Mas de l’Olivette and Bagñol Sur Cèze

First, let me get the bad news out of the way:  the French may be great at many things, but they cannot make a good cup of coffee to save their lives. We tried a variety of coffee — some were even *recommended* to us by the locals — but all tasted like freeze-dried. Our friend Martin would call it our “morning cup of disappointment”. There was no Peet’s, not even a Starbucks. If you are a coffee addict, you must bring your own.

OK, well now that that’s out of the way….

We flew Air France, regular normal economy class. They boasted serving free champagne on the flight, but by the time the attendants got to our row all the champagne was gone. “You know the French” was what they told us.  Fine, we’ll just have a bottle of red then.  In what seemed like a great idea at the time, Michelle had pre-ordered us gluten-free meals. It meant that we got our meals before everybody else, so it made us feel like we’re in business class, but it also meant that the food was a little, shall we say, flavor-free. (Gluten-free = flavor-free). She plans on ordering Hindi vegetarian next time we travel.

I can never sleep on planes. We dozed off a few times, but I ended up watching three movies during the first leg (9 hours or so). Michelle spent most of her awake moments with her new toy, the Kindle. We took the “No Jet Lag” homeopathic pills, which worked great on our Spain trip but didn’t seem to work at all this time around. We switched planes in Paris and arrived in Marseilles some 12 hours later, very very very jet lagged. Then we had to figure out the train system because we had to get from Marseilles to Avignon. Apparently our regular credit cards don’t work in France unless it has a “chip” in it. Needless to say, we were so happy to see Martin, Tom and Mary Anne at the train station. My high school French still had not kicked in yet; fortunately most folks in the aviation industry spoke some English.

Martin and Tom had rented Mas de l’Olivette from the McSpaddens (http://olivette.yolasite.com/), and it was all the rustic charm it claimed to be. Martin and Tom stayed in the gîte (the 150 year old barn) and we stayed in the main house. The kitchen and pantry were well stocked and our first night there, albeit jet lagged, was most wonderful. Tom prepared an herb-crusted lamb roast for our first meal in France, and it was the most delicious and succulent thing I had ever tasted. I hate lamb. I can honestly say that I will never eat lamb again, unless it was Tom’s.

Bagñol Sur Cèze is a very cute little town with around 18,000 inhabitants.  The town is known for its old Roman ruins and the Marcoule nuclear power plant (!). We had lunch the next day in the town square at the only restaurant open because it was right around 2:00 p.m.  The French keeps very sensible working hours:  9:00 a.m. to noon, and 2:00 to 6:00 p.m.  We Americans should learn from them.

Market Day in Bagñol Sur Cèze was simply amazing! The entire town square and all the surrounding streets leading to the square were filled with vendors and merchants of all sorts and types. We bought olives and cheeses and sausages and breads and honey and cashews and herbs and vegetables. I loved the energy. I loved the people. Everybody was so warm and friendly. And they actually talk with each other, like real conversations, because nobody was in a hurry to get anywhere. It was Market Day; it was to be savored and enjoyed.  

Bagñol Sur Cèze is about 20 minutes away from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a region which is world-renowned for its wine. It is said that some 13 varieties of grapes are grown in this region, but the unique (to me) aspect is that the vineyards all use these giant stones (“galets”), supposedly infusing minerals into the soil substrate to give it a very distinct flavor. We spent a very pleasant afternoon in the town and arrived home late in the evening armed with several (ok, many) bottles.

One of the most perplexing thing about France is the domestic water system. We had two temperatures: boiling and cold. Michelle made the mistake of doing laundry and 1) shrank all our shrinkable (i.e., cotton) clothes, and 2) turned everything pink because she washed my red shorts in boiling water. To add insult to injury, nobody could figure out the washing machine. Our clothes came out dripping wet because somebody had turned the spin cycle off. A typical laundry session took over 8 hours!

Probably the highlight of our trip was the visit to Bandol — a two-hour drive from Bagñol Sur Cèze. Bandol is a coastal town overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We had a late lunch at a cute little village before heading out to find Domaine Tempier, owned by the Peyraud family.  Domaine Tempier (as well as the rest of the Bandol region) is well-known for its rosé and red wines. But what was especially sweet on this particular visit was that we got to meet the 93-year-old “Lulu”.  Lulu was the original inspiration for Alice Waters (Chez Panisse fame) and the chefs of her generation, who brought “organic”, “fresh”, “seasonal”, and “local” back to the culinary vocabulary of our time.  Here’s one of her most famous recipes — Lulu’s bouillabase — along with a few pictures of her garden and kitchen:  http://www.gourmetvoyageurs.com/other-pages/recipes/bouillabaisse-lulu.html.  Martin had written to the Domaine ahead of time, alerting them to our arrival and of our admiration of Lulu, and voilà, there she was all dolled up and sweet and feisty! We all had tears in our eyes. To round off the day, Kermit Lynch  showed up during our tasting! I can honestly say that we rubbed elbows with the famous in Europe. 🙂

We cooked sumptuous meals every night, with the only exception our last night eating out at Paul Itier. What a delightful French country dining experience that was! We all had something different — Michelle and I had the seafood course — and were busting at the seams by the time we left that night. Our hostess (owner) was Jackie, who has an obsession with owls (yes, owl figurines were everywhere), but was the most gracious hostess ever. It was an eight-course meal, ending with (Jackie insisted) fig tart! This was one of the most memorable experiences of our visit to France, and further reinforced the notion that French folks from the Provence region are warm and friendly and gracious – pretty darn cool afterall.

I have been describing our visit to France as:  “If someone were to blindfold you and put you on a plane and drop you off in this lovely countryside and you didn’t hear anybody speak a word of French, it would seem as if you were dropped off in the middle of Napa or Sonoma or Marin”. But our trip was spectacular, not because of the sights and scenes — not even because of the food and wine, but because of the people and the experiences they gave us.  And we thank Martin and Tom for making this trip a reality. We really had a wonderful time.

For more pictures, please visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/lounge_lassie/

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