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Food + Cooking

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.

Continuing your drive from Moustiers, choose between two detours (or do both). The first is Le Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa, an hour's drive southwest from Moustiers, which has helped revive the neighboring village of Mane. After passing fields of sheep and goats, and signs for more goat cheese and honey, you'll arrive at the gates of the 17th-century convent, founded by a marquis for the probably very grateful nuns of Les Minimes, although it looks anything but monastic now. Renovated and reopened in June 2008 as a Relais & Chateaux property, the hosed-down and spruced-up convent still retains its original sensual charm (pale yellow façade, red-tiled roof, a jutting bell tower). Today, though, the hotel is surrounded by freshly planted almond, acacia, and lemon trees and terraced gardens showcasing poppies, roses, and campanulas (every flower, poetically, is named for one of the original Franciscan sisters), and offers a few things the sisters probably wouldn't have thought of: a pool; a state-of-the-art spa featuring the L'Occitane products produced in Provence; a wine cellar; 46 hotel rooms and suites; the formal, fine-dining Le Cloître restaurant, and Le Pesquier bistro. Lunch at the bistro is the best option—especially if it's warm enough to take a table in the cloister courtyard or on the terrace outside—and the thing to order is a simple shrimp and eggplant salad (the shrimp are as big and pink as langoustines) as a prelude to a bright, citrusy Grand Marnier and orange soufflé that rises in a feathery cloud.

If you have the time you can stay the night, but if you want to move on, or skip the convent altogether, head another 50 minutes west (about 32 miles) to Lacoste. This is essentially a one-street village, but it's quite the street—and enough of a contrast to the nun's domain that you can say you covered both the sacred and the profane in one day. Lacoste, in fact, was the Marquis de Sade's retreat: His squat Château de Sade castle, now being slowly restored by Pierre Cardin, sits like a closed secret at the top of the main street's long vertical cobbled climb. Even under construction, the place has the feel of the perfect self-contained hideout—the better to conceal his unlucky guests' screams. But these days, the most decadent thing going on in town gets dished up at the base of the main street at the Café de Sade, which is a lot less ominous than it sounds. No one is going to throw you in a crawl space if you don't finish one of its signature salads, but the real torture may be deciding which dish to order. The Salade Café de Sade consists of a wheel of mild, creamy goat cheese surrounded by slices of grilled bread and fig jam and sprinkled with pine nuts. But even that can't compete with the Salade Lacostoise, a mound of diced bacon, cubed Emmental cheese, olives, and grilled peppers, served with a fresh baguette.

Walk off your meal with one more hike up the hill to the château and then head back southeast this time, your loopy circle completed, to Aix-en-Provence (30 miles and about another hour's drive, depending on traffic) for the weekend's big finish. Of all the storied cities claiming to be Provence's soulful capital Aix feels freshest, and sunniest. That has something to do with the constant waves of international college students drawn by the university (the result: shoe boutiques and tech stores fight for space now on its cobbled streets). But it also has to do with Aix's own relentless charm, its fountains, squares, and 18th-century manors glowing gold at dusk, and the rows of bistros and brasseries—offering an epic showdown of escargots and crème brûlées—that line the Cours Mirabeau. Probably the most fabled of the bunch is the Brasserie Les Deux Garçons, founded in 1792, where everyone from Cézanne to Picasso and Cocteau broke baguettes. It could coast on its history alone—and a flashy mirrored-and-gilt dining room—but the food is still excellent. This is the kind of classic place where you should order a classic, so sample the liver salad, strewn with the fattest, most velvety chicken livers, or the slab of beef filet crowned by a panfried lobe of foie gras.

If that sounds too old-school, Aix counters tradition each year with another crop of ambitious kitchens aimed at all those stylish students. A favorite is Jacquou le Croquant, which serves some of the best, well-sourced updates of signature Provençal dishes in town. Particularly satisfying are the kitchen's big-bite salads (a seasonal green salad with market vegetables, duck rillettes, curry-marinated chicken, smoked breast of duck, and prunes; and the seasonal green salad piled high with salami, chorizo, rabbit pâté, coppa, and butter pickles), thoughtful, beautifully composed bowls that turn hearty eating into something surprisingly delicate. And then there is Pierre Reboul, with its Gallic take on molecular cooking that favors shape-shifting dishes (Parmesan scooped into gnocchi-like pillows; deconstructed ratatouille). Reboul's namesake restaurant opened in late 2007 and it still excites a lot of local debate.

But then, to jaded epicures, molecular playing with your food can seem even more old-school than country French, and Americans can get hot ice cream and culinary punning back home in the United States. So the best rule in Aix may be to ask yourself, What would M.F.K. Fisher do? And that means at least one classic, Michelin-starred Provençal meal, highlighting the sunny flavors she loved, which pretty much means the inevitable Le Clos de la Violette. The place, confronting the loss of one of its two stars and some blistering reviews, seems galvanized again, and at least you can eat lunch in peace here (none of the Cours Mirabeau's mopeds) on a manor house terrace under chestnut trees. Chef Jean-Marc Banzo's renditions of revered Provençal flavors include roast duck breast with caramelized turnips and polenta galette; a warm salad of cod tossed with olive oil and Parmesan; filet of sea bream roused by stewed beets and backed up by a very Provençal chickpea galette; and a pineapple and vanilla mousse. Be sure to save time for a shop in the old town's prettiest square, the Place Richelme, where the morning food-market vendors hawk smoked ham and sausages; baskets of strawberries, apricots, and raspberries; deep-purple eggplants, and loaves of olive and walnut bread, before the sellers give way to the Place's own wave of cafés in the afternoon. Grab some pastries from the Patisserie Weibel, which sits on a corner of the square and is famous for its fruity take on a layered opera cake: the softest genoise sandwiched between layers of strawberry and apricot cream. Later, head to the Villa Gallici hotel for tea, even if you're not staying in one of the converted manor's rooms. All high whimsy and throwback style (the sign of its resolute traditionalism: there is no hotel spa), the baroque inn is a whirl of chintz, swagged curtains, velvet fainting couches, canopied beds, candy-colored ceramics, ginger jars, textured wallpaper, and fountains strewn with roses. Sit outside on the terrace, overlooking a pool framed by big stone urns, and have some pastel-colored macarons that match the drapes inside, or a strawberry mille-feuille, served on pretty Limoges plates painted with a daisy chain of flowers. You won't find that back home, at least without a lot of looking.

Raphael Kadushin writes for a range of food and travel publications, including Condé Nast Traveler, Epicurious, Out, and National Geographic Traveler. His last piece for Gourmet Live was Eat Your Way Through Great English Gardens.