The afternoon light dappled in gold flecks, filters through the newly-green leaves on the trees lining the the road known as 'la petite route de Maillanne' heading back into Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. We’re parked on the verge and I hop out to capture that image that has inspired so many painters over the years. The spring mistral winds have abated for the moment. This is the town that Van Gogh spent time convalescing in and in spite of his great difficulties, produced an estimated 150 paintings, including The Starry Night. We spend a few days with Philippe Goninet, a local resident and guide and the charms of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence unfold in the smart shops and patisseries, the tree-shaded restaurants, the pizza truck in the town square, the wineries and nearby farms and in the many personalities we encounter.
Moulin du Calanquet is the only mill pressing olive oil in the town and is run by a gutsy brother-sister duo Gilles and Anne Brun, who are the fifth generation hailing from a line of farmers. Despite the 40 year lag in olive oil production due to fires that destroyed the trees, they have started from scratch, planting traditional Alpilles olive varietals such as Grossane, Picholine, Aglandau, Salonenque and the hardy Verdale des Bouches du Rhône. We visit the mill and learn about production, sampling the oils, pistou and jam. Modern metal bottles keep the oils fresh and are much lighter to transport back home.
A sculptural garden and private cooking school
At first glance the tribal masks and hanging sculptures erected within an enormous rose garden confuse the senses. The miniature Noah's arc and phallic symbolism do not spell ‘sweet Provençal garden’. In steps Philippe Michelot, an artist and philosopher, with unruly locks, a swarthy build and a tremendous laugh. He shows us around the garden of Mas des figues. The farm houses a beautifully furnished gîte or guesthouse and private coking lessons for as little as two people can be arranged. Philippe and his wife Anne Marie take participants into the garden to pick produce for the lesson. The marinated olives we try from a large barrel have been made by Philippe in the old fashioned way - by leaving them to wash in the rain for weeks before salting and spicing. They are truly sublime.
Christian Peyre is the chef and owner of the 1 star michelin La Maison Domaine de Bournissac, which is also a rustic but charming hotel tucked less than10 minutes outside Saint-Rémy. The set menus at the restaurant, with its smart farm-style dining room and outdoor terrace, are terrific value. We happened to arrive on Friday which is the day bouillabaisse is served. The portions are generous and food is excellent. Wine is included in the bill.
Back in town we visit Le Petit duc, a shop that makes and sells a range of traditional sweets and French biscuits dating through the centuries. We make a huge batch of traditional almond nougat with young pâtissier Aurelien who keeps the samples of sweets and treats in constant flow. Marie who is front of house feels their calisson rivals the best.
Sweets for my honey
The French are renowned for their pastries and chocolates and I am always hunting down local chocolatiers as I pit them against each other in my mind, and to buy good quality bars to enjoy at home. Joel Durand does an outstanding job. His truffles contain pepper and unusual flavour combinations. The choc lollipops and small boxes of chocolate thins make fun gifts. The packaging is minimalist and very chic. You can find a few stores in France and Germany.
The large variety of confiture, biscuits and honey at la Roumaniere in nearby Robin are made under direction of a group supporting and empowering disabled people in the community and you’re able to watch how they are made at the small factory. The jams come in wonderful flavours, not just plain old strawberry or apricot. The dinky jar sizes means you can bring one for everyone who likes jam on toast at home.
He may not have the a spot on the swanky main street, but Olivier Sauvageau, a seasoned pâtissier runs his mini lab and soon to be private baking class, Olivier Le Pâtissier with great flair. He is very popular and his creations would please the Queen of Hearts from Alice of Wonderland, one feels. Off-beat and testing the norms of Parisian symmetry in baked goods. We taste freshly baked meringues, mille-feuille with new-season strawberries and he kindly sells me a bag of Cacao Barry chocolate chips. You will be greeted by a sugar coated bust and a macron the size of two grown men’s heads when you enter.
There are various shops and supermarkets to pick ingredients from in Saint-Rémy and Entre Sel et Terres is one of the best - it’s small, beautifully set-up and contains a selection of nuts, honeys, legumes, salts, organic and health ingredients. If you enjoy honey, you can do a lovely tasting here and take some home. Ask for the Provençal almonds - they’re not always easy to find.
Two wineries I highly recommend, that are vastly different from each other but merit a visit: The cellar at Chateau Romanin is carved into the Alpilles Mountain and is cathedral-like in it’s appearance. There is little chance you won’t like the wines, but if anything the architectural splendour of the place makes it quite special. Tastings here are slick and professional. At Domaine Milan, Henri Milan, a former lawyer has taken over the family business and his tiny front office tasting room is full of visitors; his laughter bouncing through the room. He is charismatic and entertaining and produces outstanding wines in a very small space. You’re guaranteed a warm welcome and will walk away with bottles with his bright pink label as well as good memories.
Do make time to visit the nearby towns of Roussillon, Gordes and Arles . There are a large number of restaurants and bistros in the town so you are not without choice.