Sunday lunch in Provence is a regional tradition we happily embrace. We've spent many satisfied Sundays in the village of Entrechaux at St Hubert, a family-run restaurant going back generations. But, if you were to keep driving east beyond Entrechaux you would soon leave the vineyards behind as your little car begins to climb.
Up in the hills you go, traveling on narrow mountain roads circling around and between the peaks until you lose your sense of direction. Eventually your car squeezes through La Clue, a narrow, one-car-wide gap between two massive limestone pillars. Then, immediately, you make a final steep climb to the tiny village of Plaisians, just inside the border of the department of the Drôme. Up here the vista is dominated by Mont Ventoux; traces of grape growing have been left far behind, down the hills. You're not in your normal Provence anymore.
It was to this hidden and spectacular place that our Provençal pal Jean-François took us for one Sunday lunch in Provence, to Auberge de la Clue, another family restaurant going back generations. Plaisians is so small that Sunday lunch probably doubles the population of the place. The terrasse of the auberge features a lovely fountain, backdropped by the looming presence of Mont Ventoux.
There we ate a dejeuner of hearty French country cooking. Simple but flavourful with portions so large that J-F warned us in advance to go easy on the initial courses. First up was a cadeau (what those snooty Parisians call an amuse bouche) of a jellied country paté plunked in the centre of the table still jiggling. You cut off and ate as much as you wanted, slathering the chunks with a delicious jam. A country jam, that is to say.
Course followed course since we went for the whole enchilada – you couldn't really call it a tasting menu, it was more like a gorging menu – including a pile of flambéed gambas and – more challenging – pieds et paquets, a traditional Provençal country specialty little seen today, consisting of sheep feet and stuffed sheet tripe. (The name means "feet and packages" and tripe, in case we need to remind you, is the lining from the animal's stomach.)
J-F said that snails in the escargot en croute were harvested locally from the wild. The same was true of the mushrooms we ate.
J-F, a true wine lover, was ecstatic to find Chateau Simone on Auberge de la Clue's wine list and insisted we add a bottle of that to our overladen table.
We were one of the last tables remaining as lunch service wound down, but we sat for a while to bask in the beauty of Mont Ventoux, the terror of the Tour de France. Perhaps it was the example set by Ventoux; perhaps it was the Chateau Simone, but after lunch J-F wanted to take the road higher up into the mountains, to see what could be seen and, he hoped, to connect with a road that would take us back to his home town of Maulucene on an alternative route.
The land continued to rise as we drove even farther east. We knew it would eventually culminate (peak?) in the Alps, but would we find a connection trail before that? (We hope geographers will forgive our clunky description.)
In the end, alas, the road simply faded out into a narrow, rutted, rocky track, cut between fields of high-meadow lavender – a place J-F's little Audi A3 daren’t venture. However, the drive back down the hills was just as spectacular as the drive up... though much faster!
- Diane & Mark
photographs copyright by Mark Craft