It is a tradition in Provence that landlords who plant three cypress trees near the entrance to their properties welcome visitors for a drink, a meal and a bed. French chef Alain Ducasse has a small army of these pencil-thin emblems of Provence lining the driveway to La Bastide de Moustiers. They are a fitting symbol for this classic Provencale Inn which is a labor of love by the founder of a multi-starred restaurant empire spanning three continents.
Ducasse’s ode to Provence
A long-time resident of the French Riviera, Ducasse discovered the medieval town of Moustiers Ste. Marie on weekend motorbike rides into Haute Provence. This is France sauvage where rugged limestone cliffs are punctuated by the celadon green waters of the Verdun River that slice through the countryside to create a gorge that has been dubbed the Grand Canyon of Europe.
Ducasse decided to buy the 17th century country house, which had been the home of a master potter, and distil for his guests the essence of Provence.
Each of the 12 rooms at the Bastide evokes a distinctive color, aroma and image of Provence from the golden hues of the Sunflower room, to the green tones of the Olive room, the Lavender, Almond and Raspberry rooms each with their distinctive motifs in the sumptuous Provencal fabrics and hand-made bathroom tiles from nearby Salernes.
We stay in the spacious Poppy Suite, with its richly textured furnishings, antique fireplace and elegantly appointed Philippe Starck bathroom, located in a separate cottage with a private terrace overlooking the park toward the hills.
I also had a peek in the very feminine Blanche room on the first floor of the main house, with its delicate four poster bed, curtains and oil painting of a woman in a peignoir all a study of white on white. The hand-painted tiles in the wood-framed bath alcove lent an elegant air to its spacious light-filled bathroom.
For dinner we are seated in a romantic room for two, delicate watercolors by Florine Asch on its sponge-washed aqua walls, the softly lit castle of Aiguines illuminated on the distant hills. There is a larger dining room with antique sideboards, a library with a long table for meals with family or friends, and a faience room, with some of the finest pottery from the master craftsmen of Moustiers Sainte Marie, renowned the world over for its hand painted earthenware. In warm weather, guests also dine on the terrace.
Meals at La Bastide are a distillation of all that is pleasurable about French cuisine without the pretense, heavy sauces and overly fastidious creations. It is what Alain Ducasse calls “a sincere authentic cuisine, made from the vegetable garden and the local markets”. The young chefs, who all trained under Ducasse, feature locally pressed virgin olive oil, heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini flowers, basil, rosemary, and thyme, with a marvelous array of meats, poultry and fish in a carefully conceived menu that is created daily. The cheese platter features a remarkable selection of local chevres and the desserts highlight seasonal Provencale fruits.
Over a bowl of cherry tomatoes, seven different varieties and colours of tiny fruit bombs bursting with garden-fresh flavors, we choose a Bandol wine to go with our main courses of veal atop multi-colored Swiss chard and stuffed zucchini flowers and roast beef served with a fricassee of garden vegetables and cepe mushrooms. A tian of oranges and crème anglaise with their confit zest drizzled with Grenadine was just the beginning of dessert. There was also a selection of meringues and nougat and other sweet goodies.
Next morning, after a classic petit dejeuner complete with pots of homemade jam and bowls of steaming café crème, I meet Gilbert Bonhomme, the chief gardener, as he delivers crates of just picked baby carrots, pale green lettuce leaves, golden zucchini flowers, fennel, red and green capsicum, sorrel, oregano and parsley to the kitchen door. Sun streams through the leaves of the chestnut tree on the back terrace beside the cool swimming pool as delectable aromas of simmering vegetables and sautéed garlic waft through the air while Jean discusses that day’s menu with head chef Wilfred Hocquet.
I wander back through the series of five potagers or kitchen gardens with my expert guide. Once a fixture of every country restaurant, potagers are slowly disappearing from the French dining scene. Alain Ducasse was a trailblazer about cooking with the freshest local ingredients and these gardens are a testament to his enduring passion.
Trellises of pink and white roses frame a pathway through the aromatic gardens overflowing with herbs for the kitchen as well as medicinal teas. Next we pass the salad garden beside weeping willow trees with rows of lettuces, fennel, cabbage and watercress. There’s a special root garden with carrots, potatoes, artichokes, leeks and radishes while the huge main garden has dozens of heirloom tomatoes, silver beets, capsicums of many hues, zucchini, spinach, cucumbers, sunflowers and flowering perennials.
The town of Moustiers
Difficult as it is to tear ourselves away from all this good food in the making, there is much to explore and many calories to burn in order to make space for the next delectable meal. We hop on the Bastide’s mountain bikes for a ride into the pretty town of Moustiers, wedged into narrow canyon walls and divided into two quartiers by a rushing mountain stream. Its narrow laneways and covered passages are lined with colorful faience shops. We follow a steep path up to the Notre Dame de Beauvoir chapel to marvel at splendid views of the milky green waters of Lac de Ste Croix in the distance. A large star suspended between the sheer rock walls above the village honors a centuries’ old promise made by Sir Blacas d’Aupes if he returned safely from the Crusades.
Armed with a delectable La Bastide feast in our backpacks we peddle beside lush fields till we find a pretty shaded spot by a lake to realize another of Alain Ducasse’s great joys: the art of the picnic. Toasting our good fortune and his splendid foresight, we munch on fresh baguettes, fine cheeses, Cavaillon melons, poached chicken and, of course, those delectable tomatoes from his abundant gardens.
Tomorrow, we’ll order another picnic for our jaunt by car to the spectacular Verdun Gorge, this time replete with faience plates in the colors of a Provencale summer packed into a classic wicker basket.
France has so many wonderful country inns where wonderful food and wine plus a fine night’s sleep are graciously offered. I’d love to hear about some of your favorites.
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