Thursday, December 31, 2015

Visit to Beautiful Village of Ansouis and Lunch at 1 Star Michelin Restaurant La Closerie

It was October and we were back in Sablet with friends Steve and Mary from Michigan. One of our morning rituals is to sit around the kitchen table drinking petit cafes and reading our ipods and English language papers. Invariably the question is asked, usually by Mary, "Michel, what's the plan for the day"?

I had been told by several guests that there is an excellent restaurant in the Luberon village of Ansouis. I knew that Steve and Mary had not been to Ansouis so one morning when the question was asked, I decided that was where we were going to that day. Breakfast over, we headed out the door.

Ansouis is a very pretty old village, perched on a low hill with a restored chateau. The village is located 1 1/2 hours southeast of Sablet (north of the Durance river and south of the Luberon mountains).

Ansouis is classified as one of the Plus Beaux (most beautiful) Villages of France, one of 151 villages in France with this designation. There is a an extensive evaluation process to become a Plus Beaux Villages de France with two initial requirements which must be met:

1. the village has to be rural size and the population can not exceed 2,000 inhabitants;

2. the village has to have at least 2 protected sites or monuments (either listed or registered on the list of historical monuments).

Like other villages in the area, tourism along with agriculture (vineyards and olive groves) play a very important part in the Ansouis economy.


We arrived in Ansouis and found La Closerie Restaurant a short distance from the entrance to the village on Boulevard des Platanes. Being October, déjeûner (lunch) was being served in a very pretty dining room. I assume there is a terrace for dining alfresco when weather permits, but we didn't see it.

La Closerie Restaurant

The restaurant which is owned by Olivier Alemany, a native of Marseille and his wife Delphine, has been in business for 12 years. The chef offers a variety of 3 course menus starting at 29 Euros for lunch during the week. Our meal started with the amuse bouche seen below.

Amuse Bouche of Smoked Salmon, Pickled Carrot, Cauliflower, Beets and Radicchio

Green Salad with Beets, Carrots, Cauliflower, Radish, Green Tomato, and Pea Shoots

Cèpes Mushroom Soup with Diced Potatoes and Poached Egg

Wild Fish Carpaccio

Lievre (rabbit) in Red Wine Sauce with Chanterelle Mushroom and Foie Gras

Roast Duck Breast and Confit Leg with Beets and Cream of Beets

Sea Bass with Zucchini, Grape Tomatoes and White Beans

Exotic Fruits with Goat Cheese and Pineapple Sorbet

Chocolate Cake and Mousse

The food was delicious and beautifully plated and in my opinion worthy of its Michelin star. We pushed ourselves away from the table and headed out to explore the village.

Ansouis Mairie (Town Hall)

Cobblestone street through archway leads to the Ansouis Castle

Rue en calade, translated essentially as a cobblestone street

The Community Council of Ansouis held its meetings in the House of the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit seen below starting in 1540. After the Brotherhood was dissolved, the house became community property and was transformed into the Town Hall and village oven.

Belfry with iron campanile

An iron campanile was added to the top of the belfry which houses the clock in the late 16th century or early 17th century. The Town Hall was replaced by the former Town Hall sometime between 1793 and 1836. The current Town Hall is located up the street from La Closerie Restaurant.

Belfry with iron campanile

On the way to the Ansouis castle, you will pass beautifully restored houses, the oldest of which date from the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Restored Ansouis house with mullioned (divided) windows

The opulent Saint Martin Church seen below, is built into the outer wall of the Château. It houses the remains of Ansouis's two saints, Delphine and Elzéar.

Interior of 12th century Saint Martin's Church

Saint Martin Church Square and entrance to Saint Martin Church

The Ansouis castle seen below has been restored and is open to the public. A beautiful staircase leads to ornate rooms with lovely furniture and tapestries. Tours are offered every afternoon except Tuesday. Tours take approximately one hour.

The castle's history goes back to the 10th century, when a military fortress was built on a high spot overlooking the Aigues Valley. There was a dungeon surrounded by a few isolated buildings. This fort belonged to the powerful families of the times - the Forcalquier family, then the Counts of Provence and as of the 1200's, the Sabran family.

The Wars of Religion ended in the late 1500's, and castle-forts began to be transformed into more gracious homes. In the 17th century, the Ansouis castle was renvoated, gardens and terraces were added, and new owners took over.

Entrance to the Ansouis Castle. Note the coat of arms of the House of Sabran over the door.

Ansouis Castle Room

Ansouis Castle Room

Ansouis Castle Kitchen

Ansouis Castle Room
View of the Belfry from the Ansouis Castle

Saint in Niche in Ansouis Castle Garden

Another View from the Ansouis Castle

The Jardin Suspendu, or Hanging Garden, seen below includes trimmed box hedges, rose bushes, orange trees, statues and wonderful views.

The Hanging Garden

The lion was the symbol of the Sabran family

Ansouis Castle Garden

Statue in the Ansouis Castle Garden

Corner turret at the top of the Ansouis castle

The Belfry and Panoramic View from the Ansouis Castle

Ansouis Cafe

You Drive Through this Stone Arch to Enter the Village

Ansouis War Memorial

Every day in Provence is a good day. This was a great day; a visit to a beautiful old village, a delicious lunch in a Michelin one star restaurant and a tour of the well restored Ansouis Castle.

La Closerie Restaurant
Boulevard des Platanes
84240 Ansouis
Tel: 04 90 09 90 54

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Artisan Ice Cream in Céreste Provence

I have a well-deserved reputation among family members for devoting leisure time reading to books and magazines about food, wine, fiction set in France or true stories that took place there. Favorite writers include Peter Mayle, a British author famous for books detailing life in Provence and Martin Walker, author of the "Bruno" chief of police series set in the Périgord region.

Several years back, I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Lunch in Paris" by Elizabeth Bard, a combination memoir and cookbook about a young American woman caught up in two passionate love affairs; one with her beau, Gwendal, the other with French food.

Earlier this year, came "Picnic in Provence", another book authored by Elizabeth about a trip to the tiny Provencal village of Céreste. By chance, they come across the wartime home of a famous poet, and Elizabeth and Gwendal decided to move, lock, stock and Le Creuset to the Provence countryside.

When they arrive in Provence, they discover a land of blue skies, lavender fields and peaches that taste like sunshine. Seduced by the local ingredients, they become ice cream entrepreneurs, opening an artisanal ice cream shop and offer flavors like saffron, sheep's milk yogurt and fruity olive oil.

I was surprised to find out this fall that friend Mary, a fellow Francophile, had been reading "Picnic in Provence" at the same time as me back in Michigan. When she suggested during one of our telephone conversations about our upcoming trip to Provence, that we visit Elizabeth Bard's village and ice cream shop, I didn't need arm twisting.

Since Céreste is a little drive from Sablet (91 kms), we made reservations and stopped for lunch on the way at a Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand restaurant in Caseneuve, a village on top of a hill about 13 kms from Céreste. So after a very nice lunch that I will tell you about in a future post, we headed to Céreste.

Céreste is a Roman-era village with a Medieval part with beautiful stone houses from the 15th and 18th century in a tight circle of narrow streets at the foot of the Luberon mountain range, between the towns of Forcalquier and Apt. Saint Michel Church seen below was built in the 18th century.

Saint Michel Church in Céreste

The village has quite a few shops and cafés that line the main road that runs through Céreste. This is where you will find the Mairie (Town Hall), seen below and Scaramouche Artisan Glacier, Elizabeth and husband Gwendal's artisan ice cream shop.

The Céreste Mairie (Town Hall)

As I mentioned earlier, it was while the Bard's were in Provence, following the footsteps of poet and Resistance leader René Char, Gwendal and Elizabeth, fell in love with the area and, in a mad moment, set up home in the village of Céreste, in the very same house where René Char had lived during the Second World War.

After a year of research, development and construction, Elizabeth and Gwendal along with partners, Rod Heath, a British friend who runs a bed and breakfast in Céreste and Emmanuel Sciara, friend of Gwendal and Elizabeth, a Parisian working in the computer industry, of Italian origin, opened in 2013.

Dominican Republic Chocolate and Kenya Coffee Ice Cream

The name Scaramouche comes from the 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Technicolor romantic adventure film based on the 1921 novel Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini as well as the 1923 film version starring Ramón Novarro. A romantic adventure in a historical setting, Scaramouche tells the story of a young lawyer during the French Revolution.

The Scaramouche website lists 23 ice cream flavors, 18 sorbets, a sheep's milk frozen yogurt, ice cream sundaes and cakes. There is also a listing of whom they source ingredients and in what town they are located, right down to the fresh mint and rosemary they get from their garden.

Steve and Mary at Scaramouche Artisan Glacier in Céreste

Although it was not very busy the Saturday we were there in early October, business must be OK, because in June 2015, Scaramouche opened a second ice cream parlor in Paris at 22 Rue La Vieuville in Montmartre, between Place des Abbesses and Sacré Coeur.

I love ice cream, clearly my favorite dessert except maybe Shirley's strawberry rhubarb tart topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream of course. I opted for two of my favorite flavors, Dominican Republic Chocolate and Kenya Coffee ice cream, rather than try one of their more exotic flavors.

The flavors I chose were excellent, very rich, smooth and full of flavor. So we will have to return a few times to taste our way through their flavors. I can imagine a return trip to meet up with cousin Pascale who lives near Apt or with our grandchildren when we go this summer.

I should mention they are going to be closed for a holiday during January and February. And like most shops in the countryside, they take a break over lunch at the Céreste shop. In Paris, they are open from 12:00 noon without stop to midnight.

Scaramouche Artisan Glacier
Cours Aristide Briand
04280 Céreste
Tel: 04 92 79 48 82

As usual, I have not been provided any consideration for posting about Scaramouche Artisan Glacier. I only do so because we loved the ice cream and I like Elizabeth's story. Have a great week. A bientot.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

One of the best things about going to Sablet is shopping at the Vaison-la-Romaine market on Tuesday mornings.

We don't set up many rendezvous before we get to Sablet but all including day trips are scheduled around the Tuesday morning market in Vaison-la-Romaine. Tuesday mornings, rain or shine, always finds us leaving the house early for the trip to Vaison-la-Romaine.

If you don't know, Vaison-la-Romaine is a quick 6 mile trip down a winding road and across the Ouvèze River. Vaison-la-Romaine is divided by the Ouvèze River into two parts; on the right bank is the ancient Roman colony and modern town and on the left bank is the old medieval town with the Castle of the Counts of Toulouse at the highest point, which can be seen from afar.

Upon arriving in Vaison, we head for our favorite parking spot near Notre Dame de Nazareth Cathedral. This cathedral was built on the ruins of a Roman temple, the remains of which can be seen outside the chevet. More than one church has existed on this site; a 6th-century basilica was destroyed by Frankish invaders. The present building dates primarily from the 11th and 12th centuries.

Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth Cathedral

The weekly market is a rainbow of colors and smells of Provence with up to 450 vendors in the summer (pottery, arts and crafts, food stalls of all kinds, local fruits and vegetables, linens, soap, regional specialties, clothing) and spreads out over Place Montfort, the main square in the center of town and nearby streets including Avenue du Général de Gaulle and Cours Taulignan. The market is an ancient tradition dating back to 1483.

One of the best things about owning or renting a house in Provence, in my opinion, is the chance to cook some freshly picked produce, just caught seafood, cheese and meats you find at the various weekly markets as you travel around Provence. And let me tell you, the weekly market in Vaison-la-Romaine is one of the biggest and best.

By contrast when you stay in a hotel or similar accommodation, you will walk through the markets, and look, sniff and drool about the possibilities that lie before you on artfully displayed tables. You will undoubtedly buy a few things for a snack or picnic, but you will miss out on a home-cooked meal on your terrace made with ingredients you bought at that's morning market.

Check out the pictures that follow and by the end of this post, I am sure you will be fantasizing about what you would make if you had been shopping at the market with us back in early October.

Strings of garlic

Last of the tomatoes from Provence

Fresh figs

Below are Girolles mushrooms which look exactly like Chanterelles to me. I am not sure what is the difference, maybe one of you will tell me.

Girolles mushrooms

Cepes (porcini) mushrooms

I had every intention of roasting some of the fresh chestnuts below and making a cream of Chestnut soup. Unfortunately, we never got around to it. So I will have to wait till next fall to get another chance with fresh chestnuts.



Arugula (roquette)

Our favorite poissonnier is Edmond Lafont of Maree du Comtat Venaison.

Wide selection of fresh fish from Monsieur Lafont

Fish from the fish monger across the street

Wide variety of shellfish

Dry sausages of all kinds

White onions, shallots and potatoes

Mobile butcher shop

Wide assortment of olives

Serving platters made of olive wood

As I said, we try to get to the market early, usually shortly after 8:30 in the morning. Yes, I know it is early to be out and about while you are on vacation. But listen to me, it will be much easier to find parking. By 10:00, it will be difficult to find places to park, let alone convenient ones like our spot near the cathedral.

Also, by 10:00, the streets will be crowded with locals and tourists wandering through the market, making purchases, browsing, visiting with friends and taking pictures (like me) and it's not so much fun in my opinion. So we go through the market and retire to one of the cafés that line Place Montfort for a petit café, chocolat chaud or cold beverage, usually with one or more friends.

Where you will find us taking a café break

Variety of woven market baskets. You will need one or more to carry your purchases

Musical entertainment

Linens from Provence

Roasted chicken to go

Before we leave Vaison and head back to Sablet, we always stop by Lou Canesteou: Fromagerie Cremerie, the fantastic cheese shop owned by Josiane Deal who was crowned Meilleur Ouvrier de France Fromager, which translates to one of the best in her field, in 2004.

If you are a cheese lover, make sure you check out her website which is linked above and see the section entitled "notre carte interactive des fromages." There is a very cool interactive map of France with an outline of every Department. Click on a Department and you can see which cheeses are produced in the region and a little description about the cheese.

Interior of Lou Canesteou: Fromagerie Cremerie

On the way back to Sablet, we came upon this wild boar (sanglier) and a companion grazing in this field adjacent to a large vineyard. Sangliers cause a lot of damage to gardens and vineyards because they love eating ripe grapes.

The season for hunting sangliers begins around the same time as grapes begin to reach full maturity in Provence. The number of sangliers has exploded all over France in recent years, despite hunting with current estimates at more than 2 million. Sangliers have reportedly even invaded Marseille.

Sanglier is used to make Saucisson de Sanglier, Daube de Sanglier, and Terrines de Sanglier among other things and you will find it in products at several market vendors.

Sanglier (wild boar)

I think the best way to end this post is to say Bon Appétit and Happy Cooking. Have a great week.