Sunday, April 23, 2017

A special day in Cassis with friends and excellent lunch at Chez Gilbert Restaurant

Cassis is a picturesque town a little over 1 and 1/2 hours from Sablet, tucked into a curve along the Mediterranean Sea between the calanques (little coastal fjords with tall cliffs), about 20 km east of Marseille.

It's a fishing port on a steep hillside with vineyards and pastel-colored houses that tumble down to a seaside port lined with more pastel-colored houses, shops and restaurants with 8,000 inhabitants. The port is filled with little fishing boats, yachts and charter boats that take tourists out to the calanques.

If you visit Sablet, we will take a day trip to Cassis. We like to go on Friday mornings since that is one of the days (Wednesday is the other) the Marché Provençal takes place. That is exactly what we did one Friday a few weeks ago, when our neighbors Bob and Darlene and Ed and Gwen were visiting Sablet for the first time.

Port area where Quai des Baux and Quai Saint-Pierre meet

Fishing was the main industry of Cassis for many years. Now there are only 8 fishing crews which operate out Cassis. The town holds a festival every year during June and July to celebrate the fishermen, the sea and their patron saint, St. Peter. Events include the procession of the "prud-hommes" (regulators of the local fishing industry), the blessing of the boats, water jousts, grilled sardines and anchovies and dancing.

Fisherman tends to his boat

There is a kiosk at the beginning of Quai Saint-Pierre that sells tickets for trips on one of the charter boats that line the Cassis port out to 3, 7 or 13 calangues. It takes about 45-minutes for a boat tour out and back to see 3 calanques.

Boats to take tourists out to the Calanques line the Quai Saint-Pierre

The area where Cassis now sits was first occupied between 500 and 600 BC by people from Liguria, a region of north-western Italy, who built a fortified habitation at the top of the Baou Redon. These people lived by fishing, hunting, and farming.

Another view of the port area where Quai des Baux and Quai Saint-Pierre meet

Cafes and houses along Quai Jean Jacques Barthélémy

The port is lined with tourist shops, terrace cafés and restaurants which offer a variety of food and prices. As you can imagine, it's great fun to watch people stroll down Quai (dock) des Baux while you soak up the sun in front of one of the cafes that line the port.

Pastel colored houses and cafes line Quai des Baux

Cassis became renowned as a holiday resort at the end of the 19th century drawing such notable visitors as Virginia Woolf. In the 1920s, Winston Churchill came to Cassis and took painting lessons during his stay in the town.

Fisherman on his boat with Place du Grand Carnot in the rear

Frédéric Mistral, the Nobel Prize-winning author and defender of the provençal language and traditions, also took a liking to Cassis. The writer famously declared, in the provençal language, "Qu'a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire, ‘n'ai rèn vist'." "He who has seen Paris but not Cassis can say, ‘I haven't seen anything'."

Another view of the cafes and houses that line Quai Jean Jacques Barthélémy

Pretty Cassis restaurant

Blue stripes are in style in Cassis

Merry-go-round/Carrousel in Cassis

Close up view of the Merry-go-round/Carrousel in Cassis

Cassis is one of only a handful of Mediterranean ports where fishermen still use the small, double-ended boats known as pointus. The boats, with their extended – and, some suggest, phallic – bow posts, have remained much the same for about 2,000 years.

Traditional fishing boats called "pointus" moored in Cassis harbor. Tourist center is in background

If you happen to go to Cassis in summer there are six public beaches in Cassis. The Grand Mer beach is in the center of town just south of the harbor and consists of sand and pebbles.

Houses and cafes on Quai des Baux

Cassis cafes

Le Bonaparte Restaurant has been our favorite restaurant in Cassis. It's located on a side street several blocks off the port. There is a small dining room and seating on the street. The restaurant takes its name from the cross street where the restaurant is located and where 25 year old Napoléon Bonaparte spent the evening of February 10, 1794 while in Provence to inspect troops.

View down Quai des Baux

Last summer while I was doing research about how to prepare and serve authentic Bouillabaisse, a traditional Provençal fish stew originating from the port city of Marseille, I came across an organization called Charte de la Bouillabaisse. This group was formed in 1980 to fight restaurants who don't respect the traditional recipe and proper service for Bouillabaisse.

The Charte says Bouillabaisse must include at least 4 varieties of fish and the bouillon and cooked fish must be served separately along with rouille. One of the other rules is the cooked fish is supposed to be filleted in front of the diner. I discovered that there were 11 restaurants who signed the Charte and one, Chez Gilbert is located in Cassis.

Chez Gilbert Restaurant

Since we weren't planning to go to Marseille, I knew I wouldn't have a chance to eat Bouillabaisse at Chez Fonfon (which I told you about here), I made reservations for lunch at Chez Gilbert. It was sun shining and warm when we arrived at the restaurant, so we opted to sit at a table in the sunshine facing the port.

Shirley Augsburger enjoying sun at Chez Gilbert

The restaurant was opened in 1956. The restaurant has operated under 3 owners; the current owner has been in charge for 25 years.

Amuse bouche

As I planned, I ordered the Bouillabaisse and as per rules of the Charte, our pretty server presented a platter with 5 varieties of whole Mediterranean fish, scorpion fish, monkfish, red mullet, sea robin, John Dory and potatoes cooked in bouillon and then took the platter to a side table where they were filleted.

Server presenting platter with the fixings for the bouillabaisse

The chef was happy to oblige Shirley's request for a simple green salad.

Green salad

When you eat Bouillabaisse, you eat nothing else, so my meal began with the fish bouillon, much like fish soup and the grilled bread and a garlicky rouille seen below. Rouille is a kind of aioli, or fresh garlic mayonnaise, flavored with saffron and a red pepper similar to cayenne called espelette.

Grilled bread and rouille for bouillabaisse

Main courses included Vol au Vents with mushrooms and veal seen below.

Puff pastry with veal and mushrooms

My dish of assorted fish fillets and boiled potatoes were served in accordance with Charte rules separately from the fish bouillon. You can add fish and potatoes to your bowl of bouillon. Our server came by several times with a bowl of bouillon and ladled more bouillon into my dish until I couldn't find any more room.

Assorted fish fillets for bouillabaisse

Another main course selected by our group was Papillote de bar au vin blanc seen below.

Sea bass baked in parchment with white wine

Our landlubber friend Ed chose a delicious Paleron de boeuf et jarret de veau essentially a Pot au feu seen below.

Pot au feu with beef chuck and veal shank

True to form, Shirley chose a whole grilled fish, in this case Bar, sea bream with wild fennel and vegetables seen below.

Grilled Sea bream with wild fennel and vegetables

Since they were out of our first choice, Clos Sainte Magdeleine Cassis which I told you about here, we opted for a 2016 Domaine du Bagnol Cassis Blanc that was recommended by our server. It is a blend of Marsanne, Clairette, and Ugni Blanc. It was an excellent choice.

2016 Domaine de Bagnol Cassis Blanc

While we waited for desserts to be delivered to the table, we nibbled on Babba au Rum that were dropped on our table a gift from the restaurant.

Babba au Rum

Desserts included the apple tart seen below;

Apple tart with vanilla ice cream

and as expected for a chocoholic like me, the plate of different preparations of dark chocolate.

This was an excellent meal attentively served by a restaurant located on the port with a beautiful view. Up to now, we have not found the food to be very good that is served by the restaurants that line the port. We will return to Le Bonaparte Restaurant again but Chez Gilbert will be a regular destination.

A variety of preparations of dark chocolate

The Castle seen below was built in 1381 by the counts of Les Baux and refurbished last century by Mr. Michelin, the boss of the company that makes tires and publishes the famous Green Guides. Today it is privately owned and partially converted to a luxury B and B.

Maison des Baux Castle

When you exit off the A50 auto route, the road down to Cassis is a winding road that goes past vineyards planted on steep hills between olive groves and country houses above Cassis. The wineries of Cassis produce red, white and rosé wines but it's the white wines for which the appellation is best known. We like Cassis white and rosé wines a lot.

By the way, don't confuse the wines of Cassis with crème de cassis, a sweet black currant liqueur, a specialty of Burgundy which takes its name from black currants (cassis), not this town.

We liked the wine we drank so much at lunch that we decided to go find Domaine du Bagnol and taste the wines where they are made.

Domaine du Bagnol

Domaine du Bagnol is a small 15 acre estate created in 1867 by the Marquis de Fesque. The modern history of the domaine began in 1997 when Jean-louis Genovesi bought the domaine. In 2003 after finishing his viticulture studies, son Sebastien took the helm.

Domaine du Bagnol with Cap Canaille in the distance

The Cassis Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée wine region is unique in Provence because 75% of its production is white wine. The soil is primarily limestone which is particularly suited to the cultivation of Clairette, Marsanne, Ugni Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes which are the major varietals of the AOC. Grapes are harvested by hand.

View to the Domaine du Bagnol vineyards

In addition to retasting the white wine, we tasted the rosé wine. The rosé comes from a handful of parcels planted in clay and limestone soils, on a gentle north-northwest-facing slope. Grenache-dominated, with smaller percentages of Mourvedre and Cinsault.

Me with friends Bob and Ed and tasting room hostess Lola

Model "pointus" fishing boat in tasting room

View of Domaine du Bagnol vineyards with Cap Canaille in distance

The wines of Domaine du Bagnol are excellent. I recommend you seek them out. If you are in Cassis, look for the domaine on the road from the auto route to Cassis. To take a phrase from Michelin, it's worth the detour.

Domaine du Bagnol

Cap Canaille which rises up between Cassis and La Ciotat, is one of the highest cliffs of Europe at 399 meters (1,309 feet) and the highest cliff in France while the route des Crêtes between Cassis and La Ciotat counts among the most scenic drives in Southern Provence.

Cap Canaille

It was a wonderful day in Cassis.

Chez Gilbert Restaurant
19 Quai des Baux
13260 Cassis
Tel: 04 42 01 71 36

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Visit to the beautiful hilltop village of Venasque and lunch at Les Remparts Restaurant

We frequently take day trips from Sablet to explore the hill-top villages of the Luberon. To get there, we drive down the D4, a scenic route that takes you across Carpentras before it becomes a narrow winding road flanked by cherry orchards until it passes below the village of Venasque.

Venasque is a small pretty village that clings to a rocky hillside overlooking vineyards, garrigue and cherry trees. It is classified as one of the "Plus Beaux Villages de France" (translated as most beautiful villages of France), one of seven villages with that designation in the Vaucluse region where Sablet is located.

Cherries have been grown in this part of Provence since the 17th century and it remains the largest producer in France. Those from Venasque are said to be the best: the village refers to its cherries as diamants rouges (red diamonds).

Arched doorway through the defensive walls

Venasque is one of the oldest villages of the Comtat Venaissin often referred to simply as the Comptat. Comptat means county in its original sense, or land belonging to a count and Venaissin refers to Venasque, a former bishop seat which gave its name to the Comptat.

The fountain in the center of Venasque at Place de la Fontaine

You will recall that last fall, dear friends Steve and Mary visited from Michigan. They love Sablet and have been with us several times plus they have visited on their own with family and friends several more times.

I am telling you this not as a complaint for sure, we love their visits, but to say they know the area almost as well as we do, so its not easy to find new interesting places to visit or excellent new restaurants to try.

Sign for Les Remparts Restaurant

As I was studying the map one morning, my eye caught "Venasque" and I immediately recalled that there was a nice restaurant with good food and excellent views in the middle of the village. I called and confirmed that Les Remparts was open and made reservations for noon.

As we were slow to get away from Sablet that morning, by the time we got to Venasque and found parking and walked into the village, it was noon and time for lunch. The restaurant is located just a few steps from the fountain in the center of the village.

Les Remparts Restaurant

At Les Remparts, you can sit in the interior dining room, a large sun room or on a small outdoor terrace with views of the valley on sunny days. We hadn't reserved soon enough to sit in the sun room so we were seated in the interior dining room.

Shirley and I at Les Remparts Restaurant

Les Remparts offers a number of prix fixe menus, including a vegetarian menu for 27 Euros. We made a very important decision right away, choose a wine, a 2015 bottle of Château La Canorgue Rosé, an organic wine made of Provençal staples Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

2015 Château La Canorgue Rosé wine

We all chose the vegetarian menu for 27 Euros. The starter of Tomato Tarte Tatin with salad was a  huge delicious hit. Both Mary and I vowed to try and replicate this at home. The crust was perfect and the caramelized tomatoes were so good.

Tomato Tarte Tatin with salad

The main course choices for the vegetarian menu were a Vegetarian Crumble that sat on a roasted tomato sauce seen below or;

Vegetarian Crumble (ratatouille vegetables, mozzarella and crumble) with roasted tomato sauce

a plate of creamy Porcini ravioli with a Porcini mushroom sauce. It was the heart of mushroom season and I couldn't resist a dish with Porcini mushrooms. The dish fully lived up to my expectations.

Porcini Ravioli with a Porcini mushroom sauce

Next came a cheese course with a selection of 5 goat cheeses and two cow's milk cheeses seen below.

Cheese course (5 goat cheeses and two cow's milk cheeses)

Dessert choices included Chocolate Mozart Cake;

Chocolate Mozart cake

a yummy Lemon Tart;

Lemon Tart

Lavender Crème Brulee.

Lavender crème brulee

As soon as we were brought "l'addition" (the bill), we paid and headed out to walk about the village and take come pictures. The restaurant was as good or better than what I remember. I think Steve and Mary liked it a lot too. The first thing I saw was this old building seen below with the words carved in stone which said "Ecole des Filles"

Old Girl's School

Venasque's location on top of the hill provided a natural defense against attacks from enemies. Nevertheless, in Roman times, a defensive wall with towers was built around the village. The arched doorways were restored at the beginning of the 20th century.

Tower and an arched doorway through the defensive walls

The thick walls of the ramparts which survive connect three Saracen towers and two arched doors "portes". Supposedly the stones in the defensive wall that no longer exist were removed as if the wall was a sort of rock quarry and used to build the school and village houses.

Mary and Shirley in front of the defensive Saracen towers

There are over 200 bories in the area around Venasque. These simple stone huts first appeared before even the Romans arrived, and continued to be used as housing until the 20th century, more recently as shepherds' shelters or sheep pens.

View of village cemetery from Venasque

Venasque is a very long and narrow village, like most settlements built on the crest of a hill, with superb panoramic views.

Arched doorway through the defensive walls into the center of Venasque

As you wander around Venasque, you will come upon the "House with Blue Shutters."

La Maison aux Volets Bleus (The House with Blue Shutters)

One of the many pretty streets you will come across as you wander around the village. They are deserted at the moment while everybody stops for their mid-day meal.

Steve and Mary walk down Venasque street

As you can see, Venasque is a small village. There are only 1,099 people who reside in the village according to the latest census. They are known for the cherries and table grapes (Muscat de Venasque) they grow around the village.

Arched passageway called Impasse Du Moulin

The village is artfully decorated with plants and flowers and even the post office, with its vine-covered terrace, is a little gem.

La Poste (The Post Office)

Pretty house with statue in wall

Water was piped to houses throughout the village between 1959 and 1965. Prior to this time, villagers got their water from the various fountains throughout the village.

Venasque fountain at Place de la Planette

The Notre Dame Church in Venasque dates from the end of the 12th century. The side chapels date from the 17th and 18th century, the bell tower from the 17th century.

View of the Notre Dame Church Bell Tower in Venasque

Inside the church, there is a very beautiful baptistry. Its origins are unclear, but it is believed to be the oldest religious baptistry in the region.

Notre Dame Church in Venasque

Iron cross near Notre Dame Church in Venasque

War Memorial near Notre Dame Church

Notre Dame Church in Venasque

Statue above side door entrance to Notre Dame Church

Hotel de Ville (Town Hall)

It is definitely worthwhile to turn off the D-4 and drive up the hill to Venasque. As I said, it is small and will only take you a couple of hours to do a walking visit through the village. Try to time your visit so you can eat lunch at Les Remparts. Make sure you reserve a table. You will be happy you did.

Les Remparts Restaurant
36 Rue Haute
84210 Venasque
Tel: 04 90 66 02 79