by Anthony Peregrine, The Telegraph, February 21, 2019
And so to Provence, for the first of several saunters I shall be making around French cuisine this year. The diet there of fish, fresh fruit and veg, ratatouille, olive oil and Sisteron lamb is both voluptuousness made flesh and so obviously healthy that we don’t need to detain ourselves with any anxieties on that score. Frankly, Provençal people would live forever if only they didn’t drink improbable quantities of pastis. The heights of pleasure and (unspoken) health: the combination is unbeatable.
Provence is big, so we’re concentrating on Avignon. It’s easy to get to, a grand show-case for Provençal gastronomy and, when you’ve finished eating, the city affords bars, historico-cultural splendour and the chance to ape the excesses of the 14th-century popes. Not all were especially self-denying. The poet Petrarch considered their Avignon “a thoroughfare of vices... where prostitutes swarmed over papal beds”.
Avignon, then, and – to start with – its covered market, markets being the key internal organs of Provençal provision. From the outside, it is as ugly as hell, the only eyesore in Avignon intra-muros. Its creators obviously argued that they couldn’t compete with the medievalo-Renaissance city setting, so might as well chuck up a big 1970s shed. No matter. The seduction is within.
Food lust stalks the aisles. Here are high hues, juicy fertility and plump fruit squeezed by basket-toting housewives well-versed in the matter of ripe melons. Aromas of herbs and roasting chickens. Full-blooded meat displays. An ocean’s worth of fish lying wide-eyed on the slab, astonished that the sea has retreated to reveal them. Hanging hams like mandolins and every shade of charcuterie. Here, in short, is all the abundance which nourishes the quotidian sensuality of Provençal life. You’re not merely shopping; you’re stomach deep in a Mediterranean culture where the spiritual segues so seamlessly to the sensuous that few can tell the difference. Food, like the Virgin, is central.
And eyes sparkle with enthusiasm for olives. “It’s a tanche, from Nyons,” said Emmanuelle Borba-da-Costa on her olives-r-us stand. “Just 24 hours in salt; no other treatment.” It tasted more olive-y than any other olive ever. Then there was tapenade, aiolade and all the varied spreads which announce the aperitif hour. I shot off in search of Ricard, noted it was 9.30am, and diverted to Nathalie Francoz’s cheese stand. When I grow out of journalism, I’m going to sell cheese. It will be my passport to a world more palpable and pungent. Provence doesn’t do cow’s cheese, but goat’s? Oh, my word. Nathalie prepared me a plate of four. “As the cheese ages, so the initial acidity lessens – but it returns at the end of the tasting,” she said. Really? Really.
Over the way, Jonathan Chiri was – is – almost certainly the only Californian chef with a lunch-stand in a French market. His story twists and turns via top-class cooking in Santa Barbara, New Orleans, Spain, Germany, some pretty sharp restaurants in the Rhône valley, then on to Avignon – and puzzlement over Subway’s success in France. “Subway? I can understand McDonalds making headway because the French didn’t have burgers. But Subway? They’ve brought bread which is barely bread to make sandwiches which are barely sandwiches to a country which excels at both.”
Jonathan can do the dithyrambs about Provençal produce – you’d expect nothing less from a long-limbed Golden State boy raised on a tide of sunshine freshness – but, as Californians go, he’s also non-loopy, at ease with the entire food spectrum, from red in tooth and claw to the final coulis. From a daily-changing lunch menu, he served me a marinated pork fillet dish which has set the standard for future pork fillet dishes. He also runs cookery classes, right there in the market, should you wish to catch up (jonathanchiri.com).
Thus, a morning in the market and you’ve learned half you need to know about Avignon eating. The other half’s beyond. Out there, conspiratorial streets snake left and right before spitting you out into the city’s monumental heart. Here’s where you note that Provençal history and culture, sprightly though they be, may also weigh a ton. Before the classical theatre are big statues of Molière and Racine, looking as glum as if they’ve just been obliged to read one another’s complete works. The vast Papal Palace rises with authority enough to whip Christendom back into line, given half a chance. The fabled, wrecked pont d’ disappoints, but that simply makes everything else look better.
Bars and brasseries abound. Back in the scurrying streets (15 Rue des 3 Faucons), and improving life immeasurably, is Aline Géhant. Aline abandoned teaching to make chocolate and now creates, among much else, lavender and thyme chocolates which complement wine well. That’s partly because Aline uses an infusion of herbs, not their essence, so the result is more subtly balanced – and partly because she’s very good at making chocolate. She’s also charming. Don’t pass her by (aline-gehant-chocolatier.com).
For chocolate to complement wine, you need wine. The Rhône valley is awash with it – and, after long-lasting shenanigans, Rhône valley wines have a proper Avignon show-case. Side on to the Papal Palace, the former Banque-de-France building has a commanding classical presence, underlining that wine’s a pillar round here. The Carré du Palais is wine bar, bistro, wine school – and tasting room. Jean-Michel Guiraud presided over a tasting of two rosés – one for easy drinking (Ventoux), one to age (Tavel) – a great Gigondas and another somewhat over-meaty (“hare’s belly,” said Jean-Michel). I had a grand old time. I bet everyone does, neophytes through professionals, French through foreigners. “Obviously, we speak English,” said Jean-Michel (carredupalais.com).
The Carré is terrific, but it remains a jolly good idea to get out into the vineyards, to the farming end of things. Those undulating around the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are handy for Avignon, producing the priciest of southern Rhône wines. Having the backing of popes in the 14th century, and of US wine influencer Robert Parker in the 20th, pushed CdP vignerons along nicely. Given its fame, the village is small (pop 2,200), but steep. The slog up to what’s left of the papal castle – a couple of walls – is stiff and unrewarding. Concentrate rather on wine. Outside the village, Florent Lançon’s family has been making wine at La Solitude domain since the 1750s. They are largely on top of the job. His Cuvée Barberini had, he said, “the power and elegance” which characterised CdP. He was right (domaine-solitude.com).
Across the appellation, Margate-born Neil Joyce and a professional partner – having ditched business careers – invested a packet to bring the decrepit Celestière winery back to life (lacelestiere.fr). Starting in 2008, they’ve mastered the contemporary essentials – low yields, high alcohol, force and finesse – while being little bothered by UFOs. Back in 1954, at the height of alien scares world-wide, CdN’s town council passed a bye-law, banning UFOs from its territory. “None has been seen since,” said Neil. Thus, while he’s had to tangle with drought and mildew, Neil’s problems have not included those posed by seven-fingered fellows from the planet Tharg.
By now, it was dinner-time. The Restaurant Christian Etienne is reckoned to be the best in Avignon. Top three, anyway (see below). The dining room is older than the Papal Palace next door. The meal was first-rate, the young sommelier also. The couple on the next table were eating pigeon. They wished a wine recommendation. “There are two policies with pigeon,” said the sommelier. “A wine which goes in the sense of the pigeon, or one which goes against it.” There was a real Provençal dining dichotomy. The planet and wellness be damned, for the duration.
Five unmissable restaurants in Provence
Pollen (3 bis Rue Petite Calade; 0033 486 349374; pollen-restaurant.fr ; dinner menu from €39/£34). At 28, Matthieu Desmarets has already run great kitchens. Now he’s struck out on his own, contemp décor in venerable premises and a no-choice menu changing daily. You get the guinea fowl, you’ll not complain.
L’Agape (21 Place des des Corps Saints; 0033 490 850406; restaurant-agape-avignon.com; dinner menu from €33/£29). Brightest, most inventive bistro in town.
La Mirande (4 Place de l’Amirande ; 0033 490 142020; la-mirande.fr; dinner menu from €60/£52). The main restaurant in Avignon’s most beautiful hotel was shut during my visit – but young chef Florent Pietravalle is obviously doing something right. The place regained its Michelin star last month.
Christian Etienne (10 Rue de Mons; 0033 484 885127; christianetienne.fr; dinner menu from €85/£74). Etienne ceded his Mich-starred restaurant to Guilhem Sévin, his former support chef, in 2016. It remains Avignon’s restaurant of reference, with the best saddle of rabbit I can remember having eaten. Plus a pud laden with truffles to stun truffle lovers.
La Fourchette (17 Rue Racine; 0033 490 85; la-fourchette.net; dinner menu €38/£33). Philippe Hiély has overseen the most Provençal – and most convivial – of these top restaurants for 37 years. What with oysters in a light curry sauce and scallops with a touch of mango, I’d be grateful if he’d sign for another 37.