The Southern Rhône isn’t just about Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It also offers a gourmet paradise around the towering Mont Ventoux, says Mary Dowey
The word is out that Mont Ventoux works miracles for the local wine. The white-capped peak that photographers love and cyclists dread acts like a massive cooling system, facilitating elegant wines with a freshness that other parts of the southern Rhône might envy.
Less well known is the fact that the 1,800m Giant of Provence looks down on a gourmand’s paradise. Starting at Carpentras and meandering east, a route of less than 40 kilometres is studded with foodie treats as densely packed as the toasted almonds in the best local nougat. By good luck, some of the most worthwhile Ventoux wine estates also lie along it, making for a deliciously indulgent four-day break. And as winter rears into view, the good news is that spring is the perfect time to visit.
March-April is the best time for asparagus; April-May for strawberries; May-July for cherries. For scenery, late June is magical, especially towards Sault ,where lavender and grain create a patchwork of purple and gold. At any time of year try to visit the market that spills through the centre of Carpentras every Friday morning. You’ll be dipping into history as well as exceptional produce – it’s been going strong since 1155.
Day 1: in Carpentras
First things first: a good base. If you like the idea of a handsome 18th-century town house with graceful rooms and a pretty garden bang in the middle of town, book into Maison Trévier. Gina Trévier sold her Paris wine bar to move here, lured by the local food. A gifted cook and spirited conversationalist, she lays on lively table d’hôte dinners a few times a week, sometimes preceded by a cookery demonstration. She’ll even share her best food addresses with you.
One of her favourites is Pâtisserie Jouvaud – not just a classy cake and chocolate shop but one of the few places that still makes candied fruits the traditional way, involving over a dozen boilings in increasingly concentrated sugar syrup. Sweet-toothed shoppers should also look out for berlingots, the striped sweets created in Carpentras in the 14th century when Pope Clement V was a resident. You can buy them here or see them being made at the Confiserie du Mont Ventoux on the edge of town.
Cheese fans shouldn’t miss Claudine Vigier’s magnificent cheese shop, the Fromagerie du Comtat. Watch her eyes sparkle as she talks about her wares and invites you to taste intriguing local creations like Le Cachat du Ventoux, a mix of goat’s cheese and Marc de Provence, or La Fourme des Dentelles de Montmirail, a blue cheese injected with Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.
Finally there is Chez Serge. Sommelier Serge Ghoukassian has made his restaurant famous both for its wine list (300 well-chosen bottles, mainly from the Southern Rhône) and for unpretentious food. He champions summer truffles – widely regarded as the poor relation of their more intensely flavoured (and vastly more expensive) winter cousins. Try them freshly sliced and anointed with good olive oil and crunchy fleur de sel.
Day 2: around St-Didier
Southeast of Carpentras you land into territory so layered with possibilities that you may need to pick and choose – or start early. There’s no point turning up at the bakery in Le Beaucet after 10am because there won’t be a crumb left. Baked in a traditional wood-fired oven, the crusty organic breads of Roger and Robert Bouvier sell to restaurants for miles around. They can be sampled up the hill in the Auberge du Beaucet with some of the most accomplished cooking in the Ventoux. (Hot tips: gazpacho with chorizo chantilly, cod with aioli, and strawberry millefeuille.) The wine list here is impressive too – two pages of top-drawer Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
One fascinating alternative is to learn about truffles. Truffle hunter Robert Florent takes groups out with his dog in winter and summer – sometimes near the exquisite village of Venasque. He’ll tell you which wines do justice to both kinds of the highly prized tubers, how to store them, cook them and more besides.
Or visit Au Jardin des Couleurs to see 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Market gardeners Yves and Dominique Broggi don’t mind your exploring the polytunnels before you buy. Or seek out the superb nougat made in St-Didier by Philippe and Pierre Sylvain, brothers who make all the ingredients on their own farm.
If your appetite lasts, there is even a snail farm nearby. ‘When I was a child there was a snail market in Carpentras,’ recalls Chantal Curreli of L’Escargot du Vieil Amandier. ‘But the climate is so much drier now that they’re in danger of dying out.’ Not here in St-Didier, where more than 100,000 specimens a year are sold, presented in provençal sauce or preserved with duck fat in a confit.
Where to collapse after all this? One suggestion is to stay at Domaine de la Camarette, a wine estate with simple rooms but smashing food cooked by trained chef Hugues Gontier. The other is to drive up to Mazan and succumb to luxury. Château de Mazan, built in 1720 by the family of the Marquis de Sade (and visited a few times by the man himself), is delightful in every way – kitchen included. If the summer truffle menu matched with three Champagnes is on offer, don’t hold back.
Day 3: around Mazan
Time, now, to plunge into wine. The first estates on this gourmet trail are close to the village of Mazan (see box, overleaf). But that’s not all. Near here too is the Auberge du Vin – a wine-focused B&B in a magnificent, elevated setting looking across vines to Mont Ventoux. You don’t have to take a wine course to stay in this beautifully restored farmhouse with its calm rooms, inviting pool and well-kept garden. But as Wine and Spirit Education Trust-accredited educator Linda Field offers so many options from half-day courses upwards, you just might.
When dinner time comes around, head for L’Oulo. Tucked in behind his restaurant, chef Richard Bagnol has a marvellous garden which supplies all of the vegetables and herbs and most of the fruit he needs. His dishes are as colourful as they are flavoursome. Especially popular is the surprise menu he creates for a table on demand; customers merely have to say what foods they dislike and away he goes. ‘It’s great fun – it makes me come up with new ideas,’ he says. Vegetarians fare brilliantly here – not an everyday occurrence in France.
Day 4: on to Sault
Plan to devote at least the morning to wine because some first-rate producers are to be found around Mormoiron and Villes-sur-Auzon as you travel east. A good spot for lunch with vineyard views is La Ferme du Pezet, where Pascal Morin cooks with a sure touch. He is renowned for his raspberry gratin – but even better is a tender fillet of salmon in a Champagne velouté. Simple but sophisticated – though the décor needs to catch up.
As you climb towards Sault, Mont Ventoux looms closer and the landscape becomes more rugged before the first lavender fields appear. Clinging to a rocky ledge, this small town overflows with Provence’s favourite flower. It’s also a centre for high-quality lamb (distinguished by a red label) and petit épeautre, the spelt-like grain of Haute-Provence, abandoned from the time of the Romans until chefs seized on its nutty flavour and health-promoting properties a dozen years ago.
All of these things can be explored over dinner. First, make a detour to visit Catherine and Périg Belloin, refugees from big city life who make 200 cheeses a day from the milk of their 50 goats. You can buy them at the farm: fresh, cremeux (matured for a week) or sec (a month). Few €1.50 investments are as tasty.
Next stop, particularly if you missed out on Sylvain Frères, is Maison Boyer, a temple to nougat since 1887. What’s the quality test? ‘Cheap nougat is white not cream in colour because it’s made with sugar instead of honey,’ explains Alice Jardon. ‘It tastes sickly sweet, sticks to your teeth and has fewer almonds.’ Boyer uses only local lavender honey.
Your last night will be a dreamy one up at the Hostellerie du Val de Sault. The woodland setting with plunging views across the valley is stupefyingly tranquil. By contrast, chef-proprietor Yves Gattechaut fizzes with creative energy. He has developed his own techniques for cooking with lavender, using fresh flowers early in the season, dried flowers later and sometimes a single drop of essential oil. ‘Lavender is good with lamb,’ he says, ‘but not fish or poultry. It’s wonderful in ice cream or crème brûlée too.’
Gattechaut’s food is individualistic without being fussy. While lamb in a lavender and cassis sauce is a winner, his signature dish is more memorable still: a soft-boiled egg in its shell with foie gras and black Ventoux truffles slipped meltingly inside. Regard it as the final extravagance in a gastronomically glorious trip.
Written by Mary Dowey