Monday, December 4, 2017

One Restaurant I Love: A Guest Post



You can't live in Provence and not be passionate about food.  The cliché is that the French spend much of each meal talking about what they ate at their last meal or what they'll eat at the next. The produce here is so good...and there's so much culinary talent...there aren't enough days in a month to try a fraction of the restaurants I'd like to. Many of my friends feel the same way so of course we trade notes constantly. Periodically someone will rave so enthusiastically about a meal that I'll ask them to share the info with all of us, through a guest post.  And since it had been a few years since I wrote about Jean-Luc Rabanel (one of my favorite chefs) and his outstanding restaurant, L'atelier, in Arles, I was delighted when Keith Van Sickle suggested a guest post about a recent meal there. Keith's bio appears at the end of this text; read on for his Rabanel review!

There are a lot of great restaurants in Provence, with Michelin stars galore like Le Petit Nice in Marseille and Baumanière in Les Baux. But for my money, the best fine dining in Provence is at L’atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles.

In 1999, Rabanel became the first chef in France to earn a Michelin star for an organic restaurant, Coté Garonne in the small town of Tonneins in southwest France. He later closed that restaurant and moved to Provence, renowned for its fresh produce, and opened L’atelier in 2007.  

On a quiet street just off the Place de la Republique, Rabanel works his magic. He calls his approach “Greenstronomie” – light on the meat and heavy on the abundance of Provence. As he puts it, “At the center of my cuisine is emotion and taste, a philosophy based on the vegetable. Vegetables, roots, plants, leaves, flowers and wild herbs thus become the main actors of my creations.”

L’atelier offers you just two choices: the six-course menu (95€) or the nine-course menu (123€). That’s it. On certain days, there's also a three-course option for lunch (55€). You can order wine by the glass, by the bottle, or pick one of the wine pairings chosen by the sommelier (three glasses, 45€; five glasses, 65€). 

The server will ask if you have any food allergies, which is a nice touch. I can’t eat gluten and I normally have to bring up the subject myself, which can make for an awkward moment. I appreciate that L’atelier made this discussion a comfortable one.

My wife and I went to L’atelier recently for her birthday, as it's our special occasion restaurant of choice. We usually order the six-course menu. The courses are small but you always get more than advertised (this year we counted eight courses) so there's no risk of going hungry. 

Plus there's the bread - you're served a selection of five different freshly baked varieties. And lucky me, I enjoyed the best gluten-free bread I’ve ever had.

After a glass of Champagne, the plates started arriving. My wife says that each plate is like a work of art you get to enjoy twice. First you appreciate its beauty, and then you savor the tastes. 

Our meal began with a piece of raw tuna marinated in sesame oil and laid atop sliced celery root and basil. This was sprinkled with a peanut crumble. Oh yes, there were also little pieces of smoky lardon hiding in there. And the flower on top was spicy. All those flavors were nice way to wake up the taste buds!

Next came the sweetest peas I’ve ever eaten, mixed into a fava bean puree and topped by Parmesan foam and a shrimp that had been dipped in ginger and grilled.

After that came mackerel over fava beans and then asparagus with morel mushrooms and white garlic ice cream.

While the menu changes regularly, we were thrilled to be able to enjoy one of Rabanel’s signature dishes. This is an impossibly tender filet mignon of taureau de Camargue (bull) topped with an egg yolk that's been marinated in soy sauce and rice vinegar. The combination is to die for!  It was accompanied by too many kinds of vegetable to count.

Then came the desserts, three different ones. The first was a jelly of verbena, topped by pureed Jerusalem artichoke hearts and macha ice cream. The second was a combination of fresh and sautéed fruits with tarragon sorbet. Then came the black-olive cookies and citrus macarons.

L’atelier has two Michelin stars and is unlikely to get a third, even though the food is as good as it gets. Why? Because to get a rare and coveted third star usually means you have to invest millions of dollars in the décor. Rabanel has chosen to keep the décor simple, the staff relatively young, and the focus on the food.

This is the reason that the Gault Millau guide, which rates purely on food quality, has given L’Atelier 5 toques and a score of 19 out of 20. These stratospheric ratings make it one of the top restaurants in France.

Since he first opened in Arles, Jean-Luc has grown the business organically. Once L'atelier was up and running he opened a bistro next door, called À Côté, which remains extremely popular. Then he opened a seafood spot called Iode, which has since closed. 

He also expanded L'atelier, doubling the dining space and adding accommodations. Today you can rent rooms in two flavors: “Les Confidentielles” which is a guestroom plus meals if you want them (breakfast + either lunch or dinner) and “Les Appartés,” which is four rooms with a common living-room area...which you can rent by the room or as a whole.  If you're staying in Les Appartés you can request cooking classes for your group there; classes are also available in the restaurant in the morning for would-be sous chefs who want to cook along with the restaurant's brigade. All the details are on the restaurant's website here.

So if you have a special occasion coming up, or want to taste the best that Provence has to offer, consider a meal at L’atelier in Arles. You won’t be sorry.

L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel
7, rue des Carmes
13200 Arles, France
Phone: +33 4 90 91 07 69
rabanel.com

Photos: (1-3) A few dishes from Keith and Val's recent meal: raw, marinated tuna on celery root with smoky lardon, a sprinkle of peanut crumble and an edible, spicy flower; 
sweet-pea and a fava-bean puree topped with Parmesan foam and a grilled shrimp; and a Rabanel signature: filet mignon of taureau de Camargue (bull) topped with an egg yolk that's been marinated in soy sauce and rice vinegar, accompanied by "too many kinds of vegetable to count."  (4) Jean-Luc with a few of his favorite things. The ingredients are all organic and many are grown specifically for him by friends. Photo courtesy of Le Figaro. (5) The dining room is striking but simple, meant to keep the focus on the food. (6) You'll find hearty, Spanish-influenced bistro fare at Rabanel's restaurant À Côtéwhich is right next door. (7) The rental accommodation called Les Appartés. (8) One of Jean-Luc's many cookbooks. (10) Val and Keith in front of the Château de Vauvenargues (wondering, no doubt, where they should have lunch).

Keith Van Sickle is the author of "One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence," which was published in January, 2017 and is available on Amazon here. He grew up in Alameda, California, and got his first taste of overseas life during a college term in England and later, a six-month backpacking sojourn. Grateful for the scholarships that helped him pay for college, in 1987 he started a foundation that helps students from Alameda pursue their own educations. His career has been in tech, primarily on the finance side. During a five-year work assignment in Switzerland, where they lived in a village with more cows than people, Keith and his wife Val fell in love with the European expat lifestyle.  After returning to the US, Keith helped start a company whose product was so geeky he says he still doesn’t quite understand it. When the couple decided they wanted to live abroad again but were unable to find another expat gig, they decided to invent their own. Now they and their trusty dog split their time between Silicon Valley and Provence, where Keith does financial consulting for startups and Val consults in a variety of fields. Keith publishes a blog called Life in Provence and you can follow him on Twitter,  Facebook and Medium.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

You're Invited: Thanksgiving in France 2017


Because I totally live to please you guys, once again I've rounded up a great selection of Thanksgiving celebrations here in the South of France and in Paris. Who attends these gala soirées? The local expat community of course, but also French friends and other Europeans, travelers, house guests and, in one case, invited members of the American military stationed in the area. All nationalities are wanted and welcome!

Over the years, many of my French friends have told me they love the idea of celebrating this very-American holiday...to meet new people, to sample unusual foods, to learn the holiday traditions. At a friend's Thanksgiving in Provence a few years back, the Frenchman to my left said he loved how the various dishes were served all at once, all on one plate, rather than in courses. Another said he was looking forward to his first taste of cranberry sauce, which he called red fruits jam

While the literal translation is Action de Grâce, most French just call it Thanksgiving...except for my friend Philippe who refers to it as Merci Donnant, which he says "means absolutely nothing at all." 

If you plan to be in Paris for the holiday rather than down south, I've included a couple celebrations there, including one built around a cooking class.

And for those of you hosting Thanksgivings in France this year or sharing in the food prep, I've provided two great sources for all your ingredients including fresh cranberries, canned pumpkin, pecan pies and of course, the big juicy bird.

If you're hosting or know of a Thanksgiving celebration that's not listed here, email me the info (provenceblog@aol.com) and I'll happily add it.

And finally, while we're on the subject, I'm sending a very heartfelt thank you to all of you: for reading and supporting my blog...for sharing it with your friends....for commenting on the stories you particularly enjoy. I wish you all the most joyous and delicious Merci Donnant, wherever you plan to spend it!

THANKSGIVING ON THE COTE D'AZUR

*The American Club of the Riviera's Thanksgiving is a gala, annual affair...large, elegant and extremely popular. This year it's at the historic Hotel Negresco in Nice on Thursday Nov. 23, starting with a 12:30 Champagne reception under the cupola of the stunning Galerie Royale, followed by a traditional feast of turkey and trimmings.  Prior to the luncheon (at noon and 12:15 pm), the hotel is offering short guided tours of the lobby and its famous art, collected over the years by Madame Jeanne Augier, whose family has owned the hotel since 1957.  This year's special military guest will be Major William Connors, Liaison Officer between the US and French Army, and his wife Sarah. For those who'd like to take this opportunity to join the ACR, there's a special 14-month membership being offered. Book quickly as this even always sells out; 180 people are expected and it's first come, first served with priority going to member families. Last call for reservation payments is November 16th. All the info is on the ACR website here.  

*MonacoUSA will host its annual Thanksgiving dinner at StarsNBars (Monaco) on Thursday Nov. 23, starting at 7 pm. Seating is family style at communal tables. The menu? Stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce, peas, creamed onions, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob and cornbread. Desserts will be apple tart, pecan pie and brownies. Cost: 50€ members, 55€ non members, 25€ for kids under 12. To reserve: rsvpmcusa@gmail.com.

THANKSGIVING IN PROVENCE


* My great friend Jon Chiri, an American chef with 20 years experience working in Provence, has just taken over the cooking school at Les Halles, the wonderful indoor food market in Avignon. (Jon ran the popular Le Marmiton cooking school at the nearby Hotel La  Mirande for many years.) This is a brand new enterprise for Jon--he hasn't even posted his offerings or pricing online yet--but he does have a name: Cuisine Centr'Halles. On Thursday Nov. 23, Jon invites you to join his family for a special holiday lunch at Les Halles from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm; choose from a Thanksgiving Plat du Jour (turkey with Jon's version of accoutrements) for 20€...or 25€ with pumpkin pie. Wine will be extra; final menu details are still to come. To reserve or be added to Jon's mailing list: jonavandno@gmail.com.

* The Anglo-American Group of Provence once again welcomes the community to celebrate Thanksgiving in Aix "with a spirit of appreciation for all that we share." The party is Sunday, Nov. 26 at 4 pm (aperitif) and 5 pm (dinner) at Restaurant Le Verguetier, 7 chemin d'Eguilles in Celony (Aix), across from the Maison de Ste-Victoire. The'll have all the traditional foods: turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Cost: 29€ members, 10€ for their kids under 12; 36€ for non-member guests and 18€ for their kids under 12. To book: Please specify number of adults and kids, write a check payable to AAGP and send it to Mari-Luz Saboui, 25 Chemin de Masse, 13710 Fuveau. Checks must be received by Nov 20. Questions? Email to: bobkeltz@aol.com


Biocoop - La Coumpagnie in Aix will host two Thanksgivings on Thursday Nov. 23. The first is a lunch which owner Rick Harrison says is "mostly for our curious French clientele - and it's always our biggest lunch turnout of the year!" The lunch will be less than 20€ pp.  (To reserve, see below.) Then comes the main event: a dinner starting at 7:30 pm. "We have a wide diversity of Americans, French and English people excited to attend," Rick says. As they did last year, the Marseille Chapter of Democrats Abroad will have their own space at the event and 40 to 50 of their members are likely to attend.  The meal will be 100% organic, 0% GMOs and 100% homemade from American family recipes! The evening starts with spiced wine and appetizers (stuffed mushrooms, deviled eggs), then moves on to turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, green bean casserole (with cream of mushroom soup...yes!), pumpkin and pecan pies and a classic cheesecake. Prices are 27 € adults and 19 € kids under 12; wine and beer are available for purchase. Reservations required for both lunch and dinner: +33 (0)6 81 34 85 74,  rick@biocoop-lacoumpagnie.fr. 

* Near Forcalquier, the restaurant Le Bistrot de Pierrerue in Pierrerue celebrates its annual Thanksgiving on Friday Nov. 24 at 8 pm. On the menu: an amuse bouche, brined and roasted turkey with dressing (made from bio sausage and chestnuts), homemade gravy and cranberry chutney, mashed potatoes, roasted local Brussels sprouts,  pumpkin pie, apple crumble, chocolate pumpkin-seed torte and vanilla ice cream. Price is 25€ per person, without drinks. To book: +33 (0)4 92 75 33, 00, maryvonne.kutsch@orange.fr.

*At the restaurant L'Epicerie de Cecile in Beaucaire, chef/owner Cécile Guillo is all fired up to serve her two annual Thanksgiving fêtes: a dinner for the general public and a lunch for members and guests of the Avignon Chapter of Democrats Abroad.  You can attend either but the DA one is almost full up...just a couple spots left. The public dinner is Thursday Nov. 23 and seating is communal at large tables for 12. Price: 28€ for a three-course dinner with wine and live music. (To reserve for the public dinner, contact the restaurant directly: +33 (o)6 80 04 09 04.) The Democrats Abroad lunch is Sunday Nov. 26 at 12:30 pm. The price is €23 but wine and drinks are extra. To reserve for the DA lunch: joandarcnyc@gmail.com.

THANKSGIVING IN PARIS

There seem to be more and more Thanksgiving celebrations in Paris each year, ranging from the very-casual one at the Hard Rock Cafe to the very-posh one at Ralph's, the restaurant in Ralph Lauren's elaborately appointed store on the Blvd. St.-Germain.  A good list of this year's offerings is here

* If you want to join a group rather than do your own thing in a Parisian restaurant, sign up for Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday Nov 22 with the American University Clubs of FranceFor the 2nd year, they're partnering with the famous Ladurée, known for elegant sweets since 1862, and will be dining in one of Maison Ladurée’s private salons with views on the Champs Elysées. You can have a drink there before but the evening officially starts at 7:30 in the restaurant, which is privatized for the occasion. Everyone gets a small gift to take home. Prices range from €60 to €75 pp and all the info is on the site hereQuestions? aucfrance@gmail.com.

If you can't decide whether to cook at home or go out, the cooking school La Cuisine Paris has the perfect solution for you: a Thanksgiving cooking class (in English)...followed by everyone eating lunch or dinner together overlooking the Seine. Timing is either 10 am to 2 pm or 4 pm to 8 pm on Thursday Nov. 23;  the price is 160€ pp for lunch or dinner. For more info or to reserve: +33 (0)1 40 51 78 18, contact@lacuisineparis.com.

WHERE TO BUY SUPPLIES

The Paris shop called Thanksgiving sells a wide range of American foods year round, in person and online, so of course they're the Parisian's go-to for Thanksgiving supplies. But they also stock Canadian, British and Mexican products, too. And now, with new owners, there's an even-greater selection of products as well as a slightly new look to the store. (My sweet contact there, Gemma, says you should definitely pop in and say bonjour!) Orders are being taken now for fresh turkeys, homemade pecan and pumpkin pies and all the other ingredients you need, including Libby's canned 100% pure pumpkin. They also sell hard-to-find kitchen accessories (cheesecloth, roasting bags, pie plates, etc.). Note: Please be sure your online Thanksgiving orders are in by November 18. The store website is here and the online ordering site is here. Thanksgiving is located at 20 rue St. Paul, 75004 Paris, +33 (0)1 42 77 68 29, thanksgivingparis@orange.fr. 

MyAmericanMarket.com sells pretty much everything you need to prepare your holiday feast, except the turkey: they sell cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin, cornbread mix, stuffing, gravy, corn syrup and more. They also have ingredients and treats for other holidays, too, such as eggnog and candy canes. They are 100% online and will deliver anywhere in Europe. You can order right up until noon on November 22nd and get your goodies shipped to you in France on Thanksgiving Day! "But then you'd need to be a very efficient chef!" Caitlin at the company says with a laugh. Specific Thanksgiving foods are on a special page here.


Above: The much-loved, often-parodied painting is Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" from 1942. Everyone in it was a Rockwell family member or friend; they were photographed individually and painted into the scene. Learn more about the painting and artist here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Write Your Heart Out in Provence


In all my years as a book lover I remember writing just a handful of fan letters to authors...and Richard Goodman was one of them. Something about his 1991 book, French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of Francereally grabbed me. That was maybe 15 years ago and we've stayed in touch ever since. So I was delighted when Richard told me he was returning to Provence to lead a writing workshop this coming summer...and even more delighted to learn it would be hosted by the non-profit Maine Media Workshops + College (MMW).

The school is based in Rockport, Maine and was formerly known as the Maine Photographic Workshops. While I've only been lucky enough to take one of their workshops, I know many people who've studied or taught there and the school gets top reviews all around.

Launched in 1973 offering photography only, MMW has since added a wide range of subjects such as film/video, book arts, writing, poetry and more. (School president Meg Weston describes what they teach as "the art and craft of storytelling.") They have a full calendar of courses in Maine, plus travel workshops (like the one I took in Provence in the late '90s), a 30-week certificate program and an MFA program that’s been rated in the top 100 fine arts graduate programs in the U.S. They offer courses at all levels, from absolute beginner and serious amateur to working professional. Every time their new catalog comes out I see ten classes I'd love to take!

But back to Richard's upcoming workshop...

Called Inspire Your Writing in Provence,  it's devoted to "exploring how this delicious corner of France can stir the senses and inspire the imagination with its light, its scents, its sights and sounds." The dates are June 24 to 29, 2018.

Richard tells me he designed it for anyone who loves to write...memoir, food writing, travel writing, personal essays or anything else...whether they're deep into a project or just beginning. "This is a chance for you to experience 'the magic' with like-minded people and really just write your heart out," he says.

The group will stay together at the charming hotel Clos de Buis in Bonnieux, one of the famously gorgeous hilltowns of the Luberon region. (I mention the hotel in my recent Luberon story here.) Mornings will be devoted to talks about craft and writing exercises. "And of course we’ll read about the region, about its storied history—its art, food and wine," Richard says. "And we’ll learn about the wild, lovely country nearby." Afternoons will be spent exploring Bonnieux and nearby villages, taking in scenery, history, culture, lavender and more. Most students will likely arrive early or stay on for additional travel.

Richard is currently living and teaching in New Orleans but he has twice spent a year in the South of France: first in a small village near Nîmes and then in Sanary-sur Mer on the Mediterranean coast. His stories about French food and culture have appeared in The New York Times, Saveur, Creative Nonfiction, French Review and Grand Tour. He has taught at MMW's  home base up in Maine-- and will teach there again this summer--but this will be his first workshop in Provence. 

Well-known cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins took Richard's workshop in Rockport last summer and loved it. "This is a wonderful opportunity," she says. "Richard is a fine, provocative, inspiring teacher." 

All the workshop details are on the MMW site here; please note the discount for early booking. If you have questions, Meg (mweston@mainemedia.edu) or Richard (richardgoodman711@gmail.com) will be happy to help. 

Hope to see you this summer in Provence!

Photos: (1) The workshop takes place in Bonnieuxthe highest perched village in the Luberon. Bonnieux’s steep upper streets are lined with 800-year-old buildings, most of  them built atop older structures and ancient caves; from the peak you get a spectacular view. The village has an upper and lower church, so folks who lived in the valley, back in the day, didn’t have to climb all the way up top to attend mass. This is the lower or "new" church, built in 1870. (2, 3)  Students will stay at Le Clos de Buis, a perfect little hotel with a super-warm vibeThe photos show breakfast and a guestroom. (4) The famous 86 steps leading up to the 12th-century "old" church in Bonnieux...and fantastic views. (5) The hotel has a large lovely garden and pool. (6) Looking north from Bonnieux: the mighty Mont Ventoux, “the Giant of Provence,” well known for many grueling stages of the annual Tour de France. (7) We've all see a million photos of lavender fields in Provence but this is one of my favorites; see the story behind it here.  The Luberon's lavender fields should be at their peak--or close--during the workshop dates. (8) In the nearby village of Menerbes, local rosés on display at Maison de la Truffe et du Vin. (9) The irresistible antique shop directly opposite the hotel: resistance is futile. (10) The ochre cliffs of the nearby village of Roussillon. (11) Richard and his students in Rockport this past summer; photo by Gussan Jalil.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Another Fine French Book Giveaway!


Patricia Sands is one of the most peripatetic and prolific people I know. She seems to flit effortlessly between her homes in Toronto (main home) and Florida (vacation home) and then, once or twice a year, she pops up (for at least two months and often through home exchange) in the South of France, where she leads super-popular women's tours in Provence and on the Côte d'Azur.  She also loves to attend book signings, readings, authors conferences and other literary events in the US, Canada and beyond.

Plus, she's the happy matriarch of a large, Toronto-area blended family that includes seven adult 'kids’ and their partners and seven grandchildren (known as the Adorables).

And somehow, Patricia is also able to write books...lots of books...popular books!  Her award-winning debut novel, The Bridge Club, came out in 2010. Her second novel, The Promise of Provence, was followed by two more novels set in Provence...forming the bestselling Love in Provence trilogy. Her fifth novel, Drawing Lessons, is out this month. 

But wait, there's more!  In addition to writing for various Francophile websites, Patricia publishes a blog, a monthly email newsletter and a large number of social media posts--with beautiful photos--promoting things she and her friends feel passionate about. Her generosity with her online time is one of the many, many things I admire about her. She's constantly helping her followers and friends (both real and virtual) promote their own projects, their events, their blogs, websites, books and more. Those of us lucky enough to have found ourselves in her orbit can put up a post and be relatively certain she'll like it, comment on it, share it and/or re-tweet it, often at lightning speed. 

So now you know why there's no way I wasn't going to jump in and help spread the word about Patricia's newest book! Plus, the novel is set in Arles and the Camargue, two of my favorite places in Provence.  Plus, Patricia has generously offered a few copies for me to give away to my readers. Plus, this lady loves France as much as anyone I know!

Drawing Lessons is a portrait of a woman named Arianna who's forced to create a new life at age 62. She arrives in the South of France for a two-week artists’ workshop "full of anticipation but burdened by guilt" because back home in Toronto, she's been living with the devastating diagnosis of her husband’s dementia and the heartbreaking decision she’s had to make. Encouraged by family to take time for herself, she travels to Arles to paint in the same fields of poppies and sunflowers that inspired Van Gogh. Gradually, she draws strength from the warm companionship and gentle wisdom of her fellow artists...and gives herself permission to embrace the life in front of her.

Sound good? Then on to the giveaway! Patricia is offering us two signed print copies (one for readers in North America and one for readers in Europe) and  two ebooks (to readers living anywhere).  To enter, simply leave a comment under "comments" below. Please be sure to leave your email address or we won't be able to reach you if you win; signing in with your Google or Blogger account is not enough. When it says "reply as"...a good choice is "open ID" (use your name) or ID/URL (use your name and your website). If you can't comment for whatever reason, just email me at provenceblog@aol.com and I'll see that you're entered anyway.

If you'd like to go ahead and order the book, you'll find it in all the usual places...and on Amazon here. You may also order it from any book store.

Meanwhile, you can learn all about Patricia's background, books, trips and other activities on her website here.   

Bonne Chance!

Monday, September 18, 2017

One Restaurant I Love: Le Relais du Castelet


In a renovated hunting lodge on a gorgeous property originally owned by his grandfather’s grandfather, chef Jean-Baptiste Bert has opened Le Relais du Castelet, welcoming the public for lunch and dinner on weekends...and private groups the rest of the week. He’s cooking from old family recipes, using serving pieces that have been in the family for years and working with a small group of friends and family which creates a festive, party-like mood. Rather than a restaurant, he calls it a "Table Privée."

Located just 7 km from Arles--between the village of Fontvieille and the Abbaye de Montmajour--the 50-hectare property is known as Le Castelet...and it has a remarkably rich history dating to prehistoric times.

Locals all know it as the site of the Hypogee (or Hypogeum) du Castelet, an overgrown stone trench dating to the Megalithic period. In the 1st century, limestone quarried here was used to build the famous amphitheatre in Arles. The property was mentioned in the stories of both Frederic Mistral and Alphonse Daudet, two of the area’s most-beloved authors. (Daudet’s famous windmill, from Letters from My Windmill, is just down the road in Fontvieille.)

In July of 1888, while living in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh found his way to Le Castelet and painted Coucher de Soleil à Montmajour here. A letter on the restaurant wall, from the curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, authenticates this fact while a print of the painting sits on the hearth, alongside other historic photos.

The fifth generation to grow up here (his son Marcel, aged 2, is the sixth), Jean-Baptiste left home at 16 and went off to Portugal to learn horse training. He came home and then left again, this time for food-and-wine jobs in London.  He returned to Provence in 2007 and settled in at the Bistro du Paradou, a well-known and wildly popular local restaurant, working in both the dining room and the kitchen.

Finally, Jean-Baptiste decided he wanted his own place and that his family land—with its rustic relais or hunting lodge at its center--would be the perfect setting. From what Jean-Baptiste says it was more like a shack than a lodge...a simple place where family, friends and neighbors hung out to eat and drink before and after hunting. "And it was really more dirty than rustic," he says with a laugh.

So he and his family completely re-did it in May 2016, using traditional Provencal materials and pretty furniture bought at local antique markets. They started hosting private functions last summer and expanded to more traditional dining this summer. A large open kitchen lets guests see all the action and perfumes the dining room with fantastic smells. Tables are indoors and out...the terrace is strung with pretty lights...friends pop in and out of the kitchen...kids run around...and the vibe is totally relaxed.

Meals are prix-fixe: 37€ at lunch (starter, main, dessert) and 40€ at dinner (starter, main, cheese, dessert).There aren't a lot of choices but the blackboard menu changes just about every day so you'll be eating what’s in season, what was best in the market that day and what Jean-Baptiste was most in the mood to cook!

Popular starters include crab soup, mussel soup with saffron, stuffed vegetables and traditional Provencal pistou, which you serve yourself from a lovely terrine on your table.

Main courses might be a rich daube (the beloved local bull stew) served with wild red rice, suckling pig, roast leg of lamb or a fish such as red mullet or salt-crusted sea bream. On special request Jean-Baptiste will make a bourride or a bouillabaisse, using his grandmere’s recipe.

Popular desserts include poached peaches with verbena syrup and almond biscuits, saffon pears with roasted hazelnuts and green tomato jam, chocolate mousse with walnuts, a simple apple crumble with vanilla ice cream and tarte tatin.

Wine and other drinks are extra; there’s an impressive cellar, a full bar and knowledgeable help to guide you.

Before or after your meal, you're welcome to wander the beautiful property, where you'll see 2000 or so olive trees, a large vegetable garden, horses...and all sorts of wildlife ranging from rabbits to game birds to wild boar.  

Want to hang out here a while?  You're in luck: there's a large vacation villa on the property that's available for weekly rental year round. Crafted from an 11th or 12th-century sheepfold, it was fully rebuilt and renovated in 1984. Today "La Bergerie" has three bedrooms, a huge dining room, an original fireplace, stone archways, a summer kitchen, a large pool, an outdoor living room and drop-dead views. For the rental info, click here.

For the time being, Le Relais has the delicious feel of an insiders' secret...that place that's sort of private but not really because they'll let you in if you know how to ask. There's no website and no Facebook page; it's not on Trip Advisor or La Fourchette...and a sign on the road (the D17) is easy to miss.  Still, the Berts know everyone and the word has spread and the dining room is full and event bookings are strong. So far they've hosted weddings, birthdays, business meetings, winemaker dinners, a truffle dinner and "lots of people who just wanted an excuse to share a moment with family and friends," Jean-Baptiste says.

Last fall, a Chicago chef friend of mine, Carrie Nahabedian, came to Provence with a group...and their tour guide, Sébastien Lopez, arranged a lunch party at Le Relais.  "Our afternoon was beyond stunning!" Carrie remembers "just so flawless and so Provence! Such idyllic surroundings...an amazing lunch in an incredibly memorable setting. We were overwhelmed with the French hospitality and the lusciousness of the food! I can still taste that crab bisque with croutons...I wish I were there right now..."

Le Relais du Castelet
Mas Castelet
13990 Fontvieille
France
Open Fri and Sat, for lunch and dinner, by reservation only.
+33 (0)9 80 40 74 81 or +33 (0)6 11 04 00 67
To see Le Relais on Instagram, click here.
For a map, click here.

Photos: (1) Welcome! Jean-Baptiste with his girlfriend Fanny Martin. Fanny's grandfather founded the well-known Provencal food company Jean Martin in 1920...today Fanny runs the family's large boutique in Maussane. The couple have an adorable son name Marcel, aged two. (2) This is the sign you need to look for when coming from either direction on the D17. (3) Whether you eat inside by the crackling fire in winter...or outside on the terrace with the chirping cigales in summer...the atmosphere is laid-back, super friendly and totally Provencal. (4) The daily blackboard dinner menu.  (5, 6) The sunset I saw when I last went for dinner...and the sunset Van Gogh painted here in 1888. In his painting, "Coucher de Soleil à Montmajour" you can see the famous Abbaye de Montmajour at the back left. (7) The Relais just after renovation was finished last year. (8) The kitchen door is always open. (9) Slicing roast lamb. (10) Mussel soup with saffron. (11) Cote de Boeuf ready for the grill. (12) Party's over for these two little piggies...but it's just about to begin in the dining room. (13) Friends clowning around at dinner. (14) Sea bream in a salt crust. (15) Sardines on Camargue rice with chorizo and pata negra.(16) Jean-Baptiste loves to serve artichokes as either a starter or a side. (17) Guests serve themselves from a generous cheese platter plunked onto the table, with all the acoutrements. (18) All desserts are homemade, such as this apricot and almond tart. (19) As the song says, these are a few of his favorite things! Jean-Baptiste serves a small selection of top-quality local labels, many of them made by friends. (20) Can't decide what to drink? Smiling help is at hand, from Jean-Baptiste's cousin Julien.  (21) The terrace set for a party; Le Relais can handle 45 seated inside and 200 outside. (22, 23) Two shots from the Bergerie, the rental villa on the property.  (24) The area is heavily agricultural, very beautiful and very rich in history. The Abbaye is a major draw, as is the nearby Aqueduct de Barbegal, where flour was milled in the 1st century. Arles, with its world-class collection of Roman monuments, is just 7 km away; stone for the Roman amphitheater there was quarried here on the Bert family land. 

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