Tour du Sud-Ouest: 37 days from Provence to Bordeaux (plus 3 in Paris)
Last autumn (Sep 28th-Nov 5th 2012), my wife and I spent our 5 year belated honeymoon touring the countryside of the southwest from Provence to the Medoc focusing on seeing the vistas I’ve been watching on Tour de France broadcasts for 20 years and sampling the best in local food . It's been some time since this trip but it's only now that I will have time to provide feedback on each of the places we visited. With only a few exceptions, we ate only 1 meal per day, along with various stops for patisserie, coffee and bread/cheese/meats at markets eaten for dinner on days which we had lunch. We frequently stopped at producers’ farms for things such as foie gras, rillettes, Armagnac, wine, etc. As a point of reference, both of us had never been to the French countryside and had spent only a few days in Paris when we were much younger. We currently live in Asia. A few general observations in this post before the day by day reviews:
1. Service was excellent, overall. We did not have a single instance of rudeness, poor treatment or lax service throughout our 45+ meals. We occasionally received poor tables, but this was sometimes remedied by simply asking for a different table. Regardless of the table, we felt the servers and sommeliers to be extremely professional despite the fact that our spoken French was extremely basic (we had no trouble reading menus). Moreover, the general attitude of most servers ranged from friendly to gently reserved and some were quite enthusiastic about the purpose of trip.
2. The bread was uniformly good at restaurants and markets, far above and beyond our experience dining extensively in the US and other European countries. On our 3 nights of eating in San Sebastian and Hondarribia in Spain, the contrast was evident.
3. Desserts were better than expected. I am partisan to well-made American desserts (forged on fruit pies from our own trees and bushes growing up) but the (significantly better) quality of the fruit and the basic ingredients (butter, sugar, flour) was unexpected.
4. Wine went so well with the food. We were expecting this, but much like the bread and desserts, we did not expect it to be this good. I know next to nothing about wine, and tend to spend more money on food than alcohol when dining as a rule. Drinking inexpensive to moderate wines from the regions was an enlightening and delightful experience. We went to many wineries the next day after sampling at the restaurant the previous evening, buying a bottle to drink with bread and cheese later than evening. My general strategy was to scour restaurant review websites for people mentioning local wines that they drank. This proved to be quite successful as most sommeliers were surprised that we were aware of these wines and then were interested in carrying the conversation on to other options based on our course selections.
5. Execution of cooking meat and fish. Another aspect that stood out was the very professional way pieces of meat and fish (and other ingredients) were cooked to the correct doneness to preserve the flavor and texture. While, the USA, for example, may have some innovative restaurants with interesting flavors and high quality ingredients, the consistency of execution of the cooking in France is far superior.
We received some good advice from this board before the trip and hope the information is useful. While the info will be a little delayed, I hope it’s in time for the summer and vacation season. I'll try and do a new meal every few days. While the wines were great, I won’t be reporting on them unless I felt they were particularly memorable.
Day 1: Le Petit Maison, Cucuron, Provence. We’ll start with Day 1, Le Petit Maison in Cucuron, Provence. We selected it because it has received some favorable reviews (and a michelin star) and we didn’t want to drive after such a long journey from SE Asia despite some recent mixed reviews, as it was walkable from the village. For us, a wonderful setting walking through the village at dusk and entering the old house on the square around a pool with plane trees. Being a bit nervous as it was our first meal in France since our teenage years, we were welcomed by a relaxed and laid back staff who made us feel at ease from the start. Two menus, at around 48 and 68 euros, with my wife taking the former and my taking the latter, which was centered around wild mushrooms which were picked the day before in the Cevennes. We started with fish soufflé with lobster and crème fraiche which was heavy but had a wonderful texture. My initial course was wild mushrooms (girolle, chanterelles, ceps and others) with bacon and a poached egg in a young garlic shoot broth, followed by a mushroom soup in bouillabaisse style with saffron and scallop broth. Both were nice uses of the mushroom flavors blended with the stronger garlic and saffron of the broth. My final savory course was piece de veax sautéed with minced ceps mushrooms stuffed inside of their caps. My wife enjoyed a tuna tartare with eggplant puree and a roast partridge dish. A cheese course of a strong chevre AOC from the region as a light sheep’s cheese in olive oil was followed by fantastic peach profiteroles with a peach pastry cream and peach sorbet and for my wife a quince and pear charlotte with pain d’epices. My wife claims it was the best profiteroles she’s ever had. Some nice pots de crème and madelenes as mignardises. Overall, the cooking was classic and hearty but very well executed, something we were seeking for some of our meals given the current trend toward more modern approaches. Some may not appreciate only two menus and no carte to choose from, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. A bit expensive given subsequent meals but portions were more than adequate and prices are higher in Provence.
Thank you for your consideration and sharing. Many jerks, I mean visitors, ask questions and disappear. I especially appreciate visitors like you who give back in the form of such an informative report, which is in turn helpful to all.
"bread … far above and beyond our experience dining extensively in the US and other European countries. On our 3 nights of eating in San Sebastian and Hondarribia in Spain, the contrast was evident."
Throw me to the wolves. I agree re Italy and Spain. Indeed even in gastronomically sophisticated cities like San Sebastian, Barcelona, Naples, I find the bread not comparable to the average bread standard of France. (I am so going to be lynched.) Last week in Barcelona, I simply gave up on the bread after the 3rd day.
But I'm not a French bread chauvinist. I love, and may even prefer breads in Germany and Austria.
There are many reasons why desserts in France are superior to those in the US. The first thing that comes to mind is that the French do not overuse sugar. I find American desserts in general too sweet. Is it because the population is used to a high level of sugar consumption?
Again, between American and French desserts, yes I would choose French, but am no French dessert chauvinist either. I heart Austrian pastries big time.
"La [not le] Petite Maison, Cucuron
Some may not appreciate only two menus and no carte to choose from, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. A bit expensive given subsequent meals"
You point out a very interesting and common complaint. In France, restaurants that focus on the freshness of in-season ingredients have, logically, a limited menu. Therefore the complaint about the limited-ness (sorry for such an ugly invented word)of menu is like complaining about why the food is better. Duh.
And again (how many times now) I agree with you that La Petite Maison in Cucuron is lovely in a lovely village, but is somewhat expensive for what it is. A common phenomenon in the Luberon part of Provence. Still, I compare everything with the 55-euro dégustation menu at the Atelier Rabanel in Arles, and do wonder WTF re some of the prices in say, a place like Le Fournil in Bonnieux, a simple village bistro that is ok, even good, but not phenomenal. They charge the same price as Rabael's lunch tasting menu. Rabanel !
I guess one is paying for the rent of geographic enchantment.
Thank you again.
Looking forward to your further comments on our experience.
I should revise my statement to say that I don't think a well made french dessert is necessarily better than a well-made american one (and in truth I still like the american style better- say blackberry cobbler vs. apricot tart), just that there was much better consistency (of course this is true of American food in general with so much bad food out there). It would be hard for me to say that what we had was better than the homemade desserts on the table at my family reunions made primarily with home-picked fruits, locally dairy and flour etc. But in truth this is rare to find the US these days (though slowly getting better).
I also think that the complaints about "llmited" at Le Petit Maison was less about a limited menu as that there is no way to order a la carte (however small the carte may be).
We didn't find it to be poor value relative to other such restaurants in the Luberon area but it scores poorly on value when compared to a similar type of restaurant in cuisine and approach somewhere like Aveyron or Tarn.
As great as the cuisine was, as fantastic as the wines were, as much as we appreciated the slightly more formal and professional approach to dining, the biggest gap between any aspect of french dining and other places was the bread. Still can't get over how good it was everywhere we went. The waiter at Le Vieux Puits gently cautioned us to avoid eating too much as several diners in past had failed to finish their meals after eating the bread.