AT THE risk of making lazy generalisations about our neighbours across la Manche, it is something of a surprise to be in a room – or wine cellar, to be precise – with a French person who recoils at the thought of anyone eating the animals she farms. But Claudine Vigier is an expert cheese maker and she loves her goats like family.
They pay her back with milk that makes extraordinary cheese – the kind of cheese that can be addictive.
We make dreamy faces, and little sighs of pleasure are audible as we sample her produce, which all comes from goat or sheep milk due to this part of France – roughly halfway between Marseille and Avignon in Provence – being too warm for cows. One of my favourites, partly because of its presentation, is Banon, which is emblematic of this area. It is a delicate little patty of creamy goat’s cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves (these can’t be picked off the tree and must be caught mid-air between falling and landing on the ground). The leaves give the cheese a musty flavour and, tied up with rough string, look like gorgeous little artisanal presents.
Claudine has been in the cheese business for 20 years and her husband, Roland Barthélemy – an ambassadeur fromager, no less – used to supply the good stuff to French presidents in Paris, but moved to Provence for love. And there is plenty to fall in love with in this area. We are staying at Crillon le Brave, a luxury boutique hotel in the hills, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. It is made up of buildings that used to be the centre of a small village, with the oldest – formerly a stable – dating back to the 13th century, while most are from the 17th or 18th century. There are now 34 rooms in seven converted buildings, each stylishly decorated in natural colours and demonstrating that enviable Provençal chic. There is an original church on the property, and weddings of all denominations can be held here in the summer, providing the party book all the rooms in the hotel.
Outside, fat bumblebees buzz drowsily around the lush wisteria vines that line the many terraces on which you can dine, sip wine or simply watch the grapes mature from afar. Rosemary and lavender grow in abundance, and there are olive trees and cypresses dotted about near the exquisite swimming pool, which proves to be a welcome respite from the “short” bike ride to the local village, Bédoin (bikes are provided).
At this point I should clarify that I hadn’t been on a bike for more than ten years and had no idea how fancy – and complicated, to this simpleton – the gears are these days. I also had no idea that the half-hour ride through picture-book scenery – meadows, vineyards and forests – would involve quite so many gradients. While my fit, lean companions make it look like no big thing, I bring shame upon my family name with my lame efforts. Dieu merci, then, for the relaxing full-body massage from Kelly Thomas at the hotel’s mini-spa later that day.
The famous 1,912-metre-high Mont Ventoux, one of the most gruelling parts of the Tour de France, is just a few kilometres from here. It’s not known to cyclists as the Beast of Provence for nothing. Pretty, leafy Bédoin is the starting point for lots of serious cyclists who tackle the mountain.
These cyclists, who whizz past us as if we’re going backwards, probably haven’t consumed what we have over this long weekend. As well as all the cheese – oh, the cheese – we learn about truffles from local grower Franck Jaumard, while his son Eric prepares some incredible treats for us, including truffley scrambled eggs. I am shocked to discover that what is sold as truffle oil is not in fact made with truffles, but with various components that mimic the flavour.
Crillon le Brave has three outstanding restaurants – one of which, Restaurant Jérôme Blanchet, must surely be in the running for a Michelin star. Bistro 40k is so named because all the produce is sourced from within 40km. Finally there is La Grange, which is also the bar area. All three open out onto terraces, all with fantastic views.
During our stay asparagus is a frequent and welcome feature on the menu, as is – to the surprise of no-one – some pretty special wine. The most common grape in this area is Grenache, and the hotel has commissioned nearby producer Domaine du Tix to make a wine for its forthcoming 25th anniversary. One of the more special wines in this region is from Chateau Fondreche – a lake under the vineyards keeps the earth cool, making for a very drinkable freshness.
Our final day is spent in the breathtakingly pretty town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue (twinned with Penicuik), which is not actually an island but is built around the sparkling green River Sorgue. This is the place to come if you are in the market for some antiques, and there are scores of shops packed with marvellous finds at all prices. On Sunday mornings there’s an enormous outdoor market where you can buy everything from artisan soaps to cheese, clothes, herbs, cured meat, fresh fruit, vegetables and fish, and more.
The town boasts several tempting outdoor cafes and restaurants (Keith Floyd once had one here), where you can have lunch under the shade of their huge, old trees and while away a few hours. We did just this in the delightful Le Jardin du Quai, a leafy garden positively dripping with wisteria.
Crillon le Brave is an hour’s drive from Marseille Airport, so hiring a car is recommended. And for goodness sake, leave space in your luggage for cheese and wine. n