by Philippa Farrar
Provence. That single word conjures up wondrous images — hills of fragrant lavender … fields of poppies and sunflowers … arches of stately plane trees over ancient roads … fruit and vegetable markets with displays like works of art … and that incredible light, glinting off the ochre buildings of hilltop towns. I dream of all this as I pack and prepare for a very memorable journey to Provence. I have been invited, along with four other journalists, to experience not only these wonders, but also the opportunity to sample cooking experiences with The International Kitchen, a tour operator based in Chicago, which, since 1994, has been offering outstanding hands-on cooking and cultural experiences in Europe.
We begin our journey in Marseilles, our first entry into Provence. Julia Child lived for a number of years in this town, and it remained one of her favorites. While it has had a reputation for being a “rough” town, Marseilles has softened its edges and is quite a charming place to begin a journey in the south of France. I have a little time, so I do as the locals do — find a little café on the harbor, and order the local drink, a glass of pastis (a licorice-flavored aperitif). At night the city is beautiful beyond description; the two forts that anchor the city are dramatically lit.
Then it is on to La Cadière d’Azur. This tiny town is a picture-postcard Provençal hamlet, quite unchanged by time. We proceed to a beautiful bastide. Meaning literally a country house or cottage, this bastide is a wonderful country kitchen that is the home of the cooking school, and that features work space for each person. Prior to our lesson, we walk through the extensive garden, plucking fruits and vegetables, both familiar and new, that would soon become part of our lunch. We stop to pick and eat the last of the raspberries, little rubies of pure sweetness. Chef Jean-Francois Berard’s passion for his garden is truly infectious.
We learn to prepare sea-urchin and fish soup, and we produce our own fromage blanc sorbet for dessert. We sit on the sun-dappled terrace of the bastide, the table set with beautiful Provençal linens, gazing at the garden and vineyards on the hillside while enjoying our lunch along with glasses of lovely local wine. This is only our second day, and already we are having a quintessential Provençal experience! We have dinner in Sanary-sur-Mer, where the cooking students are taken by the chef to see the daily haul of fresh fish.
The next day we move on, traveling though the gorgeous countryside, to discover Château de Berne. This spectacular property, located on acres of landscaped property, includes its own orchard and very high-quality winery. We are escorted to our elegant rooms where we spy a frosty wine bucket cradling a chilled bottle of their own sparking “Wild Pig” Rosé. We are then invited on a tour of the winery, where we are invited to a tasting of the red, white and rosé wines that they produce. We then join Chef
Philippe Migot. A big, ebullient man, he is obviously devoted to his Provençal cuisine. We prepare a very typical and delicious dinner of tapenade, roasted lamb and grilled vegetables, accompanied by one of the Château’s premier wines. It is a temperate night, so we sit out on the terrace for a while, digesting not only our dinner, but also the wonderful day and night we have just had.
I have often thought that there is not an ugly village or town in France, and I think I am right. We move on to Velleron, another — dare I say it again — charming little town, to settle at the Hostellerie la Grangette. It’s hard to imagine a more quaint and personal stopover. The property is owned by a delightful couple who welcome us as long-lost family and attend to our every need. Shortly we head out to the daily fruit and vegetable market, held at dusk every day. Who would have thought that bunches of radishes could be such works of art? The tiny strawberries that are so sweet are set out as precious jewels. Even the utilitarian potato looks beautiful, cleaned and carefully arranged. Our cameras are madly clicking; these aren’t the produce markets any of us are used to! Here, the produce is revered and the best, freshest and tastiest are sought after. After all, that is what the cuisine is all about: cooking with the best and freshest available food of the season.
We make our purchases and head back to the hostellerie, where Chef Brigitte Blanc-Brude is waiting for us in the kitchen to begin our vegetarian cooking class. We end the night with a lovely, simple dinner, accompanied by a wonderful Provençal wine.
The next day we head off to the Abbaye de Sainte Croix in Sálon de Provence. This is an exquisite property, and we are not sure what to expect in the kitchen. But when we meet our chefs, Tony Toal and Jeremy Picanol, we are immediately captivated. Their cheery manner belies the hard work they do every day, and in no time they are joking with us while preparing for our class. We spend the entire morning preparing foie gras in different ways; who would have guessed there are so many variations? Mastery of these variations will surely give one a most unique category of cooking skills! While eating lunch on the terrace overlooking the Luberon valley, we sit in near-disbelief as we contemplate the wonders of this trip, realizing there’s no way that setting pen to paper can ever evoke the emotion and intensity of our experiences.
Our last stop is in the beautiful and sophisticated town of Avignon. Our hotel is the stunning La Mirande, situated just across from the Palace of the Popes. We head over to the Palace for a guided tour and are in for a wonderful surprise. There is a wine tasting in the palace, which takes place in one of its ancient rooms.
The following morning we accompany Chef Sebastien to the vast indoor market in Avignon to make some selections for our class. We head back to the 19th-century kitchen, fully renovated with modern appliances, to our final cooking class. We are good students, and following the chef’s lead, we prepare an entrée of fish and vegetables for our meal on this, our last night in Provence.
As I pack to leave early the next morning, I stop and take some time to reflect. I stand on the balcony of my room, gazing at the lights of the city, thinking of all the wonderful events of this week. And it occurs to me that, in a short time, this cooking vacation has not only greatly honed my cooking skills, but has in a unique way given me a truly authentic experience of the local culture. I will return to Provence, and it will be to once
again join The International Kitchen and share in the culinary and cultural heritage that is so beguiling.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: The International Kitchen offers week-long, all-inclusive cooking trips to Italy, France and Spain, Groups are from 2–12 people and include hands-on cooking lessons, meals, wine and olive oil tastings, market visits, excursions, and visits to historic sites. Accommodations are in small, historic and characteristic hotels, villas, inns, and farmhouses. Custom itineraries available for groups or individuals.
See website for full details: www.theinternationalkitchen.com. TEL: 800-945-8606 (toll-free), (312) 467-0560; FAX: (312) 467-0598; E-mail: info@TheInternationalKitchen.com
Provence – Travel Tips
Best times to visit:
• If you would like to see the lavender in full bloom, plan on visiting from mid-June to early August.
• The wine harvest is generally in September.
• The olive harvest begins in October with the green olives and continues in December and January when the fully ripe black olives are picked.
• There are a number of music festivals and fairs throughout Provence in the summer months, when it is most crowded.