When pasta came to the table at Les Domaines Qui Montent after a delightful starter of pork pâté, I will admit I felt a touch of dismay. Pasta? Not Italian food, I want French! But, my, oh my, was this dish cooked to perfection and it fast became perfectly acceptable to have fusilli in France. The melt-in-your-mouth morsels of veal in an herbed tomato sauce atop al dente fusilli went fast, and we all reached for the communal bowls for seconds.
Les Domaines Qui Montent restaurant, while a casual lunch spot/boutique/epicurean shop to regulars, immediately captivates a newcomer. Nestled on a narrow street away from the nucleus of the city, Les Domaines feels like a hidden gem, so it was a surprise to hear it is a chain across France.
Aside from stocking gourmet cheeses and jams, foie gras, spices, salts, olive oils and breads, the shop partners with some of the smaller wine producers, making for a rare collection of vintages.
From left: The cheese never ends in France — not that I'm complaining; beautiful artisan bottles of fresh-from-the sea salt decorate restaurant tables throughout France — my sodium stores must have been bursting since I just had to try all of the flavours; small and delicate strawberries accented with mint capped our fantastic lunch well.
What is this photo, you might ask? Well it's a work of art, I'd say. Resembling an avant-garde painting, all I knew was I could barely eat it. And it was made specially for me. It was just way too pretty. This is white asparagus by the way. More on that later.
We were at Hotel Benvengudo in the countryside of Les Baux-de-Provence, and we had been invited to the hotel's five-star restaurant. We were rumoured to be dining under the hands of a Michelin chef, or his prodigy, or something fancy along those lines. We couldn't find out exactly, but we were excited. Of course, once again, as was the pattern on this gastro-odyssey through the south of France, the chefs at Hotel Benvengudo dazzled us. And stuffed us. Luckily our rooms were right next door.
Just as "wow" as this hotel was, the dinner we were served was a double "wow." We began with an amuse bouche – little assorted sandwich-type snacks.
We then all received beef tartare with a quail egg, in a soya dressing. Now ... I am thoroughly proud to say, that until this point, I had not declined a single menu item that was placed before me. I would call myself experimental but there are a few things I just cannot do, and tartare is one of them. For shame, I know. Look how beautiful it was! Our chef was clearly an artiste. And oh did I feel badly about not eating his beautiful creation. Here I was, the diner rude enough to rebuff the beef tartare. I begged my fellow diners to help me out, somebody take something off my plate. But we know how our meals on this trip go, and every little bit of room saved in the tummy was just so necessary. So, no takers. I frantically pushed it around my plate. And suddenly – busted! The server came and took it away. But they had been watching and noticed my plight, and Chef Aurelien Laget took it upon himself to make a vegetarian hors d'oeuvre just for ME. He placed before me the aforementioned work of art – in-season white asparagus so gorgeous and painstakingly designed, it looked like Chef had given it just as much care as the tartare. And I was tar-touched.
Our feast continued. Marinated gambas with tomato jelly, avocado cream and citrus vinaigrette. The shrimp had this intriguing foam on top. Again, a plate almost too pretty to eat. For our main we had roast fillet of duckling, artichokes and crispy potato.
France is also the land of cheese. I was not complaining. All of this cheese never gets old. Unless it is aged. To perfection. And that is the France way. Did you know the country lays claim to 350-400 types of cheese? If you factor in the different varieties within the cheese categories, some say the number can tip 1,000 varieties. Mon dieu. Almost didn't come home.
Les Halles d’Avignon is a covered market with 40-odd stalls hocking Provencal specialties, including produce, breads, fresh seafood and colourful spices. Herbes de Provence is a delightful mixture of savoury, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano and lavender, traditionally used in southern French cooking. Sprinkle it on chicken, pork, beef, fish or salads. That dusting of lavender is really something special.
After all of this incredible eating, we were looking forward to learning how to make some Provencal fare ourselves. At this point in the trip, only a few days in, we were definitely feeling food overload. While we complained about our sore and protruding bellies, we weren't really complaining. How can we say no to any of this cuisine – ind-blowing in its appearance and delectable in taste? We can't (and don't). And that's that.
Now it was our time to flex our muscles in the kitchen. We arrive at Maison de Fogasses, a 16th-century French mansion in Avignon owned by the jovial Corinne Guyon. This mansion-restaurant is so eclectic – so many rooms, each with a different vibe. Guests can rent out the home for events or cooking classes and enjoy the rooms, the backyard, the art gallery and studio, the fashion boutique.
We eyed the long table, set out with fresh ingredients and an assortment of tools and aprons. Oh boy here we go. Our chef-teacher Caroline Millet looked stern and I got a pang of nervousness. What if I messed up ingredients, what if I chopped off a finger? She took us through how to prepare an artichoke (not an easy feat!), how to prepare tomatoes so the skin rolls off, how to sear red and green peppers, and how to make tapenade – my job (yikes). Give the tapenade to the olive hater.
However ... well ... I'd rather not include a spoiler alert for my own feature, so I will point you to my cover story in the Toronto Star travel section on July 26 chronicling my adventures in the kitchen, which includes epiphany – yes an epiphany!
The amount of oil I poured in to make the tapenade, mon dieu.
After learning how to properly slice peppers and cook them, we added a softened slice of young garlic that had been marinated in vinegar for three months and then olive oil for three months. It tasted surprisingly sweet.
The sheer grandeur of the Pont du Gard is awe-inspiring. To hear the story of how this ancient aqueduct bridge came to be from our incredibly prolific guide Alejandro was a real treat. The Romans built this 50-kilometre-long aqueduct to carry water from the springs in Uzes to the people of Nimes in the 1st century AD. I loved taking in this architectural feat and contemplating how ancient it was.
The aqueduct was built for the most part underground, but further complicating this massive undertaking was the fact that the terrain from A to B had hills and could not be built in a straight line. The route had to be diverted and wind across a gorge, thus creating the need for an aqueduct bridge. The aqueduct had to carry the water at just the right gradient along all of these hills to sustain the flow of water, and so the Roman engineers had to contemplate the depressions in the landscape. If the aqueduct were too steep, the water would run too fast, bursting the pipes. If it were built too low, the water wouldn't flow. The accuracy behind its construction ... Truly fascinating stuff.
They say the aqueduct carried 2 million litres of water a day and took 15 years to build. The Pont du Gard is surrounded by a beautiful and "sensitive" landscape that was rehabilitated in 2000. If you like to walk among the serene hills of the Mediterranean, leave extra time to explore the grounds around the bridge -- it is just gorgeous. Go off the paths ... there is so much to discover. You can detect traces of the work done by the men who cleared the forests to plant wheat, vineyards and olive trees. It's all there to see still, and the area is a beautiful, living testimony to its agrarian past. The breeze felt so fresh on my face.
Our dinner at Le Carre d'Art in Nimes was pure artistry.
I ate a bull steak. No bullshit! Or bullcrap. Or bull-ogna. Not entirely a steak person, I took the bull by the horns on this one.
We all marvelled about being in the land of bull fighting, a traditional event that dates to the 19th century in Nimes and Arles in the south of France, and eating bull steak. Ciele du Nimes is a delicious restaurant on the top floor of the Le Carré d’Arté, a contemporary cultural centre across from the ancient Maison Carrée, a Roman temple built in the 16th century. This juxtaposition of ancient and modern is a remarkable site, especially since Le Carre d'Art is mirrored, and so the reflection of this grand historical structure is reflected on the modern structure. Very cool.
We also were served codfish as well -- the fish appeared many times on our plates throughout the trip, and I loved it. And believe it or not, that is the cod below:
Check out the way I ate it: All moussed and fluffy. Damn it looks like gefilte fish but I am certainly not discriminating against that, says the proud gefilte fish lover. With a fluffy underbelly of moussed zucchini and a red pepper sauce, the Ciele du NImes was fast winning our hearts. And then there was dessert.
Oh gawd our first dessert. Lemon meringue -- mon dieu. Unbelievably rich. Unbelievably tasty.
While exploring Nimes, we happened on some pretty majestic Roman architecture, said to be some of the best preserved in the world.
Oh it feels good to be back on my blog. Merci to all who were watching for my posts. The wifi has been extremely unpredictable.
France ... the south of France ... is just gorgeous. Breathtaking. A real world treasure. I am blessed to have been able to drink it all in, along with the wine. Oh so much wine. And croissants. But those were inhaled.
Invited on a press trip by Air Transat and Transat Holidays, writing for The Toronto Star, I joined a group of four other Toronto journalists to the glorious regions of Marseille and Provence ... eight full days with virtually no stone left unturned, eight days of olive trees and glorious scenescapes and Roman history and grand architecture, and some of the most creative and delicious food that tasted as good as it looked.
Air Transat has kicked off a seasonal direct flight from Toronto to Marseille every Monday until Oct. 13, and it has increased its flights from Montreal too. And so we celebrated.
Sitting in Club Class makes the time go by nicely, especially with a glass of champagne in hand. A great flight ... even when you cry. Saving Mr. Banks will do that to you. OK to me, I mean.
My suitcase was way too big. I knew this. But problem packers are problem packers. This needs proper therapy. It will not improve after overpacking again and again. We don’t learn our lesson. We justify it by saying “Well the weather looks iffy”, or “We don’t know what we will be doing.” I knew the weather and I knew our itinerary, yet I still overpack.
At least I got to cart around all of the outfits I didn’t wear. And I developed a strong shell for oversized suitcase jokes.
I really should have learned in French how to apologize about my heavy suitcase to our drivers, but a big smile and sheepish “sorrrrry” seemed to suffice. Hopefully there were no hernias.
What there was though were laughs. Starting on the flight. A perfect icebreaker for our group, even though most of them had travelled together on press trips before. My seat mate, lest she be named, was telling a story and gesturing with her hands a little too close to the aisle and sacked a passing male flight attendant in the groin. Well that was it, our cork was popped, let the joking and banter ensue.
In Montreal we picked up our French connection, our incredible hosts, Mylene, our media liaison from Air Transat, and Marie-Andree, our extraordinary leader from tourist agency Atout France.
See that pizza? I had to sign a waiver to take the remains from the restaurant. Barasti Beach Bar, easily one of the best meals I had in Dubai and the prettiest place to go for drinks – DRINKS! – was top notch. On yet another perfect day in Dubai, where their winter is our perfect summer's day, I went to a popular expat hangout, a cool spot that overlooks the water and some classy-looking yachts, a lazy drinks-friendly lunch spot and sports hangout by day, a rollicking hotspot nightspot by sundown. It's all outside, half on the beach, with music and live sports on the big screen.
The drinks menu was exciting, and it wasn't just because I was feeling the lack of alcohol there. I had a Cu Cu Fizz (mint puree, cucumber and vodka) and a Foggy Sea (vodka and coconut cream). Yum! This Asian Chicken Fruity salad was such a highlight. It looks as good as it tasted. I have no idea what those translucent things are but they were crunchy and sweet and mysterious.
TIP: Make your way to Barasti, day or night, actually day and night. You must have the seafood pizza and this salad.
Published journalist, world traveller, big thinker, fun haver