Sunday, February 12, 2017

Le Poème de Grignan Restaurant, a worthwhile trip through the Drôme Provençale

We have been to Grignan in the Drôme Provençale several times, an area that falls between the Rhône River and the Alps north of the Vaucluse. So when we were in Sablet last fall with friends Steve and Mary, we took a day trip to Grignan and ate lunch at Le Poème de Grignan, one of our favorite restaurants.

We drove past olive groves and fields with row after row of lavender which a few months earlier must have been a sea of purple and buzzing honey bees. Grignan sits on a large rocky peak crowned by a huge castle, formerly owned by Adhémar de Monteil.

The defensive walls of Grignan were built in the 13th century. The circular protective wall included a dozen defensive towers and six gates. The Tricot tower seen below, also known as the belfry, with its arched passageway through the wall was extended upward in 1600 so the first public clock could be installed.

Tricot tower or belfry

The fountain seen below was built in 1840 at Place de l'Horloge. The statue of Madame de Sévigné was added in 1857.

Grignan became renowned in France during the 17th century when Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné, a French aristocrat, famous for writing letters, wrote about Grignan and the surrounding area in her letters; Most were written to her daughter Françoise, who was married to François Adhémar de Monteil, Comte (Count) de Grignan.

Madame de Sévigné caught a "fever" and died in April 1696 at Grignan and is buried in the Collégiale Saint-Sauveur Church. She is revered in France as one of the great icons of French literature.

Place de l'Horloge

The medieval village is a labyrinth of picturesque, winding cobblestone streets and shaded squares.

Grignan street

In the middle ages, Le Four Banal (The communal bake house) indicated that it belonged to the local lord and that there was an obligation to pay a fee for baking, called "vingtain" or twentieth part removed when the bread was baked. The bake house was abandoned at the French Revolution and transformed into a house in the 19th century. It then fell partially into ruin in the 20th century.

Le Four Banal (The communal bake house)

Le Poème de Grignan is in an old village house on a narrow street in the historic center of Grignan. We originally found the restaurant in the 2012 Michelin Guide to Bonne Petite Tables, a listing of restaurants awarded a "Bib Gourmand" for being a "pleasurable" restaurant.

Le Poème de Grignan Restaurant

We opened the restaurant door and walked down the steps into a small dining room with maximum capacity for 22 diners seen below. The restaurant is owned by Valerie Dodane who greets you and serves in the dining room and her husband Hervé who does all the cooking. They have been in business for 17 years.

Le Poème de Grignan Dining Room

We started off with a house aperitif of blackberries and wine that we enjoyed with an amuse bouche consisting of asparagus cream topped with black olive, green olive, and sun-dried tomato tapenade. It was accompanied by a tasty parmesan cheese cracker.

Amuse Bouche and House Aperitif

We chose a red wine off the wine list from Domaine des Auzières Roaix, a winery located in Roaix which is just 7 km north of our home in Sablet.

Domaine des Auzières Roaix

We all elected to go with a three course menu consisting of a starter, either Gambas with prosciutto and tomato soup seen below

Gambas (shrimp) with prosciutto and tomato soup

or a Tomato goat cheese tart with tomato soup.

Tomato goat cheese tart with tomato soup

For main course, we had a choice of Grilled rumsteak with puree of celery root and pumpkin, fresh vegetables and a red wine sauce seen below

Grilled rumsteak with puree of celery root and pumpkin, fresh vegetables and a red wine sauce

of Grilled Scottish salmon with potatoes and ratatouille and beurre blance sauce.

Grilled Scottish salmon with potatoes and ratatouille and beurre blanc sauce

To finish, we had a choice of a Fig and pear phyllo dough purse with vanilla ice cream seen below

Fig and pear phyllo dough purse with vanilla ice cream

or Profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce and red fruit seen below.

Profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce and red fruit

This was a wonderful meal. A couple things, you should make reservations, as I said the dining room is quite small, and don't go if you are in a hurry. The meal takes place at a leisurely pace because Valerie and Hervé work alone. The food and service are great and worth the 40 minute trip from Sablet.

Le Poème de Grignan Restaurant
Rue Saint Louis
26230 Grignan
Tel: 04 75 91 10 90

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Visit to Charming Villedieu and pizza at Maison Bleue

One of our favorite villages near Sablet is Villedieu, a small village (population 514) built on a hill overlooking vineyards, olive groves and pine trees near the Eygues River on the border of the Drôme Provençale. Villedieu is located about 7 1/2 miles northwest of Sablet in the direction you would take if you were headed to Nyons.

Villedieu village

In the center of Villedieu is a square, with a fountain and plane trees, called Place de la Liberation. The Mairie (town hall), a café, a crêperie, and an excellent pizzaria called La Maison Bleue are situated on the sides of the square.

During warm weather between March and October, the square becomes a grand terrace shared by the café and restaurants. Tables and chairs are arranged around the fountain with the area for the café and each restaurant defined by the color of chairs.

Place de la Liberation

Villedieu dates back to medieval times when the village was a Commandery of Knights Templar who owned a chateau with a single tower. The village was founded during a time when potential invaders would come around so defensive fortifications were built which you can see as you stroll around the village.

Arched entry into center of Villedieu

The village walls are over 32 feet tall. Restored at different times, there are three majestic gates off Place de la Liberation. The middle gate seen below is topped by a belfry with a clock on the face which dates from the 12th century. On the arch is the papal coat of arms, the only authentic papal coat of arms still in place in the Vaucluse.

14th century town gate

Villedieu street with Saint Michel Church donjon in background

In the heart of Villedieu is Saint Michel Church with a 60 foot tall donjon (keep) and bell tower built on the nave of the church. At the top of the bell tower, there are three openings, each with a bell. The church is Romanesque and dates from the 10th and 12th centuries with later additions.

12th century Saint Michel Church

The oldest known relics (flint tools and weapons) discovered in Villedieu date the first settlement back to the Palaeolithic age. They say the odds are high that Villedieu was originally a Gallo-Roman villa near Vasio (Vaison La Romaine) bearing the name Villa Dei. There is no written account of the origin of its name, but probably, Villedieu, comes from the Latin "villa", which means country house and "dei" which means god.

14th century town gate

Villedieu became part of the "Comtat Venaissin" and annexed to France in 1791.

Villedieu street with chateau tower in distance

One of the great things about Villedieu is that although it is quite well known to locals, it is largely undiscovered by tourists as there is no mention of the village in the Michelin Green Guide and just one sentence in Rick Steve's infamous blue book about Provence.

Villedieu defensive wall

Statue in alcove on corner of building

Although we think Villedieu is a charming village, we go to Villedieu to eat at La Maison Bleue, a pizzaria owned by chef Daniel Roger. From a small kitchen with a large pizza oven he built, he turns out a variety of salads, large enough to share, and pizzas with a variety of toppings on dough that is perfectly blistered by the pizza oven. He also offers pastas and other specials. During the summer, he offers a selection of grilled meats.

Grandson Caedon next to defensive walls with Villedieu coat of arms and sign which reads "Don't Irritate the Lion

We have become friends with Chef Daniel as we go frequently to Maison Bleue during the months the restaurant is open. March, April, May, June, September and October, Maison Bleue is open for lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday. July and August, the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

La Maison Bleue Restaurant

We really like the large salads offered at Maison Bleue. Two in particular. The first is a salad called La Montagnard, with greens, a whole roasted Camembert cheese topped with tomatoes and pine nuts. Slices of toasted bread accompanies the salad; wonderful for spreading with the warm, oozing cheese.

Our other favorite salad is La Campagnard salad seen below, with greens, toasted wheat bread spread with chèvre cheese, toasted pine nuts, honey and herbs de Provence.

La Campagnard Salad

Pizza's are quite large so we usually end up sharing, That evening we shared one of our favorite pizza, a thin-crusted round pizza called l'Indigo, which is covered with tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella, chèvre, Roquefort, and herbs de Provence.

L'Indigo Pizza

We finished our meal by sharing a trilogy of ice creams; pistachio, coffee and chocolate. A perfect way to end a meal at Maison Bleue.

Trio of ice creams

Granddaughter Avery next to defensive walls with Villedieu coat of arms and sign which reads "Don't Irritate the Lion"

If you are in Sablet or the surrounding area between March and October, and looking for a tasty but simple meal, we highly recommend La Maison Bleue in Villedieu. Reservations are strongly recommended, especially during warm weather when Place de la Liberation becomes a grand terrace shared by the café and 2 restaurants.

Sitting under the plane trees with family and friends on the square during a spring, summer or early fall evening is a magical experience and makes the food and wine taste extra good.

La Maison Bleue
Place de la Libération
84110 Villedieu
Tel: +33 4 90 28 97 02

Monday, January 16, 2017

"Journée du Livre" de Sablet , a Book Lovers Paradise

Beyond the wines which are classified Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Sablet for the red, white and rosé wines produced by the Sablet vignerons, Sablet is probably best known for its "Journée du Livre". You ask what is the "Journée du Livre"? It is a book festival that takes place the 3rd weekend of July on the squares and streets of Sablet every year.

That is every year except this year when the 29th edition of the "Journée du Livre" was moved to the 9h and 10th of July so it would not conflict with the Tour de France. We were fortunate to be in Sablet this year for this special weekend when books and wine come together in Sablet.

Entrance into Sablet

Jean Raspail, a writer who lived in Sablet along with Jean Ripert and Jean-Pierre Buillet, members of the association, "Compagnons du Barrys" were responsible for planning the 1st "Journée du Livre" that took place on July 24, 1988. As I said above, the idea behind the festival was to unite books and wine so the Sablétains vignerons could promote their wines.

"Journée du Livre" welcome tent

Earlier in the week, we found notices on our windshield every time we got in our car that it was forbidden to park in the main part of the village because of the book fair as of Thursday midnight. On Friday, crews started assembling the various tents for the book fair.

Book tent in front of village bibliothèque (library)at Place de Verdun

Tables set up in front of the boulangerie for festival goers to sit and enjoy refreshments

About 90 writers and poets were set up at various tents around the village where they autographed and sold their books. There was also a full schedule of readings that were held in gardens around the village.

One of the larger author tents

Place de l'Aire de la Croix in front of Café des Sports

Bruno Bordeaux did a brisk business at Café des Sports

You can't have a festival in Provence without wine. For 2016, a writer named Isabelle Alonso was chosen the "marraine" (godmother)for the special wine and in consultation with the Sablet winemakers selected a special "Journée du Livre" de Sablet cuvee for the book festival.

"Journée du Livre" de Sablet red and white cuvees

The special cuvee was available for tasting along with other wines produced by Sablet vignerons at the winemakers tent.

Winemakers tent

More writer tents

Author's works included literature, travel, regional histories, cooking and wine, health, children's books, poetry, mysteries, first novels, and comics.

As the day went on, more and more people arrived to visit the authors

82 year old writer/journalist François de Closets presided over the "Journée du Livre" which took place in the village on Saturday from 4:00 to 8:00 PM and Sunday from 10:00 Am to 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM.

Welcome and announcements are offered by VIPs in attendance at the festival

The winner of the prize for first novel entitled "Je me suis tue", Mathieu Menegaux departed with his weight in wine after the traditional weighing of the writer.

Friends converse

A curious villager checks out what's happening at the Café des Sports

Tent promoting the Festival des Soupes

Empty writer's tent during the all important lunch break

Book festival attendees cross Place de l'Aire de la Croix

Shirley visits with her friend Sylvie in front of Café des Sports

I mentioned a the beginning of this post, that some of the "Compagnons des Barrys" were instrumental in starting the annual "Journée du Livre." The members of this association have also made it their mission to preserve the village ramparts (defensive walls) seen below.

Fund-raising over the past few years has enabled the restoration of a medieval watch tower and the Place des Barrys as public spaces; an ancient olive mill in the lower parts of one of the rampart houses, also open to the public, and the creation of 'L'Oustau di Barrys', an exhibition space for art, photography or objects of historical interest, within the rampart walls.

Sablet defensive walls

I am an old fashion book lover. I don't down load books on a kindle or iPad. So to see all of these authors and their books together in Sablet was very cool for me. Have a great week. A bientot mes amis.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A trip to Marseille for an authentic Bouillabaisse

We had been talking about throwing a Provence Party in our backyard with a traditional Bouillabaisse for some time. We had even told the neighbors it would take place in August when we returned from Sablet. While we were in Provence, I wanted to go to Marseille and have a Bouillabaisse in one of the restaurants renown for the dish and see how it is presented to diners.

Despite having multiple "French Connections" to Marseille, we don't go very often (traffic is a mess and parking hard to find among other reasons). My connections include my father and family lived on Boulevard Longchamp in Marseille when he was growing up and cousins lived in Marseille with their families too at various times. Now, cousins Ginette and Josiane live there. I digress so let me get back to the topic at hand.

As the time was nearing for us to leave Sablet, we set a date to meet up with Ginette for a traditional Bouillabaisse and go shopping for our daughters. Marseille's Vieux Port is about one hour and thirty-five minutes down the A-7 from Sablet. We found parking near the Town Hall and walked around the Vieux Port from the north side to the south side to shop before we went to lunch. On the way to and from our car, we saw the sights shown in the photographs which follow.

By way of background I should mention that Marseille was founded by the Phoceans (from the Greek city of Phocaea, now Foça, in modern Turkey) in 600BC and is one of the oldest cities in Europe. The town is a far cry from the Cézanne paintings and Provençal clichés of sleepy villages, "pétanque" players and Marcel Pagnol novels.

Marseille's Notre Dame de la Garde

With around one million inhabitants, Marseille is the second largest city in France in terms of population and the largest in terms of area. The people of Marseille have varying ethnic backgrounds, with a lot of Italians and Spanish having immigrated to the area after the second world war. Currently, over one third of the population of Marseille can trace their roots back to Italy.

Marseille's Vieux Port

Everything in Marseille revolves around the U-shaped Vieux Port (Old Port) in the center of the city where boats have docked for 2600 years. The port is more pleasure marina that working port these days with pleasure yachts, small fishing boats, and sailboats filling more than 10,000 slips.

Marseille's Vieux Port

Around the port, fishermen mend their nets and lounge on benches reading newspapers in Greek and Arabic while cafes and restaurants serve up seafood from the nearby Mediterranean Sea.

Marseille street with nice shops

The Saint-Ferréol les Augustins Church is a Roman Catholic church located on Marseille's Vieux Port. The original building was owned by the Knights Templar. However, in 1369, it was given to a community of Augustinian hermits. By 1447, they spearheaded construction of a new church building. It was dedicated in 1542, even though the roof was not finished until 1588.

Pope Clement VII married his niece, Catherine de' Medici, to Henry II of France, in this church on October 28, 1533

Saint-Ferréol les Augustins Church

Le Panier quarter - the bread basket, seen below is one of Marseille's oldest sections. Le Panier is only a small part of what used to exist before the Germans dynamited it during World War II to flush out the Jews and Resistance fighters hiding there.

Up until the 1970s, the Le Panier quarter was the center for purification of heroin that passed through Marseille to Europe and the United States, hence the "French Connection" depicted in the 1971 movie starring Gene Hackman. Today ancient buildings line narrow back streets - kids playing, laundry flapping and people chatting in the squares.

Le Panier

Shops along the Vieux Port

The Marseille City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) seen below was built between 1653 and 1673. It was one of the few buildings on the harbor to survive the destruction of World War 2.

Marseille Town Hall

The ferris wheel seen below is located on the east end of the Vieux Port. While I am sure the view from the top of the ride over the port, the sea and the city of Marseille is nothing short of spectacular, my fear of heights will probably keep me from ever seeing those views from the ferris wheel.

Ferris wheel at Marseille's Vieux Port

After concluding our shopping, we decided to take a taxi to the restaurant in order to avoid having to deal with the Marseille traffic. Restaurant Fonfon is located in the Vallon des Auffes near the Monument aux Morts de l'Armée d'Orient off the Corniche du President-John-Fitzgerald-Kennedy.

The Monument aux Morts de l'Armée d'Orient by Antoine Sartorio seen below stands on a rocky promontory on Marseille's seafront and remembers all those Frenchmen who gave their lives during the 1914-1918 war fighting overseas particularly in the Far East.

The center of the arch has a carving of a crescent and a star. Sculptures of air force personnel and soldiers stand on one side of the arch together with a winged angel whilst on the other side is another winged angel and on a pedestal in the center of the arch is a bronze "angel of victory" her arms lifted to the skies. A stairway leading down to the sea completes the memorial.

Marseille War Memorial called "Monument aux Morts de l'Armée d'Orient"

Fonfon Restaurant which has been in business since 1952, is located in Vallon des Auffes, a small picturesque fishing port crowded with "pointus", traditional fishing boats and ringed by "cabanons", fishing sheds in Marseille's 7th arrondissement.

Vallon des Auffes

Vallon des Auffes"

Marseille is most famous for three things: the national anthem called “La Marseillaise”, the "French Connection" drug trade and bouillabaisse. Of these, the renowned fish stew of Provence is easily the most controversial and complicated. For a start, no one can even agree on the origin of the actual word, let alone the origins of the dish.

The most likely story is that it came about when local fishermen decided to boil up the fish and crustaceans they couldn't easily sell, which explains why the main contents are small rock fish and other ugly ducklings of the Mediterranean coastline, such as rascasse and anglerfish.

The prime ingredient is at least one of the three members of the rascasse family. The other commonly accepted ingredients are olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes, fennel, parsley and saffron. Some add a glug of Pastis, the anise-flavored aperitif.

Fonfon Restaurant

Recommended wines for bouillabaisse are Provencale rosés, and white wines from Bandol, Cassis and the Rhone. We opted for a bottle of white Clos Sainte Magdeleine, one of our favorite wineries in Cassis that I told you about here.

Clos Sainte Magdeleine

As is the custom, our server brought a platter to the table to show the fish that would be cooked for our Bouillabaisse that day. Most recipes call for bouillabaisse to include at least five types of fish. It almost always contains rascasse, a Mediterranean fish. The addition of shellfish is voluntary and is seen as snobbish by many Bouillabaisse purists.

Server presenting fish that will be cooked for the Bouillabaisse

Shirley finds the fish soup that is served for Bouillabaisse to be a little strong for her liking. So she opted for having one of Sole the server presented cooked to order for her. Whole fish is sold per 100 grams.

Tray with choices of whole fish for the day

Amuse Bouche

Bouillabaisse comes in two courses. First is the soup, accompanied by croutons, which you rub with a clove of whole garlic and spread with rouille, a bright orange mayonnaise flavored with saffron, cayenne and more garlic (rouille means, literally, "rust").

Bouillabaisse soup

The second course is the fish themselves, which are usually presented whole on a platter before they are taken back to the kitchen to be cooked and filleted for diners. The cooked fish are usually accompanied by potatoes that have been cooked in the Bouillabaisse soup.

Cooked fish for Bouillabaisse

Perfectly cooked Sole.

We chose ice cream for dessert

The Bouillabaisse was excellent. One thing I noticed was that from the last time I was there about 7 years ago, the clientele had changed from all French speakers to mostly tourists at least on this particular day. We headed back up to the Corniche and hailed a taxi to return to our car.

Vieux Port with Notre Dame de la Garde in the distance

It is very hard to find well-prepared, traditional Bouillabaisse in Provence. Forget one that is cheap. If you do find one that is cheap, don't order it. If you visit the fish mongers in the South of France, you know how expensive fresh fish is. So it stands to reason that an excellent traditional Bouillabaisse will be quite expensive. Chez Fonfon's menu currently quotes a price of 53 Euros per person.

Chez Fonfon Restaurant
140 Rue du Vallon des Auffes
13007 Marseille
Tel: 04 91 52 14 38