The story so far: we had driven from London to northern Provence, where our first stop was the charming Coustellet farmer’s market. Our next stop was the hilltop village of Menerbes where we enjoyed a truffle-tastic lunch at the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin. Now, read on…
When I was a kid, my most burning desire was to own a brand new, pristine box of Colleen coloured pencil crayons. I loved their shiny hexagonal surfaces and their iconic box (reassuringly unchanged for a good 30 years I see!) – and I can credit them with teaching me the names of a couple of the more obscure colours. When we learnt the colours of the rainbow, I knew exactly what indigo was because I could picture the precise shade of Colleen pencil, neatly sandwiched between the purple and the dark blue. And I could tell my burnt sienna from common or garden brown long before I had any idea that sienna was a natural iron oxide pigment. Similarly, I have known and used the term ochre for decades without ever thinking about where the pigment comes from or what efforts might be involved in extracting it from the earth. All that was about to change as we pulled into the parking area of the Conservatoire des Ochres (OKHRA) in Rousillon.
Rousillon is a gorgeous village (evidently named as one of the prettiest in France) perched on a hilltop, full of winding alleyways, historical buildings, and pretty houses in appealing shades of burnt sienna or mustard with washed-out aquamarine shutters. It also has the unique advantage of being built on a spectacular red cliff made of natural ochre, a form of natural earth pigment derived from tinted clay containing mineral oxides, and among the earliest pigments used by mankind – initially in cave paintings. It was later rediscovered at the time of the French Revolution, and was sold throughout the world for over a century. The ochre of Roussillon is there because many millions of years ago the Luberon region was at the bottom of the sea, and these are some of the deposits left behind by the receding ocean. Natural ochre comes in a surprising range of shades, from pale magnolia to dark russet brown, depending on the concentration of iron oxide – a fact that becomes apparent when you look at the ochre cliffs around the town. We went straight to the Conservatoire des Ochres, but if you have more time, I would suggest you take a walk along the Sentier des Ocres (Rousillon ochre trail) walking trail to appreciate the beauty of the ochre cliffs. There is a small charge to be admitted to the trail (€2.50) and there are 2 trails of about 30 or 60 minutes respectively. The area of ochre deposits in the Luberon valley is the biggest in the world, giving the area the nickname the “Colorado Provençal” – and when you walk among these towering russet cliffs, you do feel slightly as though you are in a mini version of the Grand Canyon. Do wear sensible walking shoes and make sure you clean your shoes before you get back in the car – the fine ochre dust gets everywhere and stains!
But back to the Conservatoire, which has been created using the buildings of an old ochre factory. My first impression was of colours everywhere – each door, wall and shutter is painted a different colour and the walls of the little shop are covered in coloured panels. In the little shop, we met Ceclie who was to be our guide for the afternoon (tours cost €5 per person) and explained that the Mathieu factory had started in 1920 and had been a major producer of ochre. She took us on a walk around the old buildings, explaining that in order to get the pure colour out of the surrounding rock, they use the same technique as they did in the salt mines in Salzburg. The rock is mined and then crushed. Water was then added and as the sand settled to the bottom, the water (with the fine ochre particles still in suspension) was pumped out into a huge outdoor concrete tank. There it would be left for months to dry out before being cut into bricks of the mustard-yellow colour we know. To get the deep red-brown colour, bricks would be placed in a furnace as high temperatures, producing this rich colour. While they were converting the factory (which closed in the 1950s), one of the employees who used to work there assisted them in reconstructing the work spaces as accurately as possible, although much of the historical equipment you can see in the musem today had to be bought in from other factories as original Matheiu machinery had been lost when the factory closed. It’s a strangely beautiful space, dusted with a fine layer of yellow dust everywhere. There is also a poignant art installation of ochre jackets hanging on one wall to represent the workers of the factory, many of whom were oblivious to, and later very sick from, the fine ochre dust they inhaled.
The ochre itself is surprisingly soft – like a block of talcum powder – and oh boy does that colour come off! On your hands, clothes or anywhere else you’d care to name. Once it was in dry brick form, it could easily be exported to cities around the globe, and the Ochre Conservatory museum has a remarkable collection of vintage stencils which were used to stencil the ochre manufacturer’s name and the destination on each crate of ochre bricks. Reading the stencil names is fabulously exotic – from Constantinople to Stavanger to Malmo, to Valparaiso, to Casablanca.
Cecile also talked us through the Ochre Conservatory’s teaching programme which has become popular since ochre started enjoying a revival and being used in activities such as painting, decorating, ceramics and construction. Workshops at the OKHRA association aim to contribute to preserving and promoting the traditional knowledge related to using pigments in many different fields including making pastels, natural paints, vegetable inks and dyes; as well as using ochre pigments for painting on paper, ceramics and fresco painting. Examples of work produced in the workshops are dotted all around the grounds. Children’s classes where they are taught to make piants with natural fixers such as egg are particularly popular (and messy!). The classrooms are set off a long verandah and are huge airy spaces filled with natural light and exposed brickwork – a wonderful place to unlock your creativity and learn new skills.
Last but not least, we had a look around the impressive art shop where you can buy over 100 natural pigment powders from all over the world (as well as a few synthetic ones) and receive advice on how to mix and use them. I was particularly taken by the swatches that illustrated how the pigments would look as wall coatings – not hard to see why all the houses in the area are such fantastic colours when you have this sort of choice at your disposal! It was one of the more fascinating end-of-visit shops I have been to, and the conservatory as a whole is well worth a visit.
The following day we made another to see where another local speciality product is made: Silvain Nougat in the village of Saint-Didier. Here, brothers Peter and Philip Silvain farm almonds fruit and keep a couple of bee hives – and then turn the results into artisanal nougat, made to their grandmother’s recipe, in their small factory in the village. This means that they control the quality of the ingredients all the way through the manufacturing process and results in a top quality product. They also offer a tour of the kitchen showing how the nougat is made and including a slideshow explaining the origins of their recipe and ingredients, but because our cooking course in the morning (more on that to follow in a later post) had overrun the schedule quite ridiculously, we arrived too late for the tour and just indulged ourselves in the shop.
As you can see, the shop is prop heaven (see pile of goodies in the foreground!) and the idea is for you to grab a receptacle of your choice (mini-crate, zinc bucket or basket), fill it with your choice of confectionery, have it weighed and pay per weight. You feel like… erm… a kid in a sweetshop. Their products include:
- Dark nougat (soft or crunchy): honey from their own hives is caramelized by fast cooking in small copper kettles, flambéed in cognac and flavoured with orange, before adding roast almonds from their own plantations on the slopes of Mont Ventoux and wrapping the nougat in rice paper.
- White nougat (soft or crunchy): honey from their own hives is heated in a bain-marie, becoming white after three hours’ gentle cooking. Whisked egg white is then added for creaminess and sugar syrup stabilizes it before grilled almonds are added.
- Non-traditional nougats: they brothers also experiment with non-traditional ingredients such as cherry and pistachio; black olive and rosemary; or (the one I coud not resist buying) almond and truffle!
- Candied almonds in a range of flavours (I was particularly taken with the moccha coating!)
- Candied fruits: think beyond cherries to figs, pears, slices of melon and jewel-like clementines.
- Polissons: traditional diamond-shaped sweets made with a paste filled with almonds (51%),honey and candied oranges
- Jams and honeys
And when you are all shopped out, there is also a small café where you can have a coffee and a pastry (and maybe some nougat!)
Conservatoire des Ocres
Tel. 00 33 4 90 05 66 69
Open every day from 16 January to 31 December 09h00-18h00
Route de Venasque
Tel: 00 33 4 90 66 09 57
Open every day 10h00-18h00 but closed between 12h00 and 14h00
The Vaucluse Tourist Board has more information about the ochre villages of the ochre villages of the Luberon valley or on visiting the Silvain nougatiers available on their website.
DISCLOSURE: I visited both these venues as part of a self-drive trip that was partially funded by the Vaucluse Tourist Board, and these were activities arranged by the tourist board.
Other Vaucluse trip posts:
- Visiting the Vaucluse: Coustellet farmer’s market
- A truffle lunch at La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, Menerbes
And while we’re chatting, don’t forget to submit your entry to my annual barbecue event, Braai, the Beloved Country! Participants also stand to win one of two copies of Braai Masters of the Cape Winelands – so get the fire going right now! Details of how to enter can be found here.