Many years ago, after reading Peter Mayle’s best-selling memoir, A Year in Provence, my wife Cheryl and I, and just about everyone else who read that 1989 book, put visiting that southern region of France on their must-do list. Last month, we finally made the trip and it was wonderful. Here are a few highlights.
This small, friendly town, with a main square lined with old plane trees, was our base camp for our time in Provence. It’s located at the northern foot of Mont Ventoux and, like other towns in Provence, has a long history, including, in the early 1300s, being the summer home of the first Pope of Avignon, Clément V.
We stayed in Malaucène because friends of ours offered us the use of their lovely home there, on a country road with apricot orchards and vineyards surrounding it. The house has a great kitchen and we made tasty meals there.
Malaucène has a small-to medium-sized market in the centre of town every Wednesday and items we purchased there included cheese, olive oil, tapenade, rotisserie chicken and asparagus and strawberries harvested from a nearby farm.
Malaucène also has some good cafes where you can have a meal outdoors or simply enjoy a cup of coffee or sip some wine and watch the world go by.
Beautiful Wine Everywhere
Go to a well-stocked B.C. liquor store, head to the French wine section, and on some bottles you might see names such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Sablet, all wine appellations of the southern Rhone wine region of France.
They’re also the names of small, pretty towns, surrounded by stunning vineyards, where the grapes used in those wines grow. These towns are all about 30 minutes from Malaucène and connected by scenic roads that have no shortage of places to sample and buy wine, whether at a vineyard, or at cave, a place selling a range of local wines.
Being a lover of good wine, visiting this area was, well, heavenly. That was also true when visiting other wine-rich places near Malaucène, such as the Ventoux appellation and Beaumes-de-Venise, best known for sweet Muscat-based wines.
While traveling in these areas, you can find spots to stop and have a picnic. There are also plenty of restaurants and one place we stopped at for lunch was Café du Cours in Vacqueyras. They served well-prepared, generously portioned, French food paired with splendid local wine. What more could one ask for?
This town is just a few kilometres away from Malaucène and is famous for its medieval town and cathedral and roman ruins, as signified in the town’s name.
All very interesting, but the main reason we wanted to visit was because on Tuesday mornings the town hosts a very large and vibrant market, a market that has been occurring for half a millennium. Hundreds of vendors set up shop in the centre of town selling everything imaginable, such as produce, seafood, meat, dried herbs and spices, preserves, pottery, linens, clothing and a host other items.
Strolling around the market is nice way to enjoy a sunny morning in Provence and when you’re done looking around, you can have bite to eat from one of market vendors selling ready-to-eat food, such as paella, frites (french fries), quiche, baguette sandwiches and a tasty range of other foods.
Vaison-la-Romaine also has some great restaurants and food shops, where you can buy charcuterie, baked goods, chocolate and much more.
Not far from Malaucène, we visited the medieval villages of Crestet, Séguret and Suzette. All are built into the hillside and offer stunning views of the Provence landscape below them.
Walking around the narrow streets of these villages makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time and with no cars racing around, you can hear the calming wind in the trees and birds singing, and smell the intoxicating aroma of the wild flowers in bloom.
My wife and I were keen to visit this bustling town on the banks of the Sorgue river, about 40 kilometres south of Malaucène, because it’s home to hundreds of antique dealers and secondhand shops. It also has one of Europe’s largest antique markets, held Sundays. It’s a town made for foodies like us who want o hunt for vintage things for their kitchen/dining room, such as dishes, pots and silverware.
While doing that, we built up quite an appetite and stopped for lunch at Le Cafe du Village (lecafeduvillage.fr), a restaurant nestled among several antique shops. We knew nothing about the place, but it was very busy, a sign they must be doing something right. We enjoyed salmon tartare served with the best frites ever, buttery escargot stuffed into a mini baguette, and had strawberry pavlova for dessert.
All quite divine, but what made our lunch extra special was when we struck up a conversation with the charming couple at the table next to us, Bill and Richard, from Chicago. It turned out that over the last 20 years this duo had visited France many times and started a successful business in the process called Piggy Kitchen (thepiggykitchen.com). They started out by travelling around France looking for old copper pots, ones that looked in disrepair but could be restored to their original lustre. They now also seek out and sell other things, such as porcelain, glassware and linens. We enjoyed hearing the stories of their exploits, and they enjoyed hearing about ours, a very nice way to have a two-hour lunch.
Recipe: Olive Apricot Tapenade
Tapenade is sold at every outdoor market in Provence, where this paste/spread was first created. This rich tasting, tangy, slightly sweet version of it, sees one of its key ingredients, olives, blended with apricots, a fruit grown in Provence. Make a simple appetizer by setting a bowl of the tapenade on a board with a piece of Brie or soft goat cheese. Set on some sliced baguette and let dinners spread the tapenade and cheese on it.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: a few minutes
Makes: about 1 1/2 cups
1 cup dried apricots (about 20 to 24, depending on size)
1 cup pitted niçoise olives (see Note)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 cup walnut pieces or slivered almonds
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
• freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place apricots in a small pot, cover with cold water, set over high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let apricots plump up in the water 15 minutes. Drain the warm apricots well, and then place in a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and pulse until well combined, but still slightly coarse in texture (do not turn into a very smooth paste). Transfer tapenade to a tight sealing jar and refrigerate until needed. It will keep at least two weeks. Warm the tapenade to room temperature before serving.
Note: Small, black, pitted niçoise olives are sold in the deli section of some supermarkets. If you can’t find them, replace with pitted kalamata olives.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
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