Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Crestet, a village perched on the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail

Our village of Sablet sits at the base of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Covered with oak, pine and vineyards, the Dentelles are foothills of Mont Ventoux. Reaching an altitude of 734m/2409ft, they owe their name (dentelle means lace) to the appearance of the peaks.

One of the things we do with visitors and in our opinion the best way to see the Dentelles de Montmirail is drive all the way around. The trip from Sablet around the Dentelles and back to Sablet is about 60km/37 miles.

Along the way around the Dentelles, we pass a number of towns and villages that are worth visiting for the beauty and charm of the village, fabulous views or wonderful wines that are produced there.

One of the villages we pass as we make the circle around the Dentelles is Crestet. It is tiny, not well known, and perched on a crest at the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail, visible from far away, facing Mont Ventoux.

We have driven the narrow winding road, in some places it seems more like a path, up to the medieval castle sitting atop Crestet quite a few times to see the spectacular view towards Mont Ventoux.

The castle is one of the oldest castles in Provence. It was renovated and enlarged in the 14th century and for a while the bishops of Vaison la Romaine resided there. What remained of the castle was restored in 1984. It is now privately owned and not open to the public.

As I said, we have been up the castle quite a few times but we never explored the village which can only be done on foot. So when I was there with friends Steven and Susan a few weeks ago, we decided to walk down into Crestet.

It was a beautiful day in April, sunshine, warm, blue sky and trees were in full bloom. The paths of the village are made of cobble stones.

As I said, the village is tiny, with only 479 inhabitants. The residents of Crestet are called Crestelains (males) and Crestelaines (females).

Friends Susan and Steven in front of one of the many stone structures seen throughout Crestet.

A statue along the path.

Another tree in bloom against the backdrop of the blue Provençal sky.

Saint-Sauveur et Saint-Sixte church with its bell tower and clock. Built in the 11th century, it was restored in 1844.

A fountain from the 16th century.

The interior of Saint-Sauveur et Saint-Sixte church.

In between the stone houses, you will see magnificent views over the valley.

One of the stone houses we came upon; Crestet is truly a stone village.

Stone house and stone wall.

Monument with its cross and a stone house and beautiful blue sky as backdrop.

Stone house, sun dial and blue sky; what's not to love.

The steeple of Saint-Sauveur et Saint-Sixte church with view out to the valley.

Crestet is definitely worth visiting. Drive up to the castle and park in the lot there. There is an orientation table which will help you identify the different peaks and villages you can see.

There is almost no commercial activity in the village; a restaurant at the top which we have never tried and poterie de crestet, a pottery maker at the entrance to the village.

Bonne journée et à bientot.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ou Ravi Prouvençau, Mausanne les Alpilles

I don't believe there is better olive oil produced in France than the wonderful oil from the Vallée des Baux de Provence. As I said in my previous post, we make regular trips to this area to buy olive oil, wine and riz de Camargue - red rice produced in the Camargue region.

In addition to olive oil, there are two other olive-based products that are entitled to the same Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C.) Vallée des Baux de Provence label: cracked green olives and black olives. The A.O.C. area covers 1,700 hectares (about 4,250 acres) in the north-east portion of the Bouches du Rhône department, in the heart of Les Alpilles.

According to the decree that recognized the A.O.C., olive oil in this area must be produced from certain varieties of olives; the principal ones are Salonenque, Beruguette, Grossane and Verdale des Bouches-du-Rhône, and the secondary ones of Picholine and others.

Our favorite olive oil is produced at Moulin Jean Marie Cornille in the village of Mausanne les Alpilles about five minutes south of Les Baux de Provence. Maussane and its neighbour Mouriès, are two of the most significant olive oil producing areas in France.

By the time I finished buying olive oil and meandering through the fortress town of Les Baux de Provence, I was getting hungry and as it was close to dinner time, I drove back to Mausanne les Alpilles to eat at a restaurant I had driven by multiple times but never tried.

Mausanne sits at the foot of the Alpilles mountain range surrounded by vast olive groves. Restaurant Ou Ravi Prouvençau is located on Avenue de la Vallée des Baux near the center of Mausanne les Alpilles. The restaurant has been operated by three generations of the Daura family since 1964.

I walked into a cozy, but empty dining room, I was the first diner for the evening. The small room was inviting, warmed by a flickering fire in the fire place, walls were covered with pictures, tables of various sizes and shapes filled the small room. There was a crèche - nativity scene set up in the front window.

I was greeted by daughter Nathalie and seated at a small table where I could observe what was taking place in the open kitchen.

Another view of the dining room.

I sat and observed the activity in the kitchen while I read over the menu and nibbled on the almonds and local black olives that were set on the table for a simple amuse bouche. I chose the three-course menu for 35 Euros and a small pitcher of a locally produced rosé.

For entrée - starter for my meal, I chose Velouté de Potiron - pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds. It was very good after the addition of salt which was lacking.

From my vantage point, I could see the chef cutting the rabbit and hear the sizzle and smell of thyme as the pieces were placed in a saute pan for the Lapin sauté au Thym, à l'aïl et aux petits lardons, petit jus au vin blanc - rabbit cooked with thyme and garlic and little bacon lardons with white wine that I ordered for my plat - main course.

The rabbit was accompanied by gratin crèmeux de macaronis - macaroni and cheese. Both dishes were perfectly cooked and delicious, especially on a cold evening where you crave something comforting and familiar.

To finish off my meal, I chose Le brisé chocolat-café et sa crème anglaise - a chocolate-coffee cake sitting on a rich crème anglaise sauce. There was nothing wrong with the cake, but I can't say I was wild about it.

While I probably wouldn't make a special trip to Mausanne les Alpilles to dine at Ou Ravi Prouvençau, I would certainly eat there again when we are in the area as it is by far the best of the three restaurants I have tried there.

Bon appétit et à bientôt mes amis.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Les Baux de Provence, a gem in the Alpilles

We usually go to Mausanne or Mouries to buy bottles of the delicious olive oil that is produced in the Vallée des Baux and to buy wine and riz de Camargue - red rice produced in the Camargue region, at Mas de Gourgonnier every time we are in Sablet.

Our route to the Alpilles and Vallée des Baux where this wonderful olive oil is produced usually takes us past Les Baux de Provence, an ancient fortress town that can be seen from far away; the defensive possibilities of the site are clearly evident.

One morning a few months back, my family having left for California, I went to Mausanne to pick up tins of olive oil pressed from the 2010 harvest just a few weeks earlier. When I finished, I headed for Les Baux de Provence, figuring there wouldn't be too many visitors at that time of year and I could find parking close to the entrance to the village.

Les Baux de Provence is a very picturesque village about 75 kms southwest of our house in Sablet. The village sits in a spectacular site on a rocky outcrop with ancient houses and a ruined castle perched on top of the village overlooking the plains to the south. The road to Les Baux from the south takes you past olive groves and vineyards.

The village is officially classified as one of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France - one of the most beautiful villages of France. The beauty of the village and surrounding Alpilles, a small range of mountains, makes Les Baux de Provence a very popular place for visitors all year long.

The name Les Baux refers to its site - in Provençal, a baou is a rocky spur. Aluminum ore bauxite was first discovered near Les Baux in 1822 and named after the village of Les Baux de Provence. Bauxite was mined extensively in the area but by the end of the 20th century, the bauxite had been completely removed.

You have to pay to park your car near the village but parking is allowed for free along the road leading up to the village. Just inside, is the Maison du Roy - King's House, built in 1499. The King's House is now the home of the Office de Tourisme - Tourist Office.

As I mentioned earlier, the village of Les Baux de Provence sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking the plains to the south. The view is fabulous and it looks like it would have been very difficult for enemies to sneak up on the villagers.

The Musée des Santons - the museum of santons (santons are plaster-moulded, kiln-fired nativity figurines dressed in traditional Provençal costumes) contains a large number of exhibits including some figurines made in Naples, scenes illustrating the traditions of Provence and Les Baux linked to the Nativity and a documentary film on the manufacture of these figurines.

You can't drive through Les Baux de Provence as cars are prohibited so the village must be visited on foot.

As I walked around, I discovered that Les Baux de Provence is crisscrossed by narrow cobblestone streets lined with art galleries, cafés and shops selling souvenirs and products made in Provence.

One of the many narrow cobblestone streets.

I came across some beautiful old houses and facades.

Another narrow street and tourist shop.

The 12th-century L'église Saint-Vincent building is typical of construction in Les Baux with the church's southern section built half into the rock.

La Chapelle des Penitents Blancs on Place de l'église, was built in the mid-17th century by the Brotherhood of White Penitents. The chapel stands on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Fontaine Valley.

This graceful stone campanile, so-called lantern of the dead, flanks the north side of L'église Saint-Vincent.

A shop selling souvenirs from Provence; the streets were mostly deserted early in January except for a dog keeping watch. It was very different when I returned with friends in April.

One more cobblestone street to explore as I headed back to the parking lot and my car.

The day was overcast and cool the day I visited so I didn't walk to the castle ruins as I remembered going there in January several years before when the Mistral (strong cold wind) was blowing and it was bitter cold; so I decided to take a pass that day.

I did go to Les Baux de Provence and up to the castle ruins a few weeks ago with friends which I will tell you about in a future post. Bonne journée et à bientot.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Campagne Vignes et Gourmandises, Sainte Cécile les Vignes

One of my favorite restaurants in the Vaucluse is located not very far from Sablet just outside of Sainte Cécile les Vignes along the road to Suze-la-Rousse. The restaurant Campagne, Vignes et Gourmandises, is owned by Sylvain who oversees the kitchen and wife Sylvia who graciously cares for guests in the dining room.

My first meal at the restaurant was with friends Allison and Adam when they visited last spring. Shirley had returned to California and Allison and Adam were leaving the next morning and they took me out to eat as a thank you for staying with us. We had a wonderful meal and I made a mental note to return with Shirley.

We went to Campagne Vignes et Gourmandises last fall on our first evening back in Sablet. We sat on the terrace and the food was wonderful but Shirley couldn't enjoy her meal as she was struggling to stay awake due to jet lag. It must have been pretty obvious because Sylvia came by and said "its too bad madame is not enjoying her meal".

I was in Sablet a few weeks ago with friends Steven and Susan and we decided to go to Campagne Vignes et Gourmandises. As I said, there is a terrace for dining outdoors during good weather and a small very pretty dining room. As the weather was still cool, we were seated in the dining room.

We enjoyed some olives while we considered the options for dinner in the printed menu and on the blackboard which detailed the Retour du Marché menu for 21 Euros. All three of us chose the 3-course Campagne menu for 32 Euros.

We selected a bottle of 2007 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau from Domaine Beaurenard from the large wine list, a delicious blend of Grenache (80%) and Syrah (20%) to enjoy with our dinner.

Our entrées - starters included Des Ravioles, des petits Gris dans un bouillon aux herbes - ravioles with little escargots in an herb bouillon

and dans une cocotte, un velouté d’Asperges, un Œuf poché, quelques Morilles et crème fouettée - asparagus soup with a poached egg, some morilles mushrooms and whipped cream.

For our plat - main courses, we chose un filet de bœuf, réduction de vin de pays du Vaucluse et Morilles - fillet of beef with a red wine reduction and morille mushrooms and

un filet de Sar, Poivrons et Ail nouveau confit à l’huile d’Olive de Pays - fillet of sea bream, roasted red pepper with garlic confit in local olive oil.

Our dessserts included Des Sacristains, une sauce Araguani, Coriandre et Ananas - sweet puff pastry on a bittersweet chocolate sauce made from a blend of Criollo and Trinitario cocoa beans from Venezuela, coriander and pineapple and

des Fraises de Pays et de Rhubarbe, mousse légère au Lait de Brebis - local strawberries and rhubarb with a light sheep's milk mousse

We also shared a selection of cheeses aged by our favorite cheese lady Josianne from Lou Canestéou in Vaison-la-Romaine.

This was a wonderful meal and I can't wait to go back. Don't hesitate to go to Campagne Vignes et Gourmandises if you are going to be in the Northern Vaucluse.

Bon appétit et à bientôt mes amis.