A Culinary Excursion Through Provence “Cycle Touring for Good Eats”
by Maggie Rentmeester
Time for a confession: A good deal of my excitement when I prepared to travel to France was the prospect of sampling French fare. I am a self-professed “foodie”, or perhaps, more accurately, an “Eatie”. This unique title seems only fitting for one consuming food while not engaging in the act of its preparation. A few years ago I read “A Year in Provence”, it whetted my appetite for sampling French cuisine. Touring the countryside by bicycle allowed me to eat to my heart’s content and still permitted me to fit in my airline seat without a seatbelt extender. The goal of the trip was to come home “calorie neutral”. My trip to Provence through Vermont Bicycle Tour (VBT) provided the means to explore: bicycles, guides, maps, and insight regarding best places to eat.
Everyone knows a good hearty breakfast provides a great start to your day. It is an acknowledged fact that people who eat breakfast weigh less, in general, than people who don’t. Armed with this knowledge gave us a great reason to indulge in the ample morning offerings at our hotels. Breakfast buffets in France provided a spectacular start regardless of one’s inclinations. We were greeted with tree ripened apricots and sun-blushed cherries, locally harvested clover and lavender honey drizzled on tangy yogurt pots. Whisper thin slices of cured salami and ham, crunchy, crusty baguettes, fresh baked rolls, oodles of local cheeses and French pressed coffee all added to the symphony of sunup aromas. One buffet included an entire leg of prosciutto which invited guests to carve off succulent slices to their hearts content. We also developed a penchant for Le Sacristain pastries; buttery, flaky, crispy deliciousness twisted up with cinnamon and sugar allowed the inner dough’s almond filling to stay moist and chewy. Licking fingers is not optional after one of these delectable treats, it is an autonomic reflex. All provided ample fuel for a day of biking.
Aix en Provence, located approximately 30 minutes north of Marseille, was our first stop in France. This university town known was founded in 123 BC, and is known as the “city of a thousand fountains”. Rows of stately plane trees lined quaint streets and cast gently mottled hues on cafes and restaurants galore. Our most memorable meal in Aix was at a lovely shaded plaza; the enchanting aroma of the “plat du jour” (plate of the day) drew us in. We dined on fall-off-the bone tender lamb shanks slow-cooked and slathered in savory brown gravy. After we sopped up the sauce with the last of the tender tiny yellow skinned potatoes we conversed with a delightful elderly gentleman seated at the adjacent table. He dutifully wiped his plate of every last drop of gravy and enjoyed a platter laden with generous wedges of creamy cheeses and explained that he and his wife had vacationed together in Aix for 40 years. His wife had since passed away, but he had so many fond memories of their time in Aix together that he still came back every year. I do not believe what some have said about the French being standoffish—we were embraced by the natives everywhere and were flattered to have the opportunity to converse with this lovely man.
Dinner in France is an event. Most restaurants don’t serve the evening meal until around 8 pm. Tables don’t typically turn over; when you are seated, the table is yours for the evening and your meal may last several glorious hours. It is a time to savor, relax, and enjoy the company of others while enjoying a delicious meal. The French spend more than double of their household expenditure on food compared with Americans; in France quality and presentation are valued far more than quantity. Even a quick snack from a bistro was presented like a photo shoot for Gourmet magazine.
One of our VBT guides, Stephan, arranged a French vocabulary class specific to ordering in a restaurant prior to sending us out on our own in Saint Remy. We had a chance to try out our new skills at restaurant Xa (pronounced “Za”) located on Boulevard Mirabeau. Chez Xa, a chic bistro decorated with red checked table cloths, Victorian bric-a-brac, and a wall filled with liquors and glassware offered a menu du jour typical for restaurants in this locale of France. Diners choose an appetizer (aperitif), main course (plat principal) and dessert (dessert) from a limited but creative and interesting selection. My dinner took the prize for best dishes that evening. Velvety smooth foie gras sprinkled with coarsely ground sea salt served and tangy pickled onion slivers for spreading on crunchy, toasted slices of fresh-baked baguette started the meal. The creamy, buttery, silken smooth texture was delectable and I had to swat hands away to protect my choice! The main course followed; Gratin de la Mer, a creamy cheesy browned to perfection casserole chock full of scallops, shrimp, and fish. It was baked to an ideal consistency balancing the creamy sauce and fresh seafood. Desserts choices were panna cotta, a selection of fresh goat cheeses, or a gooey chocolate concoction. Fresh brewed coffee, brandied cherries (cerises brandied) and liqueur shots of local Frigolet provided the finishing touches. Stephan conveniently reminded me that I had the opportunity to pay for my “foie gras sins” when we climbed the hills to Le Baux the next day—had to keep that calorie count neutral.
While in Saint Remy, VBT arranged for our group to have dinner at a local pastry chef’s home. Experiences like this just would not happen without the exemplary planning and experience from a premier organization like VBT; I am a resourceful traveler, but could certainly not have arranged anything like this on my own. Odile prepared a vegetarian meal for our group that caused my meat-loving husband to exclaim, “If this is what vegetarian tastes like, I don’t ever need to eat meat again”. Our meal began with crispy, fresh from the garden greens tossed with traditional Provencal dressing unpretentiously made from roasted garlic, fruity and fragrant olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Salad was paired with a savory baked tomato tart; a buttery, flaky crust topped with simmered-all-day fresh tomato paste and topped with sun ripened slices of tangy tomato and fresh ground herbs. This course alone would have satisfied my appetite, but more deliciousness appeared. We were presented with zucchini stuffed with mushrooms, eggplant topped with a creamy mixture of olives and bread crumbs, fresh tomatoes baked with savory lentils, scrumptious cheesy au gratin potatoes browned and luscious all followed by a spectacular Napoleon. Dessert was presented with a flourish! A stunningly large Napoleon so beautiful it could have qualified as a visual work of art was rolled out of Odile’s kitchen to the delight of our group of VBT bikers. The enormous mille-feuille (1000-leaves dessert) had alternating underpinning layers of Wafer-thin pastry and silky custard; the entirety was topped with a vanilla icing laced with a delicate chocolate pattern. Fresh brewed espresso was the perfect companion. I recognized a definite need to pedal after this meal!
VBT arranged several spectacular meals at our host accommodations. This provided a wonderful way to enjoy local specialties in fabulous garden settings and sip crisp rosé wines just a few yards from our luxurious accomodations. The Hotel La Magnaneraie near Avignon presented us a traditional three course meal on a lovely patio surrounded by magnificent fountains and blooming flowers. Fresh-picked zucchini blossoms stuffed with a fluffy mushroom mixture awash in creamy mushroom sauce started us off. This was followed by the main course of local sea bream; a mild white fleshed fish extremely popular in the region, delicately steamed and flaky served with thick creamy yellow polenta and finished with (get this…) a “trio of Crème brûlée”. Yes, three individual brûlée ramekins arrived on each of our plates: vanilla, chocolate, and pistachio. Who knew my favorite dessert on earth came in flavors other than vanilla! What a delightful conundrum… how could I choose the finest flavor? The debate continued even after my brother-in-law Chuck consumed five servings in the quest.
Our meals in France ranged from highly sophisticated multi-course meals to simple baguettes, salads, and paninis purchased from street vendors. All of the food was fresh, homemade and incredible. Culinary expertise abounded and presentation was prized. There was joy and pride involved in the preparation and serving of our meals. I don’t know how many calories I ingested (probably a good thing) because I didn’t say “no” to anything, but the biking paid off; calorie neutral when I got home!
Please see George’s companion article from this same trip: French Kiss – Biking in Provence
Published September 2013