Saturday, January 30, 2010

Villedieu and Maison Bleue

One day, shortly after we bought our house, I was sitting on the terrace at Café des Sports in Sablet, chatting with Roslyn, known to the locals as "Rose", the wonderful English lady from whom we bought our house, and some of her vintner friends.

It was warm, the sky overhead was brillant blue as can only be found in Provence. Everyone was enjoying Pastis 51; apparently this is the house pastis at Café des Sports. Pastis seems to be the national drink of Provence; the flavor is predominantly anise.

For those who don't know, the French dilute the pastis liquor with 5 parts water and ice cubes. The drink turns from yellowish to cloudy when water is added which I think is part of the attraction. I should mention that pastis is a beverage I only drink in Provence. It just seems to taste better on a sunny terrace in Provence.

Anyway, I am digressing. Our conversation turned to why we had chosen to buy in Sablet and after explaining the reasons; close to airports and TGV, location close to family, its pretty, its a living village, meaning shops are open year around, everyone quickly affirmed the wisdom of our decision.

Someone, I can't recall who, mentioned that the only other village in the area they would have considered was Villedieu. They also mentioned that Villedieu had a very pretty square and a very good restaurant which serves pizza.

By now you have probably figured out that I love pretty villages and I love good food. So naturally I had to go and visit and check it out for myself. Villedieu is located about 12 kms northwest of Sablet in the direction you would take if you were driving to Nyons.

Villedieu is a small village (population 518) set on a hill surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and pine trees, overlooking the Aygues River, close to the Drôme Provençale.

Villedieu is a medieval village that was once a commandery of the Knights of Templar, where they had a chateau with one tower. Founded during a time when there were frequent invasions, you can see picturesque reminders of the village defense as you stroll around the village.

When you drive into Villedieu, you will arrive in the village square, called Place de la Liberation, where you will find the mairie, several cafes and the aforementioned pizza restaurant called Maison Bleue. Our friends Bruce and Christine live in Villedieu. There is not much else in Villedieu.

Unfortunately when I arrived in Villedieu that first afternoon, the square was almost deserted and Maison Bleue was closed for "congés annuels", annual vacation. I found out that Maison Bleue is generally closed from the around the 1st of November to the 1st of April.

Maison Bleue is owned by a wonderful chef named Daniel. From a small kitchen equipped with a large pizza oven, 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.

We have eaten a number of meals at Maison Bleue since my first visit to Villedieu; we've sat in the small dining room and out under the tree covered terrace in front of the restaurant. I strongly recommend that you make reservations since Daniel only does one seating and the terrace fills up very quickly.

The terrace, actually Place de la Liberation, is shared by three different restaurants. Surrounding the village fountain, the seating for each restaurant is defined by the color of the chairs.

Sitting in the crowded square on a spring, summer or early fall evening, it is hard to decide what is better; the food at Maison Bleue or the magical experience of sitting under the trees and enjoying the evening with friends and family, probably a combination of both.

Maison Bleue is a good choice for any meal but a really good place to go with family and friends with young children. Daughter, Stephanie Augsburger Pasamonte in the dining room at Maison Bleue.

The menu and atmosphere is very good for little ones. Grandson Dylan Pasamonte in the dining room at Maison Bleue.

I recommend getting to Villedieu early enough so you can stroll around the village.

At the north end of the village, you will find the village cemetary. From there you can get a very nice view of Mount Ventoux rising up in the distance.

Sablet, beautiful village in the Vaucluse

We live in Sablet (our home away from California), a pretty village (pop 1,300) located at the base of the jagged Dentelles de Montmirail west of Mont Ventoux in the Vaucluse Department of Provence France.

The village sits on a hill bordering the rich alluvial (sand, silt, clay, or gravel deposited during floods) plain of the Ouvèze River. The origin of the name Sablet comes from "sable" (sand) as the village is built on sandstone.

Sablet's neighbor to the north is Séguret, one of the "Plus Beaux Villages de France" and to the south is Gigondas, a small hillside village which produces world class red wines from the surrounding vineyards.

Sablet is known for its production of Côtes du Rhône wine produced from grapes grown in the vineyards which are planted all around the village. Like most wine produced in the Côtes du Rhône, Sablet wines are vinified in red, rosé and white with the predominant varietal being Grenache (reds and rosés) and Grenache Blanc (white).

The vineyards were first cultivated by the Counts of Toulouse to whom the area then belonged. During the 14th century, the vineyards became papal possessions when the papacy moved to Avignon.

Sablet wines were awarded the classification Côtes du Rhône Villages Sablet in 1974. This mark of distinction gives the local vignerons (winemakers) the right to put the name Sablet on labels for bottles of wine produced from grapes grown within the commune and vinified in accordance with AOC rules.

In 1867 after most of the vineyards of France were ravaged by Phylloxera, local resident François-Frédéric Leydier invented a device that enabled American root stock to be grafted onto French vines, thus thwarting the epidemic. Ironically, Sablet is one of the few places in France that did not require Phylloxera resistant root stock.

In Sablet, you will find charming and picturesque shaded streets adorned with flowers, passageways with exposed beams, fountains and stone village houses lined along the narrow streets.

Shirley Augsburger standing in "Grande" (big or wide) Rue in Sablet.

Some of the streets are named after the artisans who lived and worked there like Rue du Cordonnier, the shoemaker's street.

Boulevard des Remparts

Escalier de l'Eglise (stairs to the church) at the north end of our house.

Sablet is a circular village and the streets curl up in concentric circles to the Romanesque church of St. Nazaire (12th century). The bell tower of the church of St. Nazaire is the highest point in the village. The church bell rings hourly between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The pretty fountain with the adjoining laundry basin. We still see ladies in the village washing clothes in the laundry basin.

The city walls and towers were probably started in the 14th century and completed in 1500. It has recently been restored by the Association des Compagnons des Barrys; it remains one of the most beautiful reminders of historic times in Sablet.

Within 2 to 3 minutes walking distance from the house we can find most everything we need during our stay in the village; two boulangeries (bakeries), boucherie (butcher), two mini marts, a florist, a pharmacy, a tabac/presse (where we can buy local and Parisian daily newspapers such as the Le Monde, Figaro, Le Provence and the International Herald Tribune), 2 hair salons, a bibliothèque (library), bank with ATM machine and post office.

One of the two boulangeries in Sablet.

The Boucherie, the butcher shop.

The library and one of the hair salons

The main village square is also home to the tourist office or “Syndicat d’Initiative” where you can find all the information you need about the village and about touring the area. The tourist office is also the showcase for the local independent wine-makers who have made the village famous; you can taste and buy their wines there.

In the main village square, there is a traditional village bar; a good place to watch the world go by, gossip with the locals or read the paper while you enjoy your morning coffee.

There is also a casual family restaurant and pizzeria right next door to the bar in the main village square called Les Remparts. There is indoor dining and a large terrace for outdoor dining and beautiful views.

A short walk down the hill along the Route de Vaison to the Mairie past the roundabout at the northern entrance to Sablet you will find an excellent gastronomic restaurant called Les Abeilles. They offer indoor dining and a lovely plane tree shaded terrace for alfresco dining.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Seven of the villages in the Vaucluse region of Provence (where our house is located), are classified as Plus Beaux Village de France; most beautiful villages in France.

A 32 kms drive southeast of Sablet past the town of Carpentras, onto a small road bordered on both sides by cherry orchards, will bring you to one of those beautiful villages.

Venasque is a picturesque village perched at the top of a steep hill and classified as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France.

Venasque is small and compact with a few shops, restaurants and hotels. It can be easily visited in a few hours.

Shirley Augsburger exploring Venasque. The streets are quiet during lunch time.

The 12th century Notre Dame de Venasque Church.

One of the many pretty streets.

Shirley Augsburger, grandson Dylan Pasamonte along with Stephanie and Earl Pasamonte in front of the 12th century towers of Venasque.

There are wonderful views out in every direction. Mont Ventoux can be seen in the distance.

Restaurant Les Remparts is a good choice for a meal during your visit to Venasque. The restaurant is built into the remparts; the old walls of Venasque.

The restaurant has a small terrace for outdoor dining in nice weather and a pretty dining room with amazing views of the valley.

Restaurant Les Remparts offer a number of prix fixe menus du jour, menus of the day, including an unusual one that consisted of all vegetarian dishes. I decided to try it and it was really delicious.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Memories from La Metairie Neuve

At Bistro Des Copains, the small French bistro I co-own in Occidental California with good friends, we have pictures hanging on the wall from La Metairie Neuve.

As I wrote in my very first post, my love affair with France began during visits to La Metairie Neuve, a small working farm, located near the little hamlet of Viane which is about 15 km from Lacaune in Southeast Tarn.

One of my favorite's is the picture of Mémé sitting in her kitchen watching Tata Alice checking jam cooking in a pot over the fire while a Le Creuset pot sits below cooking something wonderfully tasty, I am sure.

We intentionally positioned this picture near the kitchen so that Mémé can keep her eye on what is cooking at Bistro Des Copains.

I am comforted somehow that this picture is in Bistro Des Copains, my homage to French bistro food; this picture shows the first great French chef in my life and the place I fell in love with France and French cooking.

Another favorite picture is that of Pépé watering his work horse, either Fanny or PonPon, I can't recall which, at the trough in front of the barn.

In an earlier post, I show Shirley and my cousin Jean Marc Davy standing in the same location, just a few months back. Pépé is no longer there but not much else has changed.

Water from the spout - which runs continually into the trough- is from a spring on the mountain above La Metairie Neuve; fifty years later, its still running and is still the best place to get a cold drink of water on a hot day.

As you look at these pictures, you can see why La Metairie Neuve made such an impression on me as little boy and why I try to get back there every chance I can.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Le Cercle, Les Issambres

If you are driving the scenic route east along the Mediterranean Sea on the N 98, headed from St. Tropez towards St. Raphael, you will arrive in Les Issambres. Les Issambres is a residential community located in the Var region of the Cote d'Azure, halfway between Sainte Maxime and Fréjus.

There is not much to Les Issambres, except for new villas which are sprouting up everywhere. But if you come upon Restaurant Le Cercle, do not hesitate to stop for lunch if you are looking for a great place to eat. To tell the truth, my family would say that I am a "list" person; if a restaurant is not on a "list" such as Michelin, Gantié, Pudlo or recommended by Yelp, Chowhounders or well regarded by Zagat reviewers, I hesitate to try it out.

I would say that I have become less dependant on "list" as a result of our trips along the back roads through the South of France. This is probably because it has been forced upon me as I will explain below and because we have been happily surprised on more than a few occasions.

Restaurants in Provence usually serve lunch between noon and 2 pm and dinner between 7:00 or 7:30 and 10:00 p.m. And unlike the United States, there is one seating and once the restaurant is "complet" or full, you are out of luck if you are looking for a table.

As eating is a great pleasure for us and a highlight of the day and not something we ever do purely for sustenance, we make it a point to get into a restaurant for lunch no later than 1:00 pm; even if I don't know of a "list" restaurant in the area.

That was the case the day we happened upon Restaurant Le Cercle. It was after 1:00 pm, and I was very worried that we wouldn't find a good place to eat. We came around the bend along a pretty cove and there sat Restaurant Le Cercle.
It was a beautiful day, the restaurant looked nice from the outside and the parking lot was full of cars with license tags starting with 83; the local tag number. For me, that is always a sign of a restaurant that is well regarded by the locals and I am happy to try it out, "list" or no "list".

Shirley considers lunch at Le Cercle to be one of the best meals of her life. A bottle (maybe 2, I can't recall) of chilled rosé wine, fresh seafood, local vegetables and outstanding although simple cooking made for a wonderful leisurely lunch, the kind of lunch the people of Provence are so famous for. We both ordered Sole. They actually brought the fish out to show us three different times so we could be sure it was fresh and cooked correctly; first before it was cleaned, the second time after the fish was cooked but prior to being deboned and finally deboned on a plate accompanied by a simple lemon wedge.

Our "plat" or main course was accompanied by ratatouille and a green salad. For those who don't know despite the movie by the same name, ratatouille is a traditional Provençal vegetable dish consisting of tomato, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onion, garlic, olive oil and herbs.

Every Provençal cook has their own version; to me, many look and taste like vegetable soup. Hands down, the ratatouille at Le Cercle was the best I have ever eaten. The vegetables were cooked slowly to the point of caramelization and the juice of the caramelized vegetables were reduced to almost a syrupy consistency.

We finished our lunch with nougat glacé, a traditional frozen dessert of France. A petit café and we were ready to hit the road.

All in all, a very good meal! We would happily return. Guess what; Restaurant Le Cercle is now in the 2009 Guide Gantié so its on a "list".