Two Tastes of Provence

In tiny Lourmarin, dueling restaurants earn raves

The assignment was irresistible: travel to Provence and dine well. Well, that's not as straightforward as it sounds. In the decade since Peter Mayle penned A Year in Provence, tour buses, gridlock, and gripes about bad cooking have beset the region. But I devised a simple strategy: follow Mayle's footsteps. The British author, who four years ago fled Provence for New York's Hamptons, has returned, this time settling in the picture-perfect, 16th century village of Lourmarin.

So I set off for this village of 1,000, half an hour north of Aix-en-Provence, to see if I could find the Provence evoked by Mayle's paean to sun and olive oil. Lourmarin, which rests in a valley amid fields of cypress, sunflowers, and rosemary, recently has gone upscale. It now boasts art galleries, antique shops, and yes, a slew of restaurants, two of which are genuine gems.

RIVAL CHEFS. Auberge La Feniere, which overlooks vineyards, is run by 47-year-old Reine Sammut. She serves traditional Provencale fare, such as braised beef stew en daube, which she learned to prepare at the elbow of her mother-in-law. The other, Le Moulin de Lourmarin, sits in the shadow of a chateau. It showcases the avant-garde creations of 32-year-old Edouard Loubet, who specializes in using exotic spices and wild herbs. But the two have one thing in common: Guidebooks rank both among France's top 100 restaurants. Not surprisingly, a lively rivalry worthy of a chapter by Mayle exists between the two talented chefs. For example, some merchants that supply one chef can't do business with the other. The winner in all this? The hungry visitor.

My first meal was at Auberge. It began simply, with an appetizer of artfully arranged marinated sardines and peppers, followed by a mixed leaf salad from Auberge's garden. The fish, cod, was prepared like an apple crumble, only made with spinach, fresh parmesan cheese, and olive oil. The main course was a specialty of Provence called pieds et pacquets: lamb feet and tripe stuffed in meat squares simmered in white wine and tomatoes. To help all this along, Auberge's 7,000-bottle cellar supplied a hearty red from Chateau La Canorgue. Dinner stretched for five hours, through a rosemary sherbet interlude to a dessert of cheese and strawberries in a sabayon sauce. Somehow, the meal felt like a great family fete cooked by a dear grandma.

The next night, I tried out Moulin, whose cloister-like dining room is a series of vaulted alcoves. But while its architecture is ancienne, its cuisine is emphatically nouvelle. My meal was a symphony of smells and tastes, ranging from heavenly to medicinal, all unexpectedly satisfying. I started with a salad of lightly fried, crunchy seaweed that married perfectly with salty eel. Lentil soup followed, perfumed with 15 spices such as rosemary, thyme, and others picked in the fields above Lourmarin. The original combinations continued: asparagus with sea-urchin soup, roasted perch infused with sage and orange zest, and smoked rack of lamb paired with wild lemon thyme. Even the ice creams were based on herbs such as cardamom flowers, eucalyptus, and rue, a woody herb. And the herbal tea that finished the meal--Loubet refuses to reveal its ingredients--seemed suffused with the heavily scented fields outside.

As for Lourmarin's other restaurants, none I tried came close to the two, and a meal at the highly rated L'Antiquaire was disappointing. Anyhow, my last day in the village was market day. The stands groaned under heaps of fresh vegetables and fruits, herbal vinegars, and fresh-pressed olive oil. I bought some olives, a baguette, pate, and a bottle of red wine. It was sunny, but the giant trees in the chateau's park offered cover. After my simple meal, I lay back and relaxed. Peter Mayle's Provence was as delightful--and delicious--as he made it out to be.

By William Echikson

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