Wine

WINING AND DINING GRACEFULLY IN SOUTHERN FRANCE

Our wine scribe Jim Walker and his wife Hélène have been visiting Provence and other areas of southern France at least annually (except for the last two plague-infested anni horribiles) for more than 30 years. To absolutely no-one’s surprise, they have spent a considerable amount of time during those sojourns sampling the local fare and vinous offerings. Jim comments on his gustatory observations and experiences in his latest contribution to Gentleman’s Portion.

Jim at Le Crillon in the heart of Avignon

Let me start out by making a general observation about the French attitude towards eating and drinking well. Despite the proliferation of McDonald’s and other fast-food establishments, most French take their food and drink very seriously. To give you an example, M. Ramage, who was once our regular cab driver in Saint-Rémy-de-Province, would take his wife to a Michelin three-star restaurant every year without fail.

It is very difficult to find a bad, or even a so-so meal in southern France. The restaurateurs there simply have too much pride to dish up anything but their finest efforts. I described one of our many dining surprises in a previous Gentleman’s Portion contribution, Treasures in the French Hinterland. One can bump into a divine dining experience just about anywhere in that fair land – adjacent to a roundabout amid the vines, in what was once a Roman bath, cantilevered over a roiling river, in the back alley of a hill-perched hamlet or on the grounds of a stately mansion.

How does one find the best restaurant in any given locale? This trick works pretty much anywhere. Just before mealtime we seek out the local tourist bureau or similar establishment. We then ask the most empathetic looking attendant what restaurant they would like to be taken to on a specialoccasion. It works every time. If you are feeling particularly gutsy, ask if they would kindly make a reservation for you. This guarantees you a couple of seats, usually good ones.

Dining with a French bulldog

Dogs are welcomed in most eateries throughout France, although you might not notice because they are so well behaved. Take the little guy in the photo that we spotted at a small restaurant in the town square of Châteauneuf-du-Pape – a French bulldog of course (the owner was a real grouch).

One needn’t spend a king’s ransom to get a decent slurp of wine in southern France (although you can if you wish for something really special). We usually order the house wine, be it rosé, white or red. Most of the customers are locals. The restaurateur wouldn’t dare serve an inferior wine to his or her friends and neighbours. These cheap and cheerful wines come in little earthenware pitchers called pichets. ‘Un pichet de rouge,’ anyone?

Now, should you desire something a little snazzier than the house wine, it is wise to select something from the local area. As the old saw goes, ‘What grows together goes together,’ and that certainly applies in southern France. There’s nothing quite like a gigot d’agneau from a nearby farm paired with a nicely aged Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas or Vacqueyras.

Daughter Kate and granddaughter Romy at Le Gambetta in enchanted Nice

One never has to fear about getting the bum’s rush at a French restaurant. Once you get your table, it is yours for the duration. No one hurries you to finish in favour of other diners hovering in the wings. On the other hand, getting l’addition can sometimes be more than a little challenging. Inexplicably, the server seems to vanish at meal’s end.

Speaking of servers, they are usually men and come nattily dressed in white shirts, black slacks and bow tie and a white or black apron. They are more casually dressed out in the country. These folks are paid employees and consider themselves to be professionals. They do not provide their first name and announce the obvious fact that they will be your server. They do not fawn and prostate themselves in search of handsome tips. One doesn’t tip in these establishments. You normally round up your fare settlement to the next round number. If the bill comes to 27.37, you will leave 30€. The difference is called le pourboire from the time-honoured tradition of giving the waiter the last bit of a wine in the bottle – to drink.

Hélène at Café de la Poste in charming Goult

Most French restaurants feature a daily menu prix fixe comprised of a starter, a main course and a dessert. It is usually very good and significantly less expensive than its component parts. Of course, you can always order à la carte if there are other items on the menu that are simply irresistible.

One must be very careful about French bread – not because it is substandard, au contraire, but because it is so very, very good. It is far too tempting to scarf down great quantities of it and thus ruin your appetite for the feast yet to come. By the way, you won’t find side plates for your baked delicacies. Simply break off what you want to immediately devour and place the rest on the table.

Hélène with our dear friend Robert de Krieger at a charming spot just down from Séguret

Here are a few additional French dining tips. And speaking of tips, it is perfectly okay to pick up your tender, delicate spears of asparagus with your fingers and chomp away (on the asparagus, not your fingers, although after those pichets de rosé this could well occur).

You will find a soft rind on most cheese from the south –  the chèvre (goat cheese) is particularly yummy. Rookies are tempted to cut it off and just eat the innards. Don’t do this, the rind tastes just fine. Besides, it will make you look like a … rookie.

 The folks in southern France don’t do beef very well. But don’t despair. They are magicians with lamb, pork and sanglier (wild boar) as well as all sorts of marvellous fish and other critters from the sea. And one doesn’t require meat to enjoy a great meal in Provence. One of the best lunches we ever had there was a medley of fresh field tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and rosemary awash in local olive oil (that I maintain is the best there is).

With a platter of fresh fish by the sea in marvellous Menton

Describing how you want your meat cooked is a little tricky. Bleu means that the animal has hardly stopped walking. Then there is saignant which corresponds to rare. À point means medium, but it usually turns out medium-rare. And finally, there is bien cuit which means well done. One takes their lives into their own hands if they order their meat this way. Remember, the chef has knives.

Here are a couple of no-nos. Sharing main courses is strictly frowned upon. There really is no need because the portions served are relatively modest, particularly compared to the mountains of vittles one finds at American restaurants.

And don’t ask for doggie bags. If you do, everyone within hearing distance will gasp as if confronted by a most odious smell. It just isn’t done.

Celebrating at La Reine Jeanne’ in idyllic Saint-Rémy-de-Provence                             

I’m just throwing this in because we love these wondrous delicacies so much. There can be no question about it, the best melons in the word are Cavaillon melons. These tasty little devils, which come from the charming village of Cavaillon, are said to be the French melon that is everything cantaloupe wishes it could be.

The perfect way to complete your meal is with a café gourmand. This wonder is comprised of your choice of espressos. We usually select an allongé – an espresso with extra water (like an americano but stronger) along with a delicious assortment of very tiny desserts. After all this, it is time to repair to your lodgings for a wee nap, if only that rascally waiter would bring your l’addition.   

Jim in a very happy place

Not up for a restaurant meal? No worries. Most decent-sized villages have a white pizza wagon that camps out in the central square. At first, we were reluctant to try them. What a mistake. Like everything else food-related in the Gallic south, these thin-crust treasures are not to be missed. Load ’em up with all your favourite toppings and then trot on back to your residence, pop open a slightly chilled Côtes-du-Rhône and enjoy your feast.

Lest one conclude that we spend all our time in restaurants when in southern France, permit me to set the record straight. We like to stay in one place for an extended period when we travel. We rent places with fully equipped kitchens. This way we get to enjoy the local way of life and use the edifice as a base for daytrips to surrounding places of interest. Our normal routine is to have breakfast and dinner there and to have lunch out. For the former two, it is such grand fun loading up the larder with delicacies from local markets, shops and wine emporiums.

We often remark that everything tastes better in Provence. But does it really taste better, or is it because we are in Provence? We’re about to put that question to the test once again for we are returning to the scene of our countless hedonistic exploits in the next few days. We’ll be sure to hoist a glass or two to our Gentleman’s Portion readers and will undoubtedly return with additional material for several more tales.

Cheers!  Jim (and Hélène)

Featured image: Le Progrès in Eygalières (home to former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson)

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This is Jim’s 75th 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.

4 replies »

  1. Many thanks, Marg.

    We arrived in Nice yesterday and already have more ammunition for Gentleman’s Portion blogs. And, there are five more weeks to go. Cheers! Jim

    Like

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