A Gourmet Adventure in Vaucluse, Provence, France
A perfect marriage of food and wine in Provence

By Rupert Parker

Vaucluse is the interior heart of Provence and is dominated by the 1912m peak of Mont Ventoux. Vineyards, olive trees and cherry orchards populate its lower slopes and the fertile flood plain of the Rhone provides an abundant selection of fresh vegetables.

This perfect marriage of food and wine makes for an exciting gastronomic adventure.
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Vineyards Around Mont Ventoux

Ecole du Vin

In her beautiful converted farmhouse, Auberge du Vin, (www.aubergeduvin.com), surrounded by vineyards, with a view of Mont Ventoux, Linda Field gives us an introduction to the local wines.  She’s British and, with diplomas from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, she assumes her guests have little or no knowledge of a subject often shrouded in mystique.

We’re in the southern end of the Rhône valley and wine has been produced here since 500 BC.  It’s the 2nd largest wine producing area in France with Syrah and Grenache grapes dominating.  I’m sure we’ve all consumed a bottle of cheap Côtes du Rhône but, in fact, there’s a sliding scale of quality easy to spot by the label. If it’s Côtes du Rhône Villages it’s better and, if it also has the name of the village included, then it’s superior.  The best of the lot are the 16 Crus where the label doesn’t even mention Côtes du Rhône - they include well known stars like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Crozes-Hermitage AOC.
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Linda Field
Of course Linda takes us through a guided tasting of some of these, but also points out that Ventoux AOC wines are underrated and therefore very good value. As we eat dinner under the stars, she proves her point by serving an excellent rosé from Domaine des Anges, a Ventoux blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault.  It’s refreshing and light enough to be drunk in the midday sun - it certainly goes down well with her home cooked Provencal specialities.
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Provencal Ingredients

 

Cooking in Crillon le Brave
Next morning we say goodbye to Linda and travel the few miles to the hilltop village of Crillon le Brave where we’re going to cook our lunch (www.cookinginprovence.fr). Madeleine Montabert grew up in Lyon, surrounded by famous chefs like Paul Bocuse, but now her passion is Provencal cooking. On the menu is Aubergine Caviar Patties, Pork Tenderloin in Cocoa Sauce, Provencal Risotto with Bell Peppers, and that French dessert classic, Iles Flottantes.
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Peeling Tomatoes

 

Aprons are provided and the first lesson is to remove the green shoot in the middle of each garlic clove – it makes the dish bitter, apparently. Other classic Provencal ingredients, tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are deployed and soon we have them roasting in the oven, before they’re ready to be scooped, chopped or blended with first rate olive oil. The tomatoes and aubergines will become the Aubergine Patties and the peppers will be added to the risotto rice, only at the end, when all the liquid has been absorbed.

Now Iles Flottantes never makes it onto an English menu and I begin to understand why.  First you have to make an egg custard from scratch, then whisk egg whites until they double in size, bake them in an oven, allow them to cool, and then place them delicately on the custard. Finally a few chopped pistachios are arranged on top and there you have the perfect “Floating Island”.  The result is delicious and certainly eye grabbing but it all takes time.
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Iles Flottantes

 

Finally after a few hours hard work we sit down outside to enjoy the fruits of our labours and they don’t disappoint.  A local Viognier is the perfect white wine for starters and then it’s an excellent 2009 Ventoux. Just in case drinking wine in the mid-day sun causes a lapse of memory, Madeleine sends us on our way with printouts of the recipes so we can try and recreate them at home.  Trouble is that the fierce Provencal sun turns out better tomatoes and aubergines then we can find back in the UK, so it will never be the same
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Baked Aubergines

 

Wine – Mixing It
So we’ve learnt the basics of Provencal cooking and next it’s a crash course in the dark arts of blending wine at Maison Lavau in Violes (www.caveau.eu). The family have been winemakers for several generations but actually only own one small vineyard – they buy most of the grapes from local growers and their skill is in selecting and blending the different varieties to create a “cuvee”. It’s all a mystery to me but oenologist Aurelie Lardet is going to let us get our hands wet and try mixing it.
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Wine Blending

 

We’re in the wine cellar surrounded by huge stainless vats and in front of each of us are three bottles of red liquid and various glass measuring cylinders. Aurelie explains that the 3 wines are Grenache, Syrah and a 50/50 blend that has been aged in oak barrels for 6 months. Our task is to mix them together and the only stipulation is that the blend must have a minimum of 40% Grenache in order to qualify as Côtes du Rhône AOC.

It’s a bit like being back in kindergarten because somehow the wine seems to get everywhere as we mix, match and taste. In my enthusiasm I can’t help spilling quite a lot, but Aurelie says it doesn’t matter as they have plenty more wine in the cellars.  It’s a great sense of freedom, knowing the wine is never going to run out, and finally I have my quintessential mix – 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Oak.
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Cuvee Rupert

 

Aurelie tastes everyone’s blend but refuses to pass judgement on any of the blends saying it’s all a matter of taste.  I learn later that the usual mix is around 50-40-10 so I’m not too far out. A nice surprise is that I get to bottle “Cuvee Rupert” and take it away. A few weeks later, in my own kitchen, I can’t help congratulating myself that it tastes pretty good and wish I’d made more.

Wine and Cheese Match Making
In the famous village of Chateauneuf du Pape, Daniele Raulet-Reynaud runs a small guesthouse called The Wine B&B (www.chateauneuf-wine-bb.com).  She’s not just the landlady but also an internationally renowned sommelier and the leading light in the “Femmes Vignerons Rhône. As you can imagine, she has a cellar second to none. Her mission is to teach her guests how to pair wine with cheese and I’m not going to argue.

Daniele believes that the idea of only drinking red wine with cheese is a popular misconception and the whites are often a better match.  Certainly with fatty cheeses, dry whites are the perfect partner, offsetting the rich creamy taste with the wine’s more mineral acidity. A white Cote du Rhône paired with a Leek tart with cheese from Beaufort kicked things off and they worked perfectly together. Wines that followed included an excellent Vacqueras, a delightful Lirac and a sparkling Ventoux rosé.
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Wines


Of course cheese has to be in perfect condition and, out of the 15 we sampled, all hit the mark.  There were fresh and aged local goat’s cheeses, Corsican Brocciu, Pelardon, Saint-Marcellin, Saint-Felicien and, best of all, Salers from the Auvergne, similar to Cantal. Dessert was Roquefort tart with apple and walnut, and finally there was a Chateauneuf du Pape to see us on our way.  After an evening like this, I’m perfectly happy to accept Daniele’s thesis that white wine goes well with cheese, particularly when both are of such high quality.
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Mont Ventoux

 

On Yer Bike in TerraVentoux
The TerraVentoux winery (www.terraventoux.com) lies at the foot of Mont Ventoux and, on its 1000 hectares, produces 15% of AOC Ventoux wines.  A novel way of sampling their wines is to take a guided 20 km electric bicycle ride with appropriate stops for degustation.  They always say that lobster tastes better when you can smell the sea, and perhaps you can say the same about wine.  Certainly, sitting among the vines, with beautiful vistas of Mont Ventoux and surrounded by wild flowers, I find little fault with any of their wines, whether red, white or rose.  They make the perfect tipple for a beautiful summer Provencal afternoon and my bicycle powers itself all the way home.
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Hilltop Village

 

Sleepover
The Chateau de Mazan (www.chateaudemazan), once the property of the Marquis de Sade, is a classy establishment with a fine restaurant. Not far from Carpentras, it makes an ideal base for exploring the region if you fancy a touch of luxury. The only dampener is the plastic glasses wrapped in polythene in the bathrooms – a strange lapse for a 4* hotel.

Getting There
The most relaxing way of getting there is by train. Fares from London to Avignon start at £119 standard class return. All prices are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 4070. Personal callers are welcome at the Rail Europe Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU.

For more information about Vaucluse visit www.provenceguide.com .

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