Cooking In Provence
Yes, we were cooking in Provence. But not exactly how you may have thought. Our trip to the area coincided with a record-breaking heatwave. The first few days of our week based out of Apt had us facing temperatures in the high 30’s, then it climbed over 40˚C, which effectively compels anyone and everyone to stay indoors.
Hot! Hot! Hot!
On our last full day in the region – Friday June 27 – the mercury reached a scorching 43˚C outside the restaurant we chose for lunch in Apt. All of the outside tables at restaurants were empty as patrons stayed indoors. The owner of the restaurant showed us a text message from the government stating that she should stay at home and that it was better not to work!
That same evening, when we were visiting the attractive hilltop village of Bonnieux as the sun was setting at 9:30 pm, it was still over 40˚C. That’s hot! Anything metal was burning hot to the touch. It was simply too hot to handle.
The scenic hillside village of Bonnieux offers wonderful sunset views, being on the south side of the valley.
On our departure day from Apt, as we set off from Provence towards Barcelona, it was a “balmy” 38-39˚C along the way. Later, as we were passing Montpellier, the temperature reached just over 45˚C, breaking the record set only a day earlier! In Barcelona it was ten degrees cooler and the following day was only in the high twenties! Leaving the heat behind in France was fine by us.
So that was the “cooking” part. We still enjoyed our time in Provence, even if the heat limited our effective touring time.
Clockwise from above left: a busy bee at sunset near Bonnieux; lavender & wheat on the Valensole Plateau. We often found these two crops interspersed; a field of disorganized lavender.
WHERE IN PROVENCE TO SEE THE FAMOUS FIELDS OF LAVENDER
Being late June, we expected to see the fields of lavender in full bloom. Any time after the first week of July the crop in the most popular and photogenic area, known as Valensole, may be harvested. An early harvest can leave visitors disappointed and diverting them towards higher elevations to the north where the bloom comes later. Depending on the amount of rain that fell earlier in the year, the harvest normally ends up from mid-July to August. The fields of the Valensole Plateau were our primary objective. The area was around 1.5 hours by car to our east from Apt. We left in the hot afternoon, scouting out photo stops along the way as we planned to return nearer to sundown on our return journey when the late afternoon light would be more favourable for photography.
We had our dinner in the impressively-situated Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, which is stuck to a cliff face near the entrance of the Verdon Gorge, which is known as “France’s Grand Canyon”, whatever that means. But our impression of this popular village is mixed.
Above: The ancient village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie guarding the entrance to the Verdon Gorge
It was here that the odd food culture of France reared its ugly head. We don’t eat at regular hours. We tend to sleep in, eat a late breakfast and then set out to see the sights. So for us, we often seek lunch at 2:00 or 3:00 pm. In France, lunch places often close down at 2:00 pm. Add to this that the only between-mealtime food that is easily found are usually crepes, pizza and ice cream. But even they shut down, leaving a gap until the official dinner bell rings at 7:00 pm. Many restaurants are closed on certain days: Mondays, or Wednesdays, or Mon-Tues-Wed, or Sundays. Some restaurants are only open for dinner. The concept of using your space to maximize profits and offer consistent customer service seem to take a back seat to enjoying down time.
So we were in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, hungry, looking for food. The sit-down traditional French cuisine restaurants that serve food for Euro 25-30 / plate were not yet open since it was not yet 7:00 pm. We didn’t want ice cream or pizza, so we apparently had no other options.
Coming late to Provencal hill towns means that finding parking is easy, but finding food is just the opposite. So we ended up waiting until 7:00 pm to find an acceptable place that was open. We got served early and the food emerged from the kitchen quickly. Great! We all ordered pasta and it was delicious. But then the flies descended. Not great! The restaurant was pretty much full, indoors and out, but there were flies all over. We counted nine at once just on our table! It is impossible to enjoy your food when constantly compelled to wave away bothersome invading insects. It’s like rubbing your stomach while tapping your head at the same time, or some such coordination-challenging exercise. So we ate too fast and beat a hasty retreat. It was equally bothersome to note that our fellow diners seemed unperturbed by the buggers. It must be a seasonal thing, but we can’t tolerate sharing our food with flies, especially when the kitchen is right outside the open bathroom door. We noticed that we shared our food with flies every single meal taken outdoors during our week in Provence. We started checking out the kitchen/bathroom layout on restaurants after that unpleasant experience, just trying to be safe.
Above, left-to-right: countless white lavender butterflies help pollinate the flowers; a typical window in Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt; sacks of fragrant lavender on sale in Apt – a popular souvenir.
SUNSET ON THE
Driving back across the plateau, the views were magnificent, dominated by rows of well-tended lavender, interspersed with wheat and a few other crops. It needed another week or two to get the truly luminous purple hue that we expected from that special plant, but the smell and the scenery was still “tres magnifique”. We stopped often for pictures, as did many others. There were plenty of fine vantage points and places to safely pull off the road, so no crowding. At one stop we watched a Chinese couple doing their pre-wedding pictures, which is a sight we have grown accustomed to in other scenic spots around the planet, especially New Zealand. The sun dipped beyond the horizon just before we left the Valensole area, descending from the plateau west towards Manosque. We finally got back to Apt around 11:00, but the drive was smooth and relaxing.
From top left: An often-encountered scene in the fields: getting the perfect family photo. But don’t crush the flowers! Sunset scenes on the Valensole Plateau
EASY DRIVING, LOTS TO ENJOY
Driving around Provence, we really enjoyed how empty the roads were late in the day and at night. Zipping along well-marked, winding roads was not only tremendously enjoyable, but easy as well. Every place that a side road meets a larger road is marked with red reflective poles. Roads in France often lack verges, so if you pull off the road, you go directly into a ditch. But the road edges and in general, road markings are clear. The signage is clear as well, so driving is a simple pleasure. At dusk or night, most folks are enjoying a long leisurely dinner. So we would often only see another vehicle every ten minutes or so. Other vehicles tended to want to get where they were going, as we were, so things moved briskly. Add the great scenery, hillside villages sprinkled along the way, and the overall driving experience is fabulous.
After all that driving, it turned out that we found lavender at peak bloom within minutes of Apt. The best fields were near the villages of Roussillon and Bonnieux, though it was not as neatly tended and not on such a huge scale as the fields on the Valensole Plateau.
An attractive Provencal farmhouse near Bonnieux with lavender rows in the last rays of light (left) and a neighborhood cat on patrol going up a tree in Gordes (right)
WE HAD AN APT. IN APT
We can recommend using Apt as a base when visiting the myriad attractions of Provence. We enjoyed our self-catering apartment in the Residence Suite Home Apt, which had a boullangerie and a big E. Leclerc grocery store only a few minutes’ walk down the road.
The town is not only central, but parking is easy, which is not the case in the hillside villages. Finding parking inside villages can be very challenging. Most busy villages have parking lots downhill and we sympathized with sweaty travellers lugging their baggage up to wherever they were staying.
The stylishly restored village of Gordes at sunset
The villages in Provence had a surprising amount of variety, so it is definitely not a “seen-one, seen-them-all” kind of place. Comparing Roussillon (touristy, but lovely with a palette of ochre shades), Gordes (well-renovated and upmarket), Bonnieux (charming with great sunset views) and any of the many others scattered along the sides of the valley is difficult. There is much to find: some are busy and touristic, while some are sleepy and seemingly devoid of inhabitants.
Clockwise from top left: the quiet village of Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt; the oche cliffs of Roussillon; Gordes by night; fields of harvested wheat with lavender in the distance outside the village of Valensole
PROVENCE ON A PLATE AND IN A GLASS:
GREAT FOOD & WINE
During the week we spent in the area, eating indoors quickly became preferable as the heat grew over the first few days, which took most of the bothersome flies out of the equation. Provencal cooking features fresh ingredients cooked simply and prepared with care. We enjoyed some memorable meals in the area, mostly in non-touristic towns. Top marks to La Fontaine in Villars, L’Estrade in Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt and Le Carnot Set in Apt. Accompanying the meals are some great wines. Every house wine Bruce ordered was excellent. Wines have been produced in Provence for over 2,000 years, so they are pretty good at it. Provence produces over 80% of the Rose on the planet. Washed down with the superb Rose wines produced nearby, provençal cuisine is understandably popular with foodies.
Clockwise from top left: light and perfectly-cooked Provencal cuisine; Chateau la Canorgue, which is well-known as the setting for the film “A Good Year”. They produce excellent wines and are a recommended stop near Bonnieux; another of the countless white lavender butterflies; a rather nice driveway outside Apt
IMPRESSIONS OF PROVENCE
The attraction of Provence is timeless: delicious food and wine, history, pastoral charm and bucolic scenery, all bathed in an exceptional quality of light. It is an extraordinary slice of France.
Rows of french lavender on the Valensole Plateau