Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Pleasures of Provence

Southern France toasts "the art of living" with a network of themed trails

Years ago, I began my first journey through Provence with a visit to the tourist office in Avignon. I had come for the flavours du region, I announced in my rattletrap French, direct me to your temples of tomatoes and olive oil, garlic and herbs. "For zat," the girl at the desk advised me unsmilingly, "you must go to zee pizzeria."

If the gastronomic traditions of Provence have been dangerously close to obsolescence, they were a metaphor for all the traditional arts diminishing in this sunlit corner of France. Now the French have decided to buck the trend with a trend: Broadsiding cost-efficient, mass-produced anonymity with a spirited back to the future. Presented to the French-speaking world earlier last year and recently launched in English is an elaborate network of artistic trails not unlike wine routes. Say bonjour to the Routes des arts de la maison. The literal translation may be arts of the home, but the French prefer the art of living, and damned if it's going to be bypassed in the rush to the Millennium.

These byways are smartly orchestrated to themes such as la terre (earth), le fer (metal) and les etoffes (fabrics). They encompass visits to factories, studios, workshops, shops, farms, fairs, castles, restaurants and museums. They call for personal encounters with stonemasons, carvers, weavers, potters, ceramists, tilemakers, ironworkers, sculptors, artists, antiquers and restaurateurs -- all at your own pace and level of interest. Unabashed foodies, my wife and I focused on those relating to the most meaningful part of any house: the table and all that goes with it. Along the way, we found time for food, too. Wonder how that happened?

La terre dazzles the eye at the ochre quarries of Roussillon, east of Avignon in the Vaucluse region. They represent the world's largest vein of that sunny pigment which articulates the Mediterranean to the eye and prompts sighs of pleasure from photographers, artists, architects and interior designers. Naturally yellow, its colour deepens when baked to a spectrum from golden-brown to burnt umber. A brick of ochre has the sensuality of silk.

Roussillon is built of ochre, an orange town, a Technicolour town. Nearby are the ochre cliffs and canyons whose brilliant hues captivate in the same way as the Grand Canyon or the pink striations of ancient Petra. A walking trail delivers marvellous views, especially in the late afternoon. Here a splash of sunlight forges a crimson canyon, there a shadow flatters a swatch of gold and purple capped with pines. Ahhh, the perfect scheme for the dining room.

CERAMIC DREAM
In the Var region near Draguignan, la terre manifested itself at the workshop and emporium of Alain Vagh, one of the most celebrated ceramists in France. A spin through Vagh's world is as fanciful as a journey to Oz, with its decidedly exotic tubs and showers and such unlikely objects as bicycles and refrigerators plastered in ceramic tiles. Vagh's work is no stranger to Torontonians. "Centre du Monde II," the flamboyant centrepiece for the Movenpick Palavrion restaurant, is his contribution to Canadian culture.

At Cogolin, not far from St. Tropez, we pursued le fer and dropped in on master ironworker Christian Hoogewys. Hoogewys goes mystical, conjuring up extraterrestrial forces when he speaks of iron, but there is no arguing his determination to revive a disappearing art. Check out the playful kitchen chairs and cupboards, the wonkily Baroque wine holders and the whimsical trash bins commissioned for the streets of St. Tropez.

Les etoffes transported us to the Museum of Traditional Arts in Avignon. A small museum in a historic building, it displays an eclectic array of yesterday's arts: silk-and-lace costumes worn by the poor during festive occasions. An Arlisienne costume as ritualistic as a Japanese kimono. Heavy glass jars for storing olive oil and truffles. A hand-carved, 18th-century salt box, designed to hang from the wall.

In St. Tropez, our quest took us to the Saturday morning market on the Place des Lies. This is a glorious market in which the arts of Provence flourish in vast bolts of fabric in blue-and-yellow Provence patterns, tables laid out with ceramics, cavernous salad bowls carved from olive wood and braids of plump red garlics.

But the routes des etoffes had brought us specifically to a modest stall opposite the Credit Agricole. Here one finds Dominique Leroux, the country's foremost expert on Provence quilts and the author of Le Boutis, the definitive book on the subject. Ms. Leroux cheerfully explains the art and craft of quilt-making, pointing to an amazingly fine-stitched patterned engagement quilt presented to the bride a few hours before her marriage. Many of her quilts are antiques, such as the 60,000-franc ($15,000 Canadian) item stitched in 1870, about the time the Prussians laid siege to Paris and brought the Second Empire to its knees.

A MEAL FIT FOR A POPE
Now turning to the assembly of elements at the table, we got off to a fine start at the Hôtel de la Mirande, a 14th-century mansion next to the Popes' Palace in Avignon. When the owner, a cardinal, entertained his uncle the Pope Clement V in this house, dinner had consisted of a mere nine courses of three dishes each for a total 27 courses. There is no record of any Avignon popes starving to death.

The reincarnated art of living at Mirande takes the form of cooking classes held in the 1850s kitchen. The visitor can sign up for an individual class or a series of four. They take place in French, with English translations from a hotel staffer. On this occasion, the chef was Christian Etienne, proprietor of Etienne, one of the top restaurants in Avignon, and the subject was Provence vegetarian.

We were a group of eight, starting with a table heaped with garlic, tomatoes, onions, artichokes and asparagus the size of plane trees. The chef, equally amusing and amused, conducted the preparation down to the scooping out of whole artichoke hearts with a melon-baller. Butter and eggs hung around thumbing their noses at cholesterol-obsessed North Americans. Sizzling pans tickled the eardrums and the kitchen filled up with tantalizing aromas.

 

At last, wine was poured and we set about consuming our labours. Seasonal vegetables emerged as an Impressionist meadow of colours, a burst of garden flavours Canadians recognize from our short, sweet summers. Artichokes swam in a low tide of olive oil, lardons, mushrooms, onions, thyme and basil; if the calorie count was stratospheric so were the flavours. A salad of crisp greens dressed in olive oil was the base for melting goat cheese wrapped in bacon and napped with tapenade, that pungent paste of black olives, garlic, capers and anchovies. Welcome to Provence.

We arrived in St. Tropez in the off-season, before the hordes and the craziness, and it was lovely. The sea was Kodachrome blue. The streets were ochre and umbra. Local artists proffered masterpieces of naked, pouting women on faux black velvet. In the harbour, the floating monster houses of English millionaires failed to blot out the sun. It was easy to see why Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Brigitte Bardot and Elton John had houses here. And what were we doing, returning to a realm where you wake up to frosted window panes and skies the colour of dirty sheets?

We overnighted at the Hôtel Bellevue, a comfortable property whose menu understated its pleasures. One lunch, we sat among the smooching French on the sun-dappled terrace. We ate green salads festooned with goat cheese, walnuts and lardons. Fresh sole was perfectly grilled and sprinkled with fennel seed and sel de Guerande, the wildly fashionable (and addictive) sea salt crystals from Brittany. We drank chilled Provence ros, the wine of choice through most of the French south. Harmony prevailed in the galaxy.

A SLICE OF HEAVEN
In all these restaurants, the sense of Provence, the sum of its years and arts, was present in some measure, but never did everything come together so perfectly as in the Vaucluse village of Lourmarin. Lourmarin is one of a few thousand candidates vying for the prettiest-village-in-France sticker. Its jewel is Le Moulin de Lourmarin.

The 18th-century olive oil mill was purchased five years ago by 22-year-old Edouard Loubet, who comes from a family of hoteliers and had trained in Canada at the Château Frontenac. Loubet transformed the mill into a hotel and restaurant, installed himself in the kitchen and promptly became the youngest chef in history to garner a Michelin star.

Loubet, now 27, can cook -- give me a few moments to get to this -- but he can also design and decorate, and his hotel may be the most stylish in Provence. You descend from a copper-ceilinged bar to the ochre hues of the vaulted restaurant. A floor-to-ceiling, half-moon-shaped window peers into a terrace and garden. Stonework, ironwork, ceramics and fabrics give the room instant identity. Blue and gold square plates frame the chef's free-flowing art. There are only 13 tables, all of them lucky.

Little touches tell big stories: Loubet's stemware, Les Impitoyables, are world-famous as the royalty of professional tasters' glasses, hand-tooled to capture and showcase the finest elements of the wine. Every course comes with a sauce spoon, and every spoon is employed to a chorus of oohs and aahs.

In the course of a single meal, Loubet, with no fanfare, slyly plies you with the Big Three of gastronomie: caviar, foie gras and truffles. On our big night, we opted for Loubet's tasting menu, a tour of the kitchen in one sitting. His opening salvo was firm little escargots garnished with a bouquet of herbs and edible flowers in a herbal froth. The latter were so flavourful, we almost left the little gastropods high and dry. The second appetizer was boudin of eel, a mouthwateringly delicate seafood sausage, proof that Loubet has the jump on chefs just hitting their stride at twice his age.

Loubet may not know when to quit, but you don't want him to. Next was a duet of fresh foie gras and terrine of foie gras, sided with his signature green tomato jam, berries and a sprinkling of the aforementioned sel de Guerande. Delirium. This was enough for my wife, a self-confessed addict who happily refers to the fattened duck liver as the "cocaine of cuisine."

Then came warm oysters, plump and briny, bathing in herbal-citrus sauce and topped with a serious dollop of beluga caviar. The mollusks melted in the mouth, surpassing their aphrodisiac legend, and the caviar was enough to make you run away from home.

The main course, Loubet's roast duck for two, made an entrance worthy of Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard. The canard arrived on a platter of pine branches, with a flaming pine cone on the side. With its juicy flesh and underpinnings of pine and fennel seeds, it was fine enough, but immediately forgotten as the potatoes walked away with the show. I am talking about mashed potatoes, not just any old mash, but a ceramic bowl of spuds giddily infused with truffles. These potatoes swept you away on the dreamy aroma and musky flavour of truffles, the legendary "black queen" of cuisine.

After the truffled potatoes, everything -- the tray of 50 cheeses, eucalyptus ice cream, post-desserts preferred on an olive branch -- were simple dénouement. The point was made: One sampling of this art of living and there was no going back to "zee pizzeria."

 

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