Provence: A Taste of Culinary Splendor
|By William Bless|
Imagine waking one morning to the mingled aromas of fresh croissants, French-pressed coffee, apricots, cherries, sun-ripened melons, sunflowers, garlic, and the savory scent of cypress leaves. There is the rhythm of cicadas outside the window and the soft voices of farmers bringing fruits and vegetables to the marketplace. Looking out the window you see a 12th century stone church, red-tiled roofs, and a village that appears to be from the Middle Ages.
This is the Prieuré Notre Dame, a restored house dating back to the 1100s, situated in the village of Montfrin, and the location of renown American chef Carole Peck’s Provence Culinary Tour.
Originally a Roman encampment, Montfrin sits along the banks of the River Gardon in the South of France, roughly equidistant between the cities of Avignon and Nîmes. Four times a year, Carole, and her husband, raconteur Bernard Jarrier, host a trip that supersedes that of most European tours simply by virtue of its extraordinary attention to regional gastronomy, culture, clientele, and its off-the-beaten-track philosophy which eschews a superficial glimpse of the area in favor of an inside perspective. For five days and six nights, 8-12 guests are treated to the culinary, historical, and architectural richness and splendor of Provence, a region warmed by the vibrant Mediterranean sun.
In contrast to the usual pre-arranged tour, with its mandated sight-seeing stops, Carole and Bernard strive instead to provide guests with a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience, shaped around the interests and desires of their guests. This includes not only the extraordinary Provençal cuisine, but also foreys to museums, flea markets, antique and boutique shops, wine and olive oil tastings, and explorations of other cities, such as nearby Uzès, Avignon, St. Remy-de-Provence, and Arles.
In a sense, the trip is personalized according to the needs and wishes of its clientele, who couldn’t be in more able company. Chef-owner of the Good News Cafe in Woodbury, Connecticut – a restaurant Zagat’s Guide calls one of the “top restaurants in the U.S.” and a coveted destination for such celebrities as Dustin Hoffman, Martin Scorcese, Mia Farrow, Diane Sawyer, and Ron Howard – Carole Peck introduces guests to the diverse regional delights to be found around Montfrin, while at the same time acting as hostess, shopping guide, and cooking mentor. Carole’s passion for cooking (she was one of 28 women out of 1, 000 students in her class to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in 1973), viniculture, antiques, cinema, and landscape, make her a wealth of knowledge; add to that a genuine warmth and interest in people and the traveler is at once relaxed and inspired.
“I want to show people how it is to live here,” Carole said. “I want to give them a taste of the essence of Provence.”
Carole explains how she uses only what’s in season. “I cook according to season. Apricots, apples, olives, potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, pears. Montfrin is still very much a rural farming community.”
All ingredients are locally produced: jams and butter, yogurt and gourds, cheeses and bottled fruit juices. Within walking distance there is a boulangeries-patisseries with bread, brioche, and croissants, whose fresh-baked scents permeate the narrow streets. Dinners, lunches, and cooking classes are all prepared around the cycle of the seasons, and usually include an array of dishes, such as escargot with tomato sauce – a regional variation of the traditional Escargots à la Bourguignonne with its parsley and garlic butter – Camargue taureau (stewed bull meat with olives and anchovies), aioli (stuffed squid), and pissaladière (stewed eels), accompanied by southern Rhône wines, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Midi wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Vineyards abound in this part of Provence, with grapes such as Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, and Mourvèdre benefitting from the sunny limestone ridges and plateaus.
The pampered guest is further educated by trips to local markets in Montfrin, in the Cours Jean-Jaurès, where market day is Tuesday, and in Nîmes, where the number of venders is astounding and varied: at least ten cheese purveyors with goat, Camembert, Brie, Cantal, Bleu de Bresse, and Roquefort cheeses, six fish mongers with all manner of Mediterranean fishes and shellfish, ten produce stands, as well as purveyors who have found their own niche – one selling terrines and hams, another fowl and rabbit, one who specializes only in potatoes and onions, and one in local olive oils. Food bought at the market is typically used in Carole’s cooking classes at the Prieuré Notre Dame, where a state-of-the-art kitchen welcomes experienced and aspiring gourmands alike. A cooking class in Avignon is also on the agenda, although there are no strict schedules for the tour, just an overall climate of camaraderie, good cheer, and exploration.
If Carole Peck is the tour’s culinary guide and vivacious presence, her husband, Bernard Jarrier, is the sagacious and cordial host of all things French and Provençal. Very simply, he is a reservoir of knowledge concerning the people, culture, and history of this remarkable region. He speaks eloquently about the Roman and natural history of the area, the architectural features found in the Provençal cities, and goes into great detail about the natural history of the Camargue, a 346, 000 acre preserve of pasture, dunes, marshlands and salt flats on the Rhône Delta, where he frequently takes guests to view egrets, ibises, and flamingoes, “sometimes vast migrations.” This is a wild place where the guardians, or cowboys, still herd and tend to black bulls and sheep. Wild white horses also roam the spacious environs of the Camargue.
He also takes guests 5 miles upstream to perhaps the most astounding site in the region: the Pont du Gard, a 2, 000 year-old Roman bridge, which served as an aqueduct for nearly 500 years, funnelling freshwater 31 miles from the Springs of Fontaine d’Eure in Uzès to the bathhouses and public waterworks of Nîmes. Further, he adds those factual tidbits of history that enrich the traveler’s understanding; for example, that Serge de Nimes, the fabric known as denim, originated in Nîmes over seven centuries ago. In short, Mr. Jarrier is an omnivorous encyclopedia of information, and this is one of the reasons the pairing of Carole and Bernard makes the tour so insightful and all-encompassing.
“Bernard is a sophisticated Frenchman; Carole is an eclectic, sophisticated cook,” says Peggy Tagliarino, Litchfield County food critic and editor who has twice been on the tour. “This mixture makes it truly unique.”
Additionally, Jarrier has a vast knowledge of the restaurants around Montfrin and knows many of their owners and chefs. In the Chez Bob, for example, near the Camargue, Bernard told me that the proprietor will sometimes show guests a suitcase containing an ancient transistor radio used by the French Resistance during World War II.
Guests, of course, can also relax at the Prieuré Notre Dame with its 12th century architecture, which includes a stone portal entry, a library with an immense fireplace, a stone wine cave fully stocked with wines from the region, and roomy sitting and dining rooms where art is an ever-present feature. In addition, there is a terraced inner courtyard with a rectangular plunge pool, underlit with submerged lights, all enclosed with ancient mortised walls. The entire house is imbued with a contemporary design and superior modern conveniences, a welcome haven after a day of touring the countryside or nearby towns, and a sanctuary where one can sip local wine, read, or contemplate life while time stands still.
Mornings begin leisurely with a French country breakfast which may include local yogurts, fresh coffee, jams, eggs, melon, and steaming hot breads. While Bernard and Carole map out the day, visitors linger over coffee and conversation, take walks in Montfrin, or up to the 17th century Château built around the remnants of a Roman tower where there are views of the distant Rhône River, or mosey down to the River Gardon, a popular swimming hole for locals during the hot summer months.
“You don’t have to do anything,” said Peggy Tagliarino. “They take care of everything and are very accomodating. Everything is custom-tailored to their guests. It’s relaxing, educational, and the food is fabulous.”
Among other spots, depending on the moods and whims of guests, the couple will also take sidetrips to St. Rémy, the 1503 birthplace of soothsayer, Nostradamus, and the 1889 sojourn of painter Vincent Van Gogh, who spent a year at the St. Paul-de-Mausole Hospital. And there is Arles, with its Roman amphitheater, the Musée Réattu and the Musée de íArles et de laProvence