Sunday, November 20, 2011

Côté Sud Restaurant, a very good choice in Uchaux

This past summer was without a doubt one of our best times in Sablet, the small village we call home in Provence. We visited new villages, went to some festivals, something we had not done in Provence, dined at several restaurants we had not tried before, but the best thing we did was celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary.

Before I tell you what we did on our anniversary, or at least most of it, let me tell you a little about the amazing woman who has put up with me all these years. Shirley was born in Musoma on the shores of Lake Victoria in Northern Tanzania very near the border of Kenya to missionary parents.

She lived in Kenya for the first six years of her life and has fond memories of the wild animals in the parks before the family moved to Washington State. Later the family went to Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka. If you don't know, Sri Lanka is an island surrounded by the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, in the vicinity of India and the Maldives.

Ceylon was home for three years before they moved to Karachi in what was then West Pakistan. For her 8th, 9th, and 10th grades, Shirley attended Vincent Hill School in Mussoorie in northern India about 290 km - 180 miles north of the capital city of New Delhi. Mussoorie sits in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains at 1876 meters - 6,155 feet elevation.

The school was closed at the end of 10th grade so she went to Singapore to attend Far Eastern Academy for 11th and 12th grades. Singapore is a city-state off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, 137 km - 85 miles north of the equator. An island country made up of 63 islands, it is separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor to the north and from Indonesia's Riau Islands by the Singapore Strait to the south.

We met during freshmen registration at Andrews University in southwestern Michigan where I grew up. Shortly after, I asked her out for the following Saturday night. Believe it or not, I couldn't remember her last name by the time Saturday rolled around and was too embarrassed to go to the girls dormitory and ask for her so I stood her up on our first date. Not good!

Actually, when I asked her out during registration, I invited Shirley to go with me to two different events, obviously I was quite attracted to this cute girl. Well our paths crossed on campus early the next week and after she greeted me with "should I bother to get ready for our next date," she sweetly forgave me and we went out on our date.

Shirley has been a fabulous mother for our two daughters and now GG (greatest grandma) to our four grandchildren. She did accounting work for many years before going back to nursing school at age 50 where she graduated and now works as a registered nurse in a local hospital.

Shirley has a sense of humor and adventure, quickly got behind moves to Colorado, Maryland and California, encouraged me to start new business ventures and take the plunge to buy our house in Sablet. I know my life would have been very different without Shirley.

The morning of our anniversary, we headed out early to Cassis, it was a beautiful day and we figured it would be fun to go there, eat lunch and go out on a boat to see the calangues, the steep-walled inlets found along the nearby Mediterranean coast (I will share more about our visit to Cassis and the calanques in a later post).

That night we made reservations for dinner at Côté Sud Restaurant in Uchaux, a village located about 1/2 hour from Sablet. Uchaux is comprised of several hamlets scattered among the forests and vineyards with La Galle the busiest with it's school, restaurant and a few stores.

We have dined at Le Temps de Vivre in Uchaux several times but had never dined at Côté Sud Restaurant despite the fact that it is designated by the Guide Michelin as a "Meilleures Adresses à Petit Prix," literally translated as a best place for small price. As you know, I am a list guy and generally choose restaurants that have good ratings from Yelp, Zagat, Michelin and regional magazines and newspapers.

Côté Sud Restaurant is owned by the chef Jean-Michel Besnard, originally from Brittany and his wife Florence and is located at the entrance to Uchaux in an old stone farm house. The restaurant opened in March 2000.

There are two dining rooms and a terrace for dining on nice days.

Shirley and me on our 38th anniversary.

As it was the middle of July and a gorgeous evening, we chose to sit outside on the terrace. The tables were set with nice glass stemware, something we don't find all that often in the south of France.

Shortly after being seated, we were brought an amuse bouche plate which included olives from Nyon, tuna and fresh white cheese, carrots, cauliflower, sesame bread sticks and bread.

We chose a bottle of 2007 Domaine Piaugier Côtes du Rhône Villages Sablet. A really tasty wine made from a blend of Grenache (80%) and Syrah (20%) grown on soils of clay with limestone and sand typical of wines from Sablet. The wine was bottled without filtration.

The Côté Sud menu is thoughtfully written in French and English, the translation is better than most. We chose the four-course Menu Garrigue for 38 Euros. Our first course was a mirror of tomato coulis topped with tomato confit and yellow squash stuffed with sheep's cheese and diced cucumbers.

I chose grilled beef set on potatoes, accompanied by chanterelle mushrooms and puffed pastry stuffed with braised beef cheeks.

Shirley chose fillet of St. Pierre, also known as John Dory served with rice and tomato confit with a creamy tarragon sauce.

We thoroughly enjoyed our main courses and moved on to the cheese course which was warm goat cheese on toasts with mixed greens dressed in a tangy vinaigrette.

For desserts, we chose apricots with red fruit sorbet and

a chocolate bomb with white chocolate cream and szechuan pepper ice cream.

To finish our wonderful meal, Florence brought us a plate of mignardises, tiny bite-sized desserts to nibble on. Côté Sud makes everything in house including breads and ice creams.

If you live or are visiting the northern Vaucluse region of Provence, don't hesitate to go dine at Côté Sud restaurant. The food and service were excellent and the terrace is really nice for dining.

Bon appétit mes amis et à bientôt.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

L'Aube Safran, a saffron farm in Provence

For the last 20 years, we have lived in Northern California where we can easily find locally produced wines, cheese, fruits, mushrooms, vegetables and proteins including lamb, poultry, rabbit, and beef. We are very close to the Pacific Ocean and its bounty of fresh fish and shellfish.

One of my favorite things about owning Bistro Des Copains, the small French bistro I co-own in Occidental California with my friend Cluney, has been the opportunity to meet some of the men and women who are behind those products. Men and women like Jennifer Bice, Burt Williams, Eva Dehlinger, Nikolai Stez, Daniel Schoenfeld, Rick Moshin, Kurt Beitler, Bob Appleby and Eric Sussman to name just a few.

I tell you, you have a better appreciation for the wines and cheese and other products they make when you meet them and learn their backgrounds and how they got into business and hear stories about their struggles with weather, fires, the economy and even movies like Sideways which killed the market for Merlot wines.

The same is true for Sablet, a small medieval village in the Vaucluse where we live part of the year. Sablet is surrounded by vineyards from which the local vignerons make world renown wines. Besides wine, we find local cheeses, a bounty of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, olives and olive oil. We are only a little over one hour from the Mediterranean Sea so there is a plentiful supply of fresh fish and shellfish.

Before we started coming to Sablet, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Tavel and Cassis were just names on labels of wine bottles. Oh I knew these names meant the wines were probably very good but I didn't know anything about their location, history or terroir - special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate gives the grapes and in turn you smell and taste when you drink wine.

Now that we have visited these villages and met some of the wine making families, those names on labels immediately paint a picture in my mind of where the wines were made. I promise you that going to the source adds a layer of enjoyment to wine and food that you can't get unless you have been there.

There are products we can find in Sablet that we can't find in Northern California. As you probably know, the Vaucluse region is a major producer of black truffles and the largest truffle market in France takes place in nearby Richerenches every Saturday from November to March.

But did you know that saffron is produced in small quantities in the Vaucluse? A few weeks ago, we went to Le Barroux, a small village about 1/2 hour from Sablet known for its château perched on top of the village.

From Le Barroux, you have great views of Mont Ventoux.

We came to Le Barroux to visit L'Aube Safran, a small bed and breakfast near the village owned by Francois Pillet and his wife Marie, he's an architect and designed their home and she's an interior decorator.

In 1992, the Pillet's left Paris for Carcassonne to learn about growing grapes and making wine. Diplomas in hand, their search for land to start up a winery led them to Provence where they learned about organic farming and discovered that saffron had been produced in the area between the 14th and 19th centuries.

The Pillets have planted crocus flowers, the source for the stigmas that become saffron in terraced fields of 200 to 300 square meters - 2000 to 3000 square feet around the house. They keep the fields small to prevent the spread of disease. They use no chemical products for growing the crocus.

Lucky for us, the purple crocus flowers were coming up and the harvest was just getting started. The harvest normally occurs between early October and the first part of November.

The Pillets have about 200,000 crocus planted on terraced fields around their property. The crocus flower and leaves appear at the same time during the fall. The leaves remain throughout the winter, dry in the spring and then disappear.

The purple flowers grow from bulbs planted when they are 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter to a little over 1 inch tall. In addition to saffron, the Pillets sell crocus bulbs and say that crocus thrives in areas where vineyards and olive trees do well. I told wife Shirley that we should plant our yard in crocus and start producing saffron. She didn't seem all that excited about this idea.

Saffron is the red stigma of the purple crocus flower and must be picked from the flower by hand. The stigmas are then dried.

Every crocus flower has 3 stigmas and it takes 200 flowers to make 1 gram or 0.3 ounces of dried saffron.

The entire yield of dried saffron from the crocus they have planted is 1 kilogram. In addition to selling bulbs and dried saffron, they also sell a variety of chutneys and tapenade made with saffron.

We didn't exactly load up on saffron at L'Aube Safran, its the most expensive spice in the world and a little goes a long way, but we did buy some small bottles for gifts and to use at home. This 2 gram - 0.6 ounce bottle of dried saffron cost 49 Euros or $65.00.

As I said earlier, going to the source, in this case L'Aube Safran, and seeing what it takes to produce the dried saffron we add almost without thinking to dishes like Paella, Bouillabaisse, and Risotto Milanese will make those dishes taste even better the next time.

I think we sometimes take for granted what it takes for a farmer or other artisan to get those fresh fruits and vegetables, olives, olive oil, spices and other foods we enjoy to your favorite market in Provence or where you live; I know I do.

Bonne journée mes amis et à très bientôt.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lacoste, a contrarian village in the Luberon

When we are in Sablet we usually take a day trip to Gordes and Roussillon, two of our favorite villages in the Luberon. Sometimes we go to Bonnieux and other times to Lourmarin especially on market days. Slowly, we are making our away around the Luberon to visit the villages where we have not been before.

This summer we finally made it to Lacoste, a picturesque old village perched on a hill with great views to the east across the valley towards Bonnieux and the Grand Luberon Mountains about one hour from Sablet. Sparsely populated (less than 500 people live here), the architecture of the buildings and cobblestone streets give the impression of a village where time stood still.

Lacoste has had a tumultuous history. During the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, the Parliament of Aix ordered the destruction of certain villages in the Luberon including Lacoste because the inhabitants were not considered sufficiently Catholic. The Baron de Oppède, Jean Maynier, slaughtered the entire village population in 1545.

The ruins of the Marquis de Sade castle crown the top of the village. Unless you have a kinky side, mind you I'm not making any judgments here, you may not know that the Marquis de Sade was an aristocrat, politician, philosopher, and writer famous for his libertine sexuality and lifestyle who lived in the family castle during the 1770s.

He is best known for his writings which combined philosophy with erotic images depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence, criminality, and blasphemy against the Catholic Church. He was a proponent of extreme freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion, or law. His writings gave rise to the term sadism – enjoyment of cruelty.

After World War II, Lacoste - which has nothing to do with the tennis player and his crocodile shirts - was nearly empty, with fewer than 30 people on the electoral rolls. It was a base for the French resistance, and many of the structures were in ruins.

In 2001, the Italian-born French designer Pierre Cardin bought the ruins of the castle along with an attached quarry. He renovated the quarry into a performance area and stage and established a summer music festival. It is said that today Pierre Cardin owns more than 40 buildings in Lacoste.

Here are a few pictures from Lacoste. There are few shops and cafés.

The entrance to the church.

The Church of Saint Trophime.

Sea shells in the stone on the church walls.

Rue de Basse, known amongst locals as the “Cardin Champs Elysées” leading down to the arched entryway.

An ornate old fountain.

Portail de la Garde, a fortified entrance into Lacoste.

One of the many cobblestone streets of Lacoste.

The old boulangerie - bakery - in Lacoste and cobblestone street which leads to the castle ruins.

A vaulted doorway we passed as we walked through Lacoste.

A passageway beneath the bell tower in Lacoste.

The ruins of the Marquis de Sade castle.

As I said before, Pierre Cardin has been renovating the ruins of the castle since 2001. He brings various art exhibits to Lacoste as part of his goal to turn the village into a “cultural St-Tropez". This was a piece on exhibit when we visited.

More castle ruins.

Another view of the castle ruins.

Wife Shirley and me smooching in the window of the castle ruins.

One more view of the castle ruins.

A window in the castle with magnificent views of the farmlands in the valley below.

The ruins with views of Bonnieux in the distance.

A cobblestone street winds its way down to the vaulted passageway and bell tower.

Artwork tucked in the courtyard of a home in Lacoste.

Portail des Chèvres, literally translated the goat's door - opens to the south.

An old stone planter in Lacoste.

A tree-shaded cobblestone street.

A pretty garden we passed as we wandered around Lacoste.

An old house with vaulted passageway.

In 1958, an American painter named Bernard Pfriem came to Lacoste and fell in love with the village. He bought a house then bought a few more and began to restore them. In 1970 he started the Lacoste School of Arts which was taken over in 2002 by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), based in Georgia.

SCAD facilities include a library, gallery, dining hall and housing as well as teaching studios dedicated to painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, photography and digital imaging.

The town hall - Mairie with sundial on the wall.

Locals are called “Lacostois” and they have been a contrary bunch. A Protestant village set among mostly Catholic villages, the base for the resistance during World War II and a communist mayor for 50 years. You probably won't be surprised to know that locals are not happy with Pierre Cardin's plans for turning Lacoste into a glamourous place. Oh well!

If you find yourself in the Luberon, go to Lacoste and walk through the village up to the castle ruins. The village is beautiful and you will be rewarded with fabulous views. Bonne journée mes amis et à très bientôt.