Provence is another country—beautiful, sensuous, mythic, dreamed of, feverishly desired. Provence is also a cliché, an all-too-often-hollow catchphrase employed to sell, and lend the herbal scent of authenticity to, everything from flowerpots to fabrics to contrived and inharmonious culinary creations that would have about as much resonance for the average citizen of the region as sushi or shoofly pie.
The native cooking of Provence, in fact, has almost nothing to do with the supposedly "Mediterranean" dishes so frequently given a spuriously Provençal provenance on American (and, for that matter, French) restaurant menus these days. Traditional Provençal cuisine is modest, rustic, not inconsiderably repetitious—a cuisine of peasant subterfuge, based on the ingenious extension of meager resources, and on things dried and brined and oil-packed, both for preservation and to intensify their flavors so that a little goes a long way. It is not, in other words, the grilled, herb-sprinkled beach food of popular conception; it's solid, hearty, inland stuff, designed as sustenance for what Frédéric Mistral, the great poet of Provence, once called "a cold country with a hot sun".
Yet out of Provence, a region whose own cuisine is so dramatically less varied and refined than that of eminently gastronomic Burgundy or gastronomically extravagant Alsace, has come some of the best and most sophisticated French cooking of the modern era—perhaps precisely because there was not a highly evolved culinary tradition already in place. The legendary Escoffier, who was not only a great chef himself but who both codified and revolutionized classical French cuisine, was born in Provence and got his professional start there. It was in Provence that contemporary culinary pioneers like Roger Vergé, Louis Outhier, and Jo Rostang thrived—and in Provence (and on its immediate borders) that the now-international Relais & Châteaux group of premium restaurants and inns was founded. Today, with such noted chefs as Alain Ducasse in Monaco and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Jacques Maximin in Venice, Jacques Chibois in Grasse, Alain Ryon in Cuers, Reine Sammut in Lourmarin, Christian Morisset in Juan-les-Pins, and Franck Cerutti in Monaco and Nice, among others, there are nearly 50 Michelin stars between the Rhône and the Var, from Montélimar south to the Mediterranean—and half a dozen more in the extended Provence between the Var and the Italian border.
"Whether it is because of the mild climate of this land of flowers and fragrance or because of the origins of her people—Celtic, Greek, Latin, with a touch of Arabian—I cannot say," wrote French food writer Austin de Croze nearly 70 years ago, "but Provence is, first of all, a land of imagination." We've found this to be true time and again as we've visited the restaurants of Provence, famous and less so, in recent years—and we've discovered that it's not only the region's celebrity cuisiniers who are fashioning contemporary masterpieces from local clay. Imagination, in fact, is rampant.
Three lesser-known chefs have particularly impressed us—two who have only recently come into their own and a third who has been cooking wonderful food for two decades in undeserved semiobscurity. The three are very different from one another in style, but all produce updated Provençal cooking that is not only imaginative but also intelligently conceived—and unfailingly delicious. It is some of the best new food being crafted today not just in Provence but in all of France.
Eight or nine miles southeast of Avignon, at the western end of Provence, on an old estate that was once the headquarters of a sect of schismatic Catholics from the Atlantic side of France, stands the 42-year-old Auberge de Noves—a stone building giving onto a paradisaical terrace overlooking woods and distant wooded hills, shaded by spreading plane trees, and framed by a wonderment of flowers. When Robert and Suzanne Lalleman happened upon the place in 1954, recalls their son André, "It was in a desperate state." At the time, the Lallemans were the proprietors of La Petite Auberge, a well-regarded restaurant in nearby Sauveterre, but were looking for a new location where they could add guest accommodations to the dining room. They thought this estate had possibilities. "My parents started renovating slowly," says André—today a suave, professionally charming gentleman with a thick white mustache and a ready smile. "And we're not quite finished yet," he jokes.
André took over management of the place from his parents "in 1969 officiously and in 1972 officially", and now runs it with his wife, Jacqueline. Their own son, another Robert, is now in charge of the kitchen, and the food is confident, sophisticated, and unmistakably Provençal. Robert, a good-looking, earnest, rangy young man apprenticed in the Auberge kitchen as a teenager, but left after two years—"Because," he says, "like every other young man, I didn't get along very well with my father." He went on to work at a succession of top restaurants—among them Hiély-Lucullus in nearby Avignon, L'Escale in Carry-le-Rouet, and a trio of three-star gastronomic temples, Alain Chapel, Troisgros, and Pic—returning home in the early '90s. Today, says his father, "We cope not too badly. I think Robert realizes now that people come back to a place like this not only for the quality of the food or rooms but for the memories."
Robert echoes the sentiment. "People want everything—food, service, and accueil [a term which might be translated here as "the way in which one is welcomed and made to feel at home"]—to be on the same level. I'm not sure that just what's on the plate is sufficient." Nevertheless, just what's on the plate here is very good indeed. Robert's menu includes the luxury dishes that a hotel-restaurant of this caliber probably has to have—the smoked salmon, foie gras, and lobster—but it is otherwise rich with the flavors of the region, combined in resourceful ways.
André marks certain things on the menu as "musts"—"a queer idea of mine," he explains, "to emphasize that they are Robert's dishes, a joking way to say I want people to try them." One brilliant appetizer, which André has dubbed a "Must des Must", is his son's soufflé d'ail doux et pignons de pins sur des escargots "petits gris de Provence". This translates to an ethereally light custard of young, sweet garlic on a crust of paper-thin galette—like a dessert tuile—studded with pine nuts, on a bed of exquisite little Provençal snails fricasséed with shallots and spinach. "Some dishes come to you 'like that', the first time," says Robert, "but I worked on this for a long time." Other vivid creations of his include various kinds of raw fish marinated with orange juice and vinegar—a sort of Provençal seviche; asparagus grown near the Auberge, served with a pleasantly acidic sabayon of olive oil, reduced vinegar, and white wine; turbot with half-dried tomatoes; and a perfect roast chicken for two, generously flavored with garlic and cumin.
Then there's the extraordinary canard en croûte d'herbes et de sel, coriandre, et miel d'acacia. Robert lightly roasts a succulent Challans duck, then lets it rest overnight. The next day, he seals it in a crust of salt pastry with cilantro, rosemary, thyme, and pepper, and bakes it until the breast is done. This he then carves into long, thin aiguillettes and moistens with a reduction of white wine with shallots, duck juices, and acacia honey, which gives the duck an elusively exotic savor. (One can imagine a dish like this being created for some medieval Provençal count as a way of showing off novel ingredients.) The duck legs are then returned to the kitchen, roasted again to crispness, and presented with a small salad—sheer luxury.
"All the things I learned in other restaurants," says Robert, "I transformed when I came back here, to use local products and develop stronger flavors. When people eat in Provence, they expect strong flavors. This is not Paris or Burgundy."