Travel for mind, body and spirit: Stomach Eating well in Provence
Saturday 09 January 1999
My love affair with France is inexorable. I may become more excited at the prospect of jetting to New York, vaguely bewildered when touching down in Sydney - simply because it is so absurdly far away - and have also been delighted by the occasional urge to venture to Italy and Spain. (For some reason, I find I have no urge to go to Germany or Iceland.) So I return to France over and over again, mainly because I like to eat there. And it is very near.
The most memorable journey to France began with coffee in Montreuil and terminated in Provence with a glass of rose ... well, to be honest, it actually went on as for as Florence, but that is another story, another country (I didn't even know how to ask for a glass of red wine, in Italy, in 1984). But this motoring trip south was to be the first of many trips to Provence, to stay at Le mas de Brunelys, la maison tout comfort et bon gout de Terence Conran, my friend, muse, and then-soon-to-be-partner at Bibendum restaurant.
One leisurely trip involved a short flight to Paris, a brief taxi ride to the Gare de Lyons, lunch in the vast and beautiful station restaurant, Le Train Bleu (salade frisee aux lardons; boudin noir et pommes frites; fromage), a compulsory platform punch of the designated ticket followed by a smooth and curvy whoosh to sunny Avignon. (It was also particularly pleasing to find a miniature of chilled poire Williams to have with my TGV coffee).
Journeys by road have taken in overnight stops at Greuze, in Tournus, where I ate the finest frogs' legs ever and once demolished a whole St Marcellin cheese all to myself so very, very a point it was; an astonishingly pretentious lunch chez Pic, Valence, where I remember Terence referring to the food on our plates as "Hunka-Munka - you just want to smash it into little bits"; another overnight at L'Esperance, Marc Meneau's north Burgundy three-star, where a terrine made from veal spinal column caused me to realise that most three-star establishments outside France are, in fact, only worth two - or occasionally, just one star.
But the true pleasure of these trips would always culminate in the kitchen at Brunelys: the animated discussions over which market was best that day and what we were going to buy. There would be rabbits for marinating in the rose, olive oil and some wild thyme from the hillside, real tomatoes, shapely peppers, purple aubergines, tiny fish for making soup, green furry-skinned almonds and the even deeper green olive oil from nearby Maussane-les-Alpilles. The even greater pleasure was to cook it all. Cooking in France - in both senses of that phrase - has never been better.
Those rabbits were cooked on vine wood, gently burnished until small pearls of juice seeped out through their diminutive muscles (a sure sign that any small joint is almost ready), and dropped on to the greying embers below, causing mini-explosions. Slices of aubergine also went on to the fire with the rabbit, thickly cut and previously dipped into the rabbit's oily marinade, so they too became darkly singed but fondant within.
I will never forget that special day: from the early morning outing to Arles market for the rabbit and sundries, the cafe-Calva on the way home in Fontvieille. Finally, it was the simple joy of preparing, cooking and serving that lunch that satisfied me most. The occasional quaff of rose (l'eau minerale de Brunelys) as one went about the task and sitting in a sunny Provencal garden afterwards devouring the result - my apron still attached. I felt deeply glad to have cooked well, in that sunny holiday garden, for Terence. Nunc est Bibendum! Simon Hopkinson
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