Our wine scribe Jim Walker’s 60th birthday was fast approaching and his wife Hélène wanted to know how he wanted to celebrate it. “How about with a bunch of close friends in Provence,” he suggested somewhat facetiously. “If anyone would come,” he added. So Hélène got the word out and low and behold everyone thought it was a grand idea. And that was how a long, thoroughly enjoyable association with Beatrice Navarre and her bastide near Châteauneuf du Pape began.
Bastide in British English (bæsˈtiːd) NOUN: 1. architecture – a large manor house in the south of France. 2. a small fortified town built in the south of France in the medieval period. (Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers) In this tale we are referring to the first definition.
It was the spring of 2005 and 10 friends were going to join us in southern France. We had but a month to find a suitable spot to shelter them and to serve as a base for touring our beloved Provence. The ever-resourceful Hélène found what appeared to be a suitable candidate near Cavaillon, the source of the storied (and very delicious) Cavaillon melon, the French melon that cantaloupe wishes it could be. The down payment was about to be made and we were set to go. Not! It seems that the owner had rented it to another party without mentioning it to their rental agency.
In utter desperation we contacted the Just France agency and thankfully they found us something called Bastide Saint-Albergaty in le Hameau Saint-Albergaty which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere not too far from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It was big enough to house our friends, was reasonably priced, looked pretty good and we were desperate, so we booked it.
Incidentally, while all this was going on we had asked our old friend Robert de Krieger, who lived nearby in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, to reconnoiter the Cavaillon place for us. His findings were that it was a nice enough but it had no grounds and was situated smack dab in the middle of a large industrial area! It seemed that we had fortuitously dodged a lodging bullet.
Hélène and I along with our friends Cheryl and Philippe Gadbois arrived in France a few days before the gathering of the gang and joyfully cavorted in Saint-Rémy and surrounds. The highlight was a pétanque tournament in which it seemed that the entire village of Perne-les-Fontaines participated. We thoroughly enjoyed the entire spectacle which was narrated by Perne’s loquacious mayor who was sitting beside us. The only thing that could have enhanced the vibe was a flagon of rosé.
Saturday dawned and after a fine breakfast of fruit, cheese, croissants, petits pains au chocolat and strong coffee we headed off to the bastide to greet our friends. We piled the four of us and our luggage into our small rental car and headed up route D942 towards Orange. We exited at Althen-des-Paluds, skirted past a nursery at the roundabout, traversed a tiny bridge, passed a sunflower field, turned and went up a narrow lane bordered by pastures where a donkey roamed (of course a donkey roamed, after all we were in the bucolic Provençal countryside) and turned right at a pair of large iron gates to what we presumed was our destination. The first thing we saw was a very tall brick chimney. Oh no, not another industrial zone!
We needn’t have been alarmed. You see, the bastide began life in the early 1800s as a madder factory (the rubia tinctorum plant from which red dye was made, the very dye that made the British Redcoats red) and grain mill. The mills were powered by the water flowing from the Sorgue River through the canals that had been dug to irrigate the fields. As synthetic dyes supplanted the more expensive madder, the mills were converted to make a crude paper. The water flowing in the canal was not forceful enough to power the mills on its own, so coal-fired generators were added; hence the imposing smoke stack. The Group Navarre purchased the property at the end of the Second World War and continued to produce paper till the mid-seventies. The property was then left largely abandoned except for the large manor house where the Navarres resided. When the elder Navarres passed on, the property was left to their two daughters and two sons. Béatrice and her husband purchased her siblings’ shares and they proceeded to renovate the property at considerable expense. Part of the property was sold in order to pay for the restoration. Then, just as their work was about completed, Béatrice’s husband died. She then purchased her three daughters’ inheritances which left her strapped for cash. And, that is why she made the bastide available for rent.
We pulled up to the front entrance to find Béatrice waiting to greet us. She turned out to be a vibrant, engaging and charming individual who took obvious delight in welcoming visitors to her estate. The remaining celebrants, in various stages of jet-lag, trickled in during the day. They eased their suffering with dips in the huge pool and downing vast quantities of the wine I had secured from our local wineries. We wanted to get going shortly after sunrise the next morning, so after an early charcuterie dinner and a vat of Domaine Palon’s Côtes-du-Rhône, it was lights out (for some, in more ways than one).
The next day dawned brilliantly and after a quick breakfast of fruit, tasty pastries and good strong coffee we all headed off to the Sunday market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This gorgeous town is situated on a series of islands in the crystal clear Sorgue River. Noted for its antiques, the stalls are also chock-full of local produce, linens, marvellous Laguiole knives and a host of other tempting wares. Not one to cherish shopping, I settled in at the Café de France near La Collegiale Notre Dame des Anges, a lavishly decorated church dating from the 1200s and watched the busy shoppers hunting for bargains. Then I moseyed over to the main part of town and cadged a seat by the river, plopped down, secured a bottle of ice cold rosé (which I knew would soon be shared with others) and continued to watch the world go by.
As lunchtime approached, we changed locations to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Restaurant Philip situated on the bank of the Sorgue River near its mysterious source. It was great fun tossing bits of breadinto the river and watching the trout and ducks duking it out for the savoury morsels. Restaurant Philip has been in operation since 1926 and features fresh local produce and trout dishes. The lady cashier has been there, it seems, almost since inception and at the time was over 90. She calculated to the cent, but one best not be in a hurry for l’addition.
That evening we dined on the delicacies we had picked up at the market. Several of our group were accomplished cooks, thus we ate well. We also drank well, this time some choice Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Roger Sabon.
I haven’t the space available to recount all the adventures of our entire week and I suspect you haven’t the patience. But I will provide you with a couple of highlights. One was lunch at Le Bistrot du Paradou. This legendary restaurant featured a different fixed menu each day of the week, everything included for a set price.
Hélène and I had first eaten there several years earlier. It was a classic bistro with a gigantic collection of beer bottles from around the world lining the back wall. We started with an apéritif and were presented with the Grand Aïoli Provençal – snails, boiled potatoes, poached cod with a wondrous garlic sauce. Iasked for some wine and the waiter opened the bottle sitting at the table, a local red lacking distinction but tasting delightful. Then came a massive cheese tray. We were out of wine so asked for another bottle. Finally it was time for coffee. A wee spot of Calvados seemed in order. The bill was presented … for just the fixed price of the meal. There was no extra charge for the additional libation! Over the years the fixed prices had risen noticeably (I do hope I wasn’t the cause), but our entourage felt it was worth every Euro.
Then there was the tour of Château de Beaucastel, one of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s finest producers. We were treated to an enjoyable trek around their vineyards and then to an extensive tasting in the cellars. There was no charge for all this splendid hospitality.
Whenever we ran short of wine (which was often) I would simply take to the back roads that meandered past farms and fields, over the one lane bridge and through the little town of Bédarrides near where our winery Domaine Giuliani made their Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes-du-Rhône elixirs. Then it was under the train tracks, a right turn at Domaine de Vieux Télégraph, past vineyards and Château La Nerthe, then down the serpentine lane that goes through the Château des Fines Roches property, home of Vignobles Mousset-Barrot. (Béatrice Navarre had introduced us to this very traditional and first rate winery. You see, she was childhood best friends with the owner, Catherine Mousset). Then, it was on to the main road into Châteauneuf du Pape and up to our winery, Domaine Roger Sabon. Man, how I loved that drive.
The time came for my birthday celebration and what a time it was. We all gathered out on the front patio at the huge wooden table that groaned under the weight of gourmet fare and copious quantities of fine wines from the area. Along with myriad insults and gag gifts came the birthday good wishes. It was everything I had wished for … another perfect day in the paradise that is Provence.
Everyone agreed that it had been a magical week. No doubt the 97 empty wine bottles on the kitchen mantelpiece (note: that did not include away bottles) had something to do with it. Someone suggested that Hélène consider offering tours to others, given her extensive knowledge of Provence along with her obvious organizational skills. And, Jim could be your sommelier, they thoughtfully added. Thus was born Hélène’s ‘Tours de Provence’.
The bastide served as base camp for several more visits by paying guests and friends alike (called buddy weeks). Our cruise scribe David Moorcroft played a starring role at one of them. Dinner was finished and we were cleaning up as dusk fell. The large window on the second floor near the large wooden staircase overlooking the canal that went under the bastide was wide open. And, the very bright chandelier on that second landing was all aglow.
A swarm of huge hornets found this all too inviting and invaded the bastide in droves. Fortunately we found some hornet spray and the heroic Captain Moorcroft went into action displaying perfectly executed jetés and pirouettes that would have made Mikhail Baryshnikov green with envy as he laid waste to the swarm. In the meantime, someone had called the local voluntary fire department and four fine specimens of French manhood were soon on the scene. The youngest scaled a ladder to the eaves of the slate roof and discovered a large nest there. The chief said it was all for a good cause; they needed more photos for that year’s firefighter calendar. The ladies in attendance took days to settle down.
Another fine bastide experience was a ladies only week. I was, quite happily, the only male in attendance.
In due course Béatrice found the bastide too much to handle and eventually sold it to a German couple who wanted it as a family summer home. They did extensive renovations with which Béatrice was very pleased. She in turn built a lovely house overlooking a wildlife preserve just outside Aix-en-Provence. Hélène had to find another base for her popular tours, a story I will save till my next contribution to Gentleman’s Portion.
PS: If you are interested in some really great wines from the Southern Rhône such as Côtes-du-Rhône, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you might consider joining my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club – no fees or other obligations, just marvellous wine.
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This is Jim’s 64th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.