If somebody were to ask me what driving in Provence is like I would answer as follows: Picture the rigid grid of Manhattan, near-completely flat and 99% in a neat grid pattern wuth dead-straight streets meeting each other at right-angled intersections. Now put all thoughts of that pattern out of your mind and think of the exact opposite, and you will have a good approximation.
We had driven from Clement Ferrand that morning, stopping briefly at the Coustellet farmers’ market and by lunchtime we had wound our way through valleys and over mountains to arrive in Ménerbes, a village made famous when English author Peter Mayle wrote A Year in Provence whiule living there. On the map, it looked like a big tangle of hairpin bends, which left the little arrow on the satnav spinning in consternation as we turned each corner, and left me perplexed… until we caught sight of the village and realised it is perched on a hill like a barnacle clinging to a rock. Every road really is a harpin bend as you climb up and up to reach the little parking lot below the village; and even then you continue relentlessly up on foot. Not for nothing has Ménerbes been designated one of the most beautiful villages in France. Narrow cobbled streets are lined with tiny artisan shops; and impossibly beautiful weathered ochre walls are punctuated with pale blue and green shutters – subtly faded colours that make you realise instantly where ersatz “Provencal-style” housing developments the world over get their colours so wrong.
After a wander through the lower village, we turned past Le P’tit Bouchon into a narrow alleyway that leads to the Rue du Portail that winds up towards the upper village. Up, up and up we continued until we had reached literally the top of the whole village, with a view over the fertile Calavon valley’s cherry orchards and vineyards. The red Ferrari parked outside indicated to me that we had arrived at the place we were looking for: a 17th century Hôtel d’Astier de Montfaucon formerly occupied by the Mayor’s office that has since 2004 been dedicated to the region’s two most famous products (wine and truffles). Today this beautifully restored mansion houses a wine tasting venue; an exhibit featuring local truffle and wine culture; and a wine bar and restaurant. Seeing as Nick was driving, the full wine tasting seemed like a bad idea, but after touring the courtyard and terrace and admiring the view, we were certainly up for a light lunch by the window, overlooking the valley.
Unsurprisingly, the menu features truffles rather heavily – which is never a bad thing in my book! While we were making our choices, the friendly and knowledgeable waiter came to discuss our wine choices. We opted for something local in the form of the Cotes de Luberon 2011 Quercus Blanc - a surprising white blend of 40% Ugni blanc, 20% Grenache blanc, 15% Clairette, 15% Bourboulenc and 10% Vermentino. The blend gave it complexity and barrel-ageing in oak gave it a lovely rounded mouthfeel and seductive vanilla flavours. It was a perfect white to match the deep, earthy flavours of the truffles without overpowering the food. As we knew we would be having a substantial dinner that night, we opted for the very reasonably sounding 2-course menu for €26 and were treated to a fairly comprehensive explanation of the 2 different truffles they had. On the one hand there were the tuber melanosporum black truffles, also known as Périgord black truffles which are black all the way through and have the pungent, almost human perfume that I mostly associate with truffles. But then there were also locally-foraged tuber aestivumblack summer truffles which are black on the outside, but a pale beige on the inside and have a far milder and nuttier flavour. Nick does not normally like the strident flavour of black truffles, but he loved these summer truffles – and he would get to eat plenty of them before we left! For lunch, I started with the terrine de pâté maison aux truffes Melanosporum, slices of a wonderfully textured pork terrine studded with black truffles that infused the dish with their flavour. Nick had opted for steamed green asparagus with Melanosporum truffles and some local cured ham - a classic combination which he loved. Fr mains, Nick had an egg dish that we had never seen before: oeufs de la Saint Jean on a bed of salad and scattered with summer black truffle shavings. We had expected some variation of poached eggs – but what arrived was far more inpressive – like a giant savoury oeufs a la neige but with a lake of yolk concealed within. I suspect that the eggs were separated, and the whites beaten to stiff peaks before being lightly baked, and then the barely cooked yolks were slipped inside. Nick absolutely loved it, and this was the dish that convinced Nick of the wisdom of truffles – hurrah! I had chosen spinach and ricotta tortellini with summer truffles Now usually when you order a dish “with truffles” that does not cost a month’s salary, you expect to need a magnifying glass to find the specks of truffles. But when my dish arrived, you could barely see the tortellini for the masses of shaved truffles. I don’t think I have ever seen so much truffle on one plate! The nutty flavour and slightly toothsome texture of the truffles were a perfect foil for the mildly-flavoured tortellini and I loved the dish as a whole (but gven a choice, I am still a Perigord, in-your-face-flavour truffle girl!).
This was one of my favourite meals of the entire trip, because it was an unexpected place to find such a wonderful restaurant; because the view as we sat by the window was breathtaking; because the service was outstanding; and because the food was not only delicious but also good value for money. When we left, I felt as if I had stepped onto a movie set for a while and now had to return to harsh reality, and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you are touring the region.
La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, Menerbes
Place de l’Horloge
Visitor info: On the lower floor of the building you can taste Luberon wines from about 50 vineyards, and the wine shop sells bottles at the same price as you would pay at the winery. On the main floor where you enter, there is another shop offering olive oil and delicacies of the region. Lunch and dinner (two nights a week) are served in the sculpture garden and the restaurant. The wine bar, restaurant and shop are open daily from 12:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and Monday and Friday evenings (but double check opening times in winter before you visit). In the truffle season (November to March), truffle-digging with a truffle-hunter and his dog, followed by a special truffle lunch is also available (fixed dates for individuals, or on request for groups). Rooms are also available for meetings and special celebrations such as weddings.
The Vaucluse Tourist Board has more information on Menerbes and other hilltop villages in the Vaucluse available on their website.
DISCLOSURE: I visited this restaurant as part of a self-drive trip that was partially funded by the Vaucluse Tourist Board, but all meals mentioned in this post were paid for by me.
Other Vaucluse trip posts:
Stay tuned for our intriguing visit to the Ochre Conservancy in nearby Rousillon which I will be posting about shortly!