Saturday, February 27, 2010

Les Abeilles, Sablet France

A short walk down the hill from the center of Sablet along the Route de Vaison to the Mairie, the town hall, past the roundabout at the northern entrance to Sablet, you will find an excellent restaurant called Les Abeilles. Les Abeilles means the bees.

Les Abeilles is owned by Johannes and Marlies Sailer who previously owned L'Oustalet in Gigondas. In addition to the restaurant, they also have two rooms they rent out and offer cooking classes.
The restaurant offers indoor dining and a lovely plane tree shaded terrace for alfresco dining on sunny days.
Unfortunately, when I was there a few weeks ago, it was not sunny so I was seated in the pretty dining room. It was the beginning of February and I was the only person in the dining room for lunch that day.

Immediately after being seated, I was brought a simple amuse bouche of bread sticks, tapenade and olives.
I ordered a glass of 2006 Sablet Rouge, a blend of grenache and syrah, made by Domaine de Piaugier to taste while I looked over the menu proposed by the chef.
I chose the three course lunch menu for 30,00 Euros. For my starter, I chose the Petit Gris de Provence, small snails, with Swiss chard in a saffron cream sauce.

For my Plat, or main course, I chose Gigot d'Agneau, roast leg of lamb, served with coucous and baby vegetables in lamb jus. This was a very tasty dish and beautifully plated.

For dessert, I ordered Nougat Glacé, a frozen dessert made with chopped almonds, cream and dried fruit.
To finish, I was brought a plate of mignardise to enjoy with the petit café I ordered.

My lunch cost me 41,00 Euros for three courses, wine and café, including tax and tip. Les Abeilles offers a variety of menu options at lunch ranging from 18,50 to 60,00 Euros. You can also order a la carte off the menu.
If you are in Sablet, I would recommend you try Les Abeilles at lunch, especially on a nice day where you can sit out on the terrace.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sénanque Abbey Lavender Field

One of the images most associated with Provence are pictures of bright lavender fields in bloom. Lavender is native to the Southern Alps and grows best at higher elevations and thrives in the chalky soils and hot dry climate of Provence.

Since true lavender grows best over 3000 feet elevation, a hybrid, Lavandin, more productive but less fragrant than true Lavender, was developed and is now cultivated on the lower slopes and in the valleys.

The lavender fields bloom from late June to the end of summer depending upon the area and weather. The best time to see lavender in bloom is the last week of June to the end of July.

It is only a single field, but our favorite place to see lavender is at the Senanque Abbey, a Cistercian abbey near the village of Gordes, founded in the 12th century.

Stretching out from the abbey buildings is a valley of lavender fields which are in full flower and fragrance during the summer and harvested late June – July.

Most of the picking of lavender is done by machinery but the inaccessible or closely-planted older fields are still picked by hand. The lavender grown in the fields around the Sénanque Abbey are harvested by hand.

After drying for two or three days, the picked lavender is sent to a distillery equipped with a classic still.

One hundred kilos of lavender blossoms are need to produce one liter of essence. The same amount of lavandin blossoms will yield 10 liters of essence.

Lavender essence is reserved for the perfume and cosmetic industries whereas the hybrid Lavandin essence is used for perfumed laundry soap and cleaning products.

It looks almost like an ocean of lavender.

Every Provencal market has multiple vendors selling dried lavender and products made from lavender including soap and honey. If you like honey, you have to try lavender honey; its delicious.

Three Cistercian abbeys called the Three Sisters of Provence were founded in the 12th century; Sénanque was the first of the Three Provencal Sisters.

The Sénanque Abbey is located about 45 km from our home in Sablet. It is nestled in a small canyon of the Senancole, which opens onto the Vaucluse plateau, the buildings of the Sénanque Abbey stand in an isolated spot.

There is a lovely view of the Abbey coming from Gordes on the D 177.

On arrival into the Abbey parking lot, you will see the Abbey's east end, set in a sea of lavender, in the summer months and bathed in sunlight.

Access to the Abbey is by tour only.

The church is aligned to the north, instead of to east, because of the narrow width of the valley in which it sits. The Sénanque Abbey does not have a main entrance door because the church was built only for the monks and lay brothers, not the public.

The cloister forms an enclosed courtyard in the center of the Abbey, surrounded by the cloister aisles on all four sides. The cloister aisles are passages between the church, the dormitory and other parts of the Abbey.

At the time of our last visit, there are 6 monks who live and work at the Abbey.

We think the Abbey is best seen in conjunction with a visit to Gordes or Roussillon.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hiély Lucullus, Avignon

A couple of days after losing my luggage containing my clothes among other things in a "cambriolage" as the Marseille police put it (someone broke into my car), I headed to Avignon to shop.

Avignon is about 40 km southwest of Sablet, snuggled inside ancient walls along the Rhône River. The largest city in the Vaucluse, Avignon is famed for its Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) and Pont St. Bénezet (the bridge made famous in the ditty “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse…”).

In France, the government regulates when stores can offer "soldes" or sales. There are generally two times a year and on that day, the winter sales period was nearing an end and things were pretty well picked over.

I did find one shirt for me and a very cute jumper and top for Avery, my 3 year old grand daughter at Petit Bateau, a French children's clothing store that my daughters love.

It was getting close to noon, and shops were closing for the two hour lunch break and wouldn't re-open until "14:00 heures", or 2:00 pm. I set off to try and find the restaurant featuring food of the Savoie, a department of the Rhône-Alpes region where Shirley and I had enjoyed a wonderful lunch back in November.

I headed for where I thought it was but was not able to find it. I couldn't remember the name. After wandering around for a while, I found myself on rue de la République, headed towards the Hotel de Ville and Place de l'Horloge.

Just before getting there, I spotted Restaurant Hiély Lucullus across the street. Now I had never been there before, but I remember that it was recommended as a good dining choice by "foodies" on Chowhound. I thought what the heck, I'll give it a try.

Restaurant Hiély Lucullus is on the second floor over a clothing store. You gain entrance by ringing a bell; when you are buzzed in, you enter and walk up a circular staircase to the second floor.

Although, I did not have a reservation (réservé), I was warmly greeted and escorted to a circular table by the window overlooking the rue de la République.

I ordered a 25 cl carafe of 2008 Mont Redon Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a delicious blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Counoise-Muscardin-Vaccarèse to enjoy with my meal.

I chose the 40 Euros menu with a 20 Euros supplement for truffles; this being truffle season and the Vaucluse is known for its wonderful truffles. Truffles are generally available from November through February or March.

To get my stomach prepared for the meal to follow, the chef sent out an amuse-bouche of deconstructed tartiflette; a famous dish from the Savoie region consisting of potatoes, Reblochon cheese, cream and bacon.

The chef's interpretation of this dish was a trilogy that you crunch (beignet de Reblochon), drink (potato cream perfumed with bacon lardons), and in a cornet (onion ice cream). Very clever and tasty.

For my starter (entrée), I ordered the Marmite de Pêcheur, the fisherman's pot. It included a small piece of cabillaud (cod), moules (mussels), coque (cockles) and épautre (spelt) in a saffron cream sauce. Very good!

Just like in California, it seems that chefs tend to go with whatever meat, fish or fowl is the current "hot" menu item and you see it prepared in a different way on almost every menu.

This season in the Vaucluse, it seemed it was pigeon (in the US, we call it squab to avoid offending any one's sensibilities). I think I had it 4 times during my brief stay.

I ordered it for my plat, my main course. At Restaurant Hiély Lucullus, the chef served it roasted with baby vegetables and covered with shaved truffles. The aroma of the truffles filled the air as the server approached with the dish.

A very generous serving of shaved truffles. To tell the truth, for me, the truffles added a wonderful aroma but not much taste to the dish.

To finish, crepes filled with grand marnier egg whites and orange sorbet.

With the wine, supplement for the truffles and my meal, the cost was 76 Euros including tax and service. I would definitely return but would fore go the truffles as they didn't add anything in my opinion.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fonfon, Marseille

I had been thinking that I should go to Marseille and eat a bouillabaisse or bourride in one of the restaurants known for serving these regional specialties. While I enjoyed the bouillabaisse I ate in Cassis and elsewhere, I didn't think they were as good as I expected.

My knowledge of Marseille up to this time was the Marseille Provence Airport also known as Marseille-Marignane Airport where we generally arrive and depart, nearby Vitrolles where IKEA is located (we furnished much of our house there), and a quick trip to the Vieux Port area to do banking at Barclays Bank.

My father lived in Marseille for a time when he was growing up, my cousin Josiane lives there and my cousins Ginette and Annick become almost lyrical when speaking of Marseille. So I thought I should really go visit, take some pictures and eat a nice lunch; a good lunch always being essential for me.

So I did some research before leaving for France two weeks ago and I found out that one of the best restaurants for "typique", typical bouillabaisse and bourride dishes is Fonfon. By the time my 3 suitcases came around on the conveyor belt, I picked up my rental car and was ready to leave the Marseille Provence Airport, it was after 11 am, the sun was shining and I was getting hungry.

It takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes to drive from Marseille Provence Airport to our house in Sablet and I had been told it would take about 30 minutes to drive to Fonfon restaurant in Marseille. Since I was not sure when it would be sunny again and I was not too far away, I decided to go directly to Fonfon for lunch.

I headed to Marseille and followed the signs to the Vieux Port. When I got there, I found my way to Corniche du President-John-Fitzgerald-Kennedy and headed towards Vallon des Auffes. The Corniche runs for nearly 5 km, almost entirely along the Mediterranean Sea.

Driving along the Corniche, I spotted the Monument aux Morts de l'Armée d'Orient, a memorial to the dead of World War I. I knew I was close to Fonfon so I found parking; I got out with my camera, took several pictures of the memorial and headed for the restaurant.

Fonfon 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.

To get to Fonfon and access to Vallon des Auffes, take the Escalier du Valley des Auffes, the stairway just before the viaduct which crosses the picturesque valley.

When I got down to Vallon des Auffes, I easily found Fonfon. I arrived right at 12, just as staff was finishing up their lunch and others were getting their last smokes before beginning lunch service.

I was escorted upstairs to the sunny, pretty second floor dining room, and seated along the window looking out over Vallon des Auffes. There was one couple already seated enjoying an aperitif while they looked over the menu.

I ordered a glass of Clos Mireille from Domaines Ott, a blend of Sémillon, Ugni Blanc and Rolle to sip while I looked over the menu. I pretty much knew what I wanted but I always enjoy looking at the various offerings proposed by the chef.

I ordered the bourride and sat back to survey my surroundings while I waited for my lunch to arrive. To get our appetites ready for the bourride, the chef sent out an amuse bouche trio of puréed celeriac, tuna and brandade de morue with toasts; délicieux!

Bourride is a Mediterranean fish soup that includes a mixture of white fish, onions, garlic, herbs, olive oil, thickened with egg yolks and aioli.

My server brought out a large tureen with a silver ladle to serve me what turned out to be my first bowl of bourride. The air was filled with the aromas that wafted from the bourride.

He encouraged me "n'hesitez pas de commencer" to start eating the soup, telling me they would bring the fish out on a separate platter. The fish arrived shortly thereafter piled on a platter with 5 varieties of fish; "loup" (seabass), "lotte" (monkfish), "rouget" (red mullet), "St. Pierre" (John Dory) and "galinette", a variety I was not familiar with. There were also boiled potatoes with the fish. A bowl of aioli was put on the table as well.

Within 30 minutes, both the upstairs dining room where I was seated and the down stairs dining rooms were full. I didn't hear any language other than French being spoken.

Meanwhile, the server kept coming by with the tureen of burride offering me a second and then a third serving; he offered a fourth but I was stuffed!

I passed on dessert and ordered a "petit café", espresso to finish my lunch. With my café, he brought out a little plate of "mignardise", little treats.

My tab for lunch at Fonfon was 59,50 Euros including tax and service. While not cheap, it was a very good meal.

Unfortunately, when I returned to my car which was parked on the Corniche near Monument aux Morts de l'Armée d'Orient, I saw that my back seats were folded down, definitely different than when I had left my car to go into Fonfon.

I then noticed that my reflector window on the right front passenger side was broken. I knew immediately that my luggage was gone. Sure enough, when I opened the trunk, all three suitcases were gone with my clothes, laptop, two cell phones and things I was bringing for the house.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent at the National Police office in the 7th arrondisement to make a "declaration" regarding the theft, a trip to Barclay's Bank to put stop payment on my French checkbook (it was in my luggage) and to buy clothes and a new cell phone.

While my luggage was completely hidden in the trunk, I figure I was spotted getting out of the car with my camera; a sure sign you are not a local. I will definitely return to Fonfon to try the bouillabaisse but will do so with no luggage in the car or trunk.

Marseille has something of a bad reputation and I unfortunately experienced the bad side. But I have promised my cousins I won't hold it against the Marseillaise people and will come back on a future trip to Provence.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mas de Gourgonnier

As you plan your itinerary for your visit to Provence, I would encourage you to set aside time for a trip to the Alpilles region. The Alpilles are a small chain of mountains about 20 kms south of Avignon. They are an extension of the larger Luberon mountain range.

The Alpilles are the location of Les Baux de Provence and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and were immortalized by Vincent van Gogh, who painted many images of the Alpilles during his time in Saint-Rémy on the north side of the mountains. Besides the beauty of the region, we go to stock up on rosé from our favorite winery in Provence.

At the base of the Alpilles, between Mouriès and Eygalières at Le Destet, one hour drive from Sablet, you will find Mas de Gourgonnier and its 45 hectares of vineyards and 20 hectares of olive trees.

The "Mas" (ancient farm house) dates from the middle of the 18th century and the land was planted with olive trees and fruit trees which were fertilized by flocks of sheep who grazed the land. Flocks of sheep can still be seen throughout the area.

In 1950, the first grape vines were planted at Mas de Gourgonnier and shortly thereafter a "cave" (winery) was added.

Since the very beginning, completely organic farming practices have been used for growing grapes and olives at Mas de Gourgonnier.

Red grape varieties grown in the vineyards which surround the Mas are grenache, syrah, cinsault, carignan, mourvèdre, and cabernet sauvignon. Red and rosé wines produced at Mas de Gourgonnier are classified as AOC Les Baux de Provence.

White grape varieties grown are sauvignon blanc, grenache blanc, and rolle. White wines are classified as AOC Coteaux d'Aix en Provence. The wineries in the region are trying to get approval to classify white wines from the region as AOC Les Baux de Provence too.

The Vallée des Baux is known for the production of high quality olive oil. Four varieties of olives are grown at Mas de Gourgonnier; salonenque, aglandau, grossane and verdale des baux. Olive oil pressed from olives from Mas de Gourgonnier are labeled AOC Vallée des Baux.

In addition to wine and olive oil, you can buy fruit juice, olive products, "Riz de Camargue" (rice from the Camargue). and salt from the Camargue in the tasting room.

We love the red Riz de Camargue which is grown on family-owned land and use it at Bistro Des Copains. The rice when cooked, has a wonderful nutty taste. At the Bistro, we serve it currently as an accompaniment to duck breast.

The delicious Rouge and Rosé wines produced by Mas de Gourgonnier have been on the wine list at Bistro Des Copains since we opened the restaurant nearly 4 years ago.

We visit Mas de Gourgonnier several times a year while we are in Sablet. It is very easy to tuck several bags of rice in your suit case between clothes. You won't have any problem with customs over the rice.