A Dash for the Sun
Posted: 1st October 2020
In the middle of September I made a dash for Provence for a last look at the sun. Mainland Europe was and remains blighted by COVID. A half empty Eurostar took us to the Gare du Nord, then a packed regional express train to the Gare de Lyon. As I shuffled to make space I noted that a fair number of French people are as unaware as Britons that their noses are connected to their respiratory systems, although many more obey the rules. We stopped at the usual place for a beer and a sandwich, then took the TGV the rest of the way.
Again the train was not full, but the people fidgeted, unhappy with the obligation to wear masks. Noses came out, then when the inspectors had made their rounds some coverings were discretely discarded. One plump woman had thought up a wizard wheeze: if she ate she was not required to mask up. She had invested in a multi-pack of Maltesers and popped them all the way to Avignon.
For once the car rental was acquitted in a trice and thirty minutes later we were in the Ventoux Valley on our way to the Domaine des Anges. It was all very different: there was no haunch of Boris in the freezer, but the boar had been round alright and had quite methodically churned up the patch of lawn outside the door. Our host was on hand with cool champagne and a cold collation, but we were just four at table: a far cry from the noisy September meetings of the past. Our convives were tucked up behind bolted doors in Ireland and Portugal, and were much missed.
The next morning I went out to look for figs. There were plenty of little green ones on the tree by the cave. Some had fallen on the table below and dried in the sun. In the vineyard above there were delicious small black figs too. Over near the gardens that look out towards the ‘Giant’ (Mount Ventoux) a crew was making a film about climate change and no one was allowed to talk above a whisper. There were chores to be acquitted in Mazan as the barometer rose to 37C. We stopped for a beer at the bottom of the hill and used the opportunity to book La Bergerie for dinner that night. I had the pool all to myself that afternoon. It was almost too hot in the sun.
Later I had a chat with Florent Chave the winemaker. Almost all the grapes were in. It was another wonderful vintage, although the estate still had the 2018 reds to dispose of, not to mention the 2019 whites and rosés. The all-Grenache Séraphin had just won a Gold at the World Wine Awards, which was a consolation.
After an aperitif in the sun, we went down to the restaurant. La Bergerie struck just the right tone: the waitresses were fast, helpful and moderately saucy. The food was unfussy, plentiful and good: a vol-au-vent filled with snails accompanied by a little salad, a ‘pluma’ of Iberian pork (cut from near the neck) with a mustard sauce and a very garlicky portion of gratin dauphinois and finally a sundae called ‘Mount Ventoux’ (think of a Mont Blanc with ice cream replacing the meringue) all for €30. The ‘pluma’ was new to me, but I quickly realised I had made the right choice.
It was a short break and indulgently lazy. I spent hours in the sun reading Buddenbrooks while the others anatomised a lame car. The next day we went to Mazan to get food before it got too hot and when that happened I repaired to the pool. I wasn’t quite alone this time, as I encountered a baby adder in the grass, stretched out somewhere between the water and my shoes. I thought it was dead at first as it didn’t move, but when I returned it had squeezed its universe into a ball. I began to suspect that his mother might be lurking somewhere, which rather mitigated the pleasure of swimming.
Restaurant Le Grillon-Bédouin
That night we ate in. We bought some local Ventoux pork with a thick strip of white fat on the chops that disappeared in the grilling. I marinated them in wine and cooked them with a medley of tomatoes, garlic and peppers, sautéed some potatoes and served the dish with spinach and some buttered ceps I’d chanced upon in the shop.
The equinoctial storm was brewing up on Saturday. There was a wind and an occasional sprinkling of rain followed by intense heat. We went to the market in Pernes for the usual staples. The soap woman knows us now, and gives us presents of sachets of lavender; then there is Isa the beekeeper and her lovely honey. I stocked up on purple garlic bulbs and some less perishable bread for home as I knew we would have run out. The spice man wasn’t there, a pity because I normally buy his cinq épices. Experience has taught me never to transport squashy things like tomatoes. Anything can happen on the way home.
We went to Le Grillon in Bédouin that night. Bédouin is a village transformed by upmarket cyclists who huff and puff up Mount Ventoux by day and carouse by night. I have never seen the place so busy in September. It is bursting with new restaurants. Le Grillon is one of these. I hadn’t noticed it before but it was full to bursting with mostly male parties of cyclists. Next to us was a group of eight Australians telling yarns about those last hundred metres and the challenge to reach the summit.
“Compared to La Bergerie, Le Grillon is fussy and chichi. I had a nice tartare of scallops on a bed of tomatoes and chorizo but the presentation involved a lot of Jackson Pollock-style slashing and splashing. This was followed by a small piece of grilled bull meat, with a couple of rather tweely presented vegetable dishes and a wire basket containing perhaps a dozen chips. I finished with some little pancakes with rum and vanilla ice. The rum was in a little plastic phial, so you could squeeze it out yourself. Again in contrast to La Bergerie, the service was cold and slow.”
On the way back to Domaine there was a dramatic electrical storm centring on the Rhone north of Orange. At about four o’clock on Sunday morning the heavens opened accompanied by much crashing and banging.
“It is not as difficult to leave when the weather is bad, but the sun came out as we passed Lyon in our half-empty train. It was warm and bright in Paris. We had time to kill and looked for a bar for a café crème near the Gare du Nord. There was an altercation in the street when the police tried to discipline two young men for refusing to wear masks. The waiting room in the Gare du Nord, usually so packed, was largely empty. The Eurostar leg proceeded without a hitch. I returned grateful for the sun on my back, but delivering myself up to two weeks of soul-destroying house arrest.”