I like to believe that over the years our manner of eating has changed and for the better. Here in California there is a now established emphasis on fresh local ingredients prepared with a minimum of distractions. Think grilled king salmon over a bed of fresh corn kernels and cherry tomatoes like I had last night. This style of cooking has spread far and wide throughout the US and into the world and thank goodness it has. And whether you love her or not, the movement began with Alice Waters and her trips to Provence. As someone who lives down the block from her I am fully aware of her legacy.
Considering all of this, I was very excited to visit Provence for the first time this year and to eat. I could not have guessed what would happen once we got there.
This trip to Europe brought the concept of fresh local food into clear focus as we first ate our way through Italy. Aside from the somewhat rigid meal structure, i.e. appetizer/primi/secondi, eating in Italy was a lot like home. Ingredients were first-rate. They sang and soared. Except for the pasta, the sauces were very minimal and the food spoke first. We loved it. Whether at home, at a hotel or a restaurant the eating experiences were reliable, reasonably priced and a joy.
Then we went to France. We stayed in Provence in the beautiful village of Lourmarin. To be fair, Lourmarin should not be considered as a bellwether of Provencal cooking. It is a wonderful classic hill town that is clearly oriented towards well-healed European and American tourists. It is full of galleries, real estate brokers and clothing stores with lots of billowy white cotton blouses and fashionable grey linen outfits. There is money here. On a Saturday night the main drag is filled with outdoor tables and well dressed patrons that would be equally at home in the tonier districts of Paris, Laguna Beach or the Hamptons.
What Lourmarin does not have is much in the way of either decent or Provencal style cooking. In fact it is a poster boy for what can go wrong with eating out while on vacation.
When you search for restaurants in Lourmarin in TripAdvisor, they do not break into the top 50 for the region. Which is so odd. Why does a city with so many other tourist features lack a great restaurant (there is one 1kM out of town, La Coure De Ferme, reviewed separately). This should not happen any more, even Lahaina has a host of new food choices to enjoy.
When we arrived in Provence we visited our cousin who lives in Apt. She forewarned us. I asked her almost immediately where she likes to eat. Her reply: “The restaurants are awful. It is impossible to find good meals on a consistent basis”.
Here is an example. While talking about food our cousin told us about the local cooking that she loved. One dish she told us to look for was a salad made with ‘epautre’ (spelt). The week before in Cortona, a hill town in Tuscanny, I found sheer ecstasy in a farro risotto dish made with a lightly creamed Pecorino sauce then covered with thin slices of pecorino and grilled radicchio which made me swoon. I wanted more of this grain family. After 8 days of looking at menus up and down in Provence I did not see spelt used in anything. Period.
Our neighbors who lived in Lourmarin shared her opinion. They were more than straightforward. With the short tourist season and the constant turnover in restaurant owners and chefs, most kitchens could not be relied upon.
I did not believe them. But they proved to be right.
Our education began the first night in town. We were luck enough to stumble onto a block party right outside our door. We enjoyed incredible local dishes, all home cooked. Soupe a la pistou. Tiny squid in tomato sauce. Plates of olives, grilled garlic sausages. We drank clean straightforward roses, reds and whites. We danced and had a blast. This was great food. I was pumped.
That was the last we saw of those dishes. MIA on every restaurant menu I read for the next 10 days.
Our first meal out with our cousin brought her warnings to life. She chose Le Royale in Apt for their crepes. When we got there the crepes were off the menu, the cook had left. What followed was just dull and soulless food. Soggy fries, wilted salad and a horribly dry duck confit. She was embarrassed.
This was the pattern that followed through the week. When we visited people in their homes or stayed at our vacation rental, we ate simply and well.
Just add rose.
But finding a good restaurant was a challenge. We avoided Lourmarin altogether and favored meals at home in our flat or in other towns when visiting.
As if to add emphasis, the best restaurant in the area, La Petite Maison in Cucuron, was so rude to my wife when she went in to make a reservation that she later cancelled it. She was wearing bike shorts, but still. Why would anyone do that?
All of this came to a head on one of last nights in Lourmarin at the best reviewed restaurant in town, Le Regelade. We wanted an outdoor terrace seat and they had a beautiful one. We checked the menu and look the even had a bio (organic) option and talked about fresh local ingredients on their menu We were ready for some fresh local food. The restaurant, which I will review separately, was an unequivocal disaster. It proved one thing, if you take good even organic ingredients and treat them poorly they will taste just as bad. Good squash boiled forever loses its flavor too. And using organic ingredients can’t help a lousy chef.
As we discussed this awful meal with a couple who had lived in the village for over 20 year they knew where we had eaten before we could finish the sentence. A disaster they called it. As we talked about the local food scene they served us slowly roasted vegetables harvested that morning in their garden (tomatoes, squash, eggplant sort of a deconstructed ratatouille) covered with herb de provence and then after cooking a healthy dose of home-grown olive oil). They were sublime.
Where were those flavors in the local restaurants? Too busy serving another steak tartare or magret de canard, I know that they can be great dishes, but they not are not in any way Provencal. Why? Their answer? Vegetables are not high margin items and the restaurants are there to make as much money as they can as fast as they can and that means serving the favorites at high prices.
The next day we snacked on just fried squash flowers, raw yellow squash with pesto, tomato tapenade and a freshly made aioli as we drank pastis and rose at a neighbor’s house. The flavors were alive, vibrant and fresh.
I asked the same question about restaurants and got a different reply. Most of the restaurants in the area were not honest. I had heard this analysis several times during the trip, when asking if a restaurant was worth going to I would get the reply ‘Il est juste’. He is fair, right honest. Never had I head this before.
I am sure that there other regions in France that celebrate the flavors of the region in their restaurants. But in Lourmarin, and in the parts of the Luberon that we visited, the truth is found in the open air markets and kitchens of the people who live there. This is the ultimate irony because the Lubreon is bursting with wonderful foods and ingredients, so much so that it was featured in Le Figaro’s summer guide to eating in July 2012.. Lavender honey. Basil.
Peppery olive oil. Good solid local reds and so many great roses. Copious amounts of peaches, apricots and figs. A tradition of lamb. A location close enough to the coast to get good fresh seafood. But even Le Figaro focused on the markets and the farmers. They only recommended three restaurants and none were in southern Luberon.
They saw what we saw. A total disconnect between the restaurants of a region and the fruits of the land that is all around them. Really a shame. A reminder of how lucky we are and how things have changed for the better. How even in Provence (at least in the Luberon), you have to look hard to find a good meal when you eat out. All the more reason to rent a vacation apartment or home with a kitchen, a balcony or terrace and to relax with this bounty at home on a summer evening enjoying the sunset and the warmth of Provence.