterranean with its dry, scrubby landscape, red rooftops, stone walls and dramatic cliffs where for centuries people have literally carved their lives from the rocks. What makes the Provence area different is the colour of their houses. The homes are built and painted a creamy yellow that appears soft against the harsher greens and greys of the foliage and they paint their shutters blue. But it’s not a deep blue that you might find in Greece but rather a vivid lavender that mimics the fields that Provence is so famous for.
On our mini tour of Provence we went to Avignon and saw the majestic Papal palace that towers over the town. We meandered through the winding markets of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a little town surrounded by the river Sorgue, famous for its antiques and flea markets. We strutted with the well-heeled and well-tanned folk of Aix-en-Provence where even in winter the sunny, yellow buildings make the town feel vibrant and warm. We were taken to the famous 120 year old Pâtisserie Béchard where our hostess ordered the traditional festive tart la galette des rois. Made of two sheets of puff pastry, filled with frangipane and in our case hazelnut cream as well, the tart contains a fève, a small china doll or a bean and whomever finds it becomes king or queen. There were three fèves in our cake and my piece had the bean, but alas there was no crown with our order because that particular detail is reserved for the Epiphany on the 6th of January.
Our final day, New Year’s Day was spent driving around the hills and vales of the Luberon Region. We climbed the ramparts of Oppède, which is being slowly restored back to it’s former glory by people who are moving back to the deserted town. The newly laid stone paths and villas contrast with the moss covered ruins. We had lunch in Bonnieux whose history lies as far back as Roman settlement. La Flambee’s restaurant was heaving with new year revellers, and so we had to sit in the front bar area. But it was great because it was a lot quieter and we could watch the busy host preparing the dessert course, carefully placing a clementine on each plate and burnishing tiny creme brulees. Even under pressure the staff were friendly and welcoming and our pizza feast was one of my favourite moments of the trip. The ambiance and comfort of the cafe made me want to sit there all afternoon. But with two restless little boys, this was not possible, so we were off again on our tour this time driving through Apt, Gordes and into the valley to see the 12th century Cistercian Abbey de Senanque. In the warmer months this famous abbey is enveloped by fields of lavender and it is how the monks earn their income.
Our hostess Madame B was kind and thoughtful. She not only opened her home to our rowdy family, but she also cooked us meals, made us laugh and even bought us gifts. Our connection to Mdm B was her daughter and long time friend Mdm A, who kindly arranged for us to stay in the home she grew up in. Mdm A was constantly preparing food and supervising the preparation of cocktails and aperitifs. We were given lavender pouches, some Herbs de Provence (savory, fennel, basil & thyme), Lavender Syrup which I am yet to try – I was told it makes an excellent addition to a glass of Champagne. Little baubles were made, jingling with specialty sweets from the area including nougat, chocolate candied peel and the most well-known, the calisson which is almond shaped and made of marzipan and flavoured with fruit, in this case the rockmelon that the town of Cavaillon is famous for. My favourite gift however was a gigantic tin of duck confit from Perigord. It is the very same type that Madame B cooked up for us on New Year’s eve and most definitely the best duck meal I have ever eaten.
The culinary highlights of the trip would have to be the enormous salads at Le Papagayo in Aix, Madame B’s supreme confit of duck, our cosy pizza feast in Bonnieux and in a broad sense the general eating habits of the French. Food is laid on the table in abundance, and each course savoured. Every night is like a dinner party which starts at 8pm with aperitifs and canapes and goes well into the evening with course after course and bottle after bottle. The bread is always good and the cheese is always varied and plentiful.
What I like best of all is the fact that a greedy guts like me is not shunned as a glutton but rather heralded as a gourmandise. I heartily endorse this term and would indeed consider myself as such.