A Weekend in Provence

Published in Gourmet Live 07.11.12
Eat your way through the Provence M.F.K. Fisher loved—Aix and the surrounding region—with your guide, Raphael Kadushin
The Place Richelme market in Aix-en-Provence

The Place Richelme market in Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence's most revered landmark is the row of tall plane trees that line the city's central Cours Mirabeau, their leafy branches meeting in one perfect hoop above the street's bistros. By May, half the town seems to have pulled up a chair at one of the brasserie terraces under the blooming canopy—it's easy to see why M.F.K. Fisher settled here for a while, and what inspired hometown-boy Paul Cézanne's pulsating palette. All of Aix, with its fringe of rural landscape running along the eastern edge of Provence, is as lush as those plane trees. The region's fields of lavender run wild in spring, a wash of purple, and the local food markets show off a bulging larder: olive oil, truffles, tapenade, honey, 50 different varieties of goat cheese, foie gras, and fat ducks.

The best part: Plan carefully enough, and you can sample all those flavors and colors in a weekend side trip from Paris. Take the morning TGV express train from Paris to Aix (about 3.5 hours), rent a car at the train station (there's a range of familiar car rental agencies at the station, but book ahead if you need an automatic vehicle), and you'll land in a parallel Gallic universe by early afternoon.

You may be tempted to just settle in Aix, but we recommend exploring the region first, which is easy enough to do—Provence's roads are well marked. So save Aix itself for last and drive from the station to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (more commonly known as Moustiers), a little over an hour northeast of Aix, because there isn't a prettier, more otherworldly village in this arc of eastern Provence, or one that represents the area better. This isn't the familiar terrain of Avignon, Arles, and the domesticated hill-towns to the west, crowded with summer tourists. The road to Moustiers, which shrinks down from a highway to a snaking, curving mountain bypass, runs through a craggier, rawer Provence (the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region, to be exact) of gorges plunging into pristine lakes, waterfalls, canyons, and high jagged cliffs that offer a preview of the Alps to the north. From a distance, Moustiers looks like a rocky outcrop whittled from a limestone backdrop. Look closer, though, and you'll find that the place is a lot less Wild West than very civilized epicurean terrain.

Make your first stop in the region at La Bastide de Moustiers. Perched on a hillside just across from the village, the inn is a classic Provençal stone country house (the local translation of bastide), punctuated by pale blue shutters; its sprawling garden is often filled with troops of young sous-chefs and culinary students, their white coats popping against all that greenery as they pick their way through the vegetables and herbs, prepping for the meals that are La Bastide's biggest claim to fame. La Bastide is an Alain Ducasse property, and while some of his restaurants—a galaxy of almost 30 stars now—can seem to overreach, the Bastide is Ducasse at his classic best, thanks largely to executive chef Christophe Martin, who came to La Bastide in March 2012, after stints in Ducasse's Tuscany and Monaco kitchens. Sample a taste of the day's menu at lunch, when some of the evening's courses are served à la carte on the bastide's stone terrace. But if you want to experience a real master class in confident, simple rustic haute cuisine, reserve a table in the dining room—dressed up with a wood fireplace, white stucco walls, and chairs upholstered in a understated floral chintz—and settle in for an evening tasting menu (€60 for a four-course menu; €74 for five courses). The menu changes daily, depending on the season, the local markets, and the inn's own gardens. You may start with a simple plate of the sweetest, reddest radishes, as crisp as apples, paired with an anchovy cream mousse, or perhaps roasted spears of green asparagus. There will probably be a perfect foie gras confit, served with grilled bread, and then perhaps eggplant, sliced thin, dotted with pistou, and laid in a pinwheel over a bed of creamy, surprisingly mellow, butter-yellow goat cheese. Martin's duck demonstrates how seductive restraint can be: the breast comes carved into three tender pieces and served in a light, clean sauce of local extra-virgin olive oil and the bird's own sweet juices. Desserts tend toward the fruity, such as pure and tangy poached rhubarb. If you want to play out the whole Provençal fantasia (and you probably do), stay overnight in one of the inn's 12 rooms, which accomplish the same seamless blend of pastoral and urbane as everything else at the bastide. There are carved wood beds, horticultural prints, freestanding tubs, and white duvets, and the whole place smells like it was scrubbed with lavender.

Visit the village of Moustiers for more regional treasures, including not only more good food but exquisite plates (and tureens, bowls, mugs, saucers, chargers, pitchers, platters, and spice boxes) to serve it with. In the 18th century, the town was the top producer of tin-glazed faience ceramics in Europe, and Moustiers was a common name on European royal court tabletops. The local ceramics industry briefly died out during the 19th century, until one intrepid artist, providentially named Marcel Provence, opened up a studio in 1927, kickstarting the local ceramics trade. Now there are 20 faience workshops in the village, representing different artists, and a fallout of ceramic boutiques. For the best overview of local handiwork, stop at Bondil à Moustiers on Place de l'Eglise, which stocks its own Bondil family atelier's renditions of classic Moustiers faience styles: chinoiserie; floral and mythological themes; and grotesques that feature sometimes subversive caricatures (there is a recurring ogre whose nose is so long he holds the tip propped up in a pitchfork—a reference to all the sycophantic Versailles courtiers doggedly sniffing around the king). Stop for lunch in the center of town at either La Grignotiere on Rue de Sainte Anne, where the goat cheese tart is the signature dish, or at Clerissy, where you can choose from a long list of homemade crêpes (the dessert crêpes, especially the one that comes bundled up with a thick hazelnut cream, are best). Stock up on some of the local lavender honey sold at every village store before leaving town.

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