As you drive down the Toulourenc valley road, hugging the majestic cliffs, with the mass of Mont Ventoux towering above you and the greenery pressing in on both sides of the road, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were miles from human civilization, and that the GPS navigation system had sent you on a wild goose chase. And then suddenly you glimpse the corner of a stone house or a window, impossibly high above the already-precipitous road along which you are travelling – surely an abandoned mountain village? But no – a kilometre further down the road, there it is – a sign proclaiming this to be the turn-off to Brantes, a tiny village perché in the Provençal departement of the Vaucluse. Let’s just say it’s not a place you’d stumble across by accident.
We were on our way to meet Odile Daniel, a former Parisian resident who moved to Brantes a number of years ago to start a new life and now runs Les Aventurières du Goût, a cooking school with a difference. This is no shiny Michelin star kitchen, but the kitchen of Odile’s own character-filled mountain home to which she welcomed us with her quick, warm smile. After a brief orientation, we set off armed with baskets and secateurs following Odile’s business partner Jacqueline who was to lead our foraging walk. As we walked, Jacqueline not only educated us on the edible plants that abound in the village, but also provided us with some fascinating insights into Brantes. The village is seriously tiny – I believe Jacqueline mentioned 80 inhabitants – and it is hard to imagine a life more different to the one we lead in London. We were told that everyone in the village has two jobs (and indeed, Jacqueline later had to excuse herself to mind the local bookstore for a while!), and that they had gone to some trouble to ensure that the village retained all the amenities that a working village should have (a small school, a post office, a church), rather than become just a pretty façade for tourists to admire. There are no cars in Brantes (you park in a small parking area just below the village) and as you clamber up and down the terraced gardens and meandering crooked stone staircases, you constantly encounter views of the valley and mountains that take your breath away. Even if you do not visit for the cooking school, the village is well worth the detour for the views alone as well as the various artisan shops selling pottery, wood carvings and wrought iron.
But back to our foraging! The summer hillsides around the village were full of edible plants – from the more mundane like wild sage, rosemary, rocket and thyme to the more esoteric like mallow flowers, clover flowers and plantain leaves. Jacqueline explained that as the seasons change, so do the foraging courses, with the Autumn courses being more focused on mushrooms and roots, while in summer there are wild berries to be had. We also stopped in the shade of an elderflower tree to pick masses of fragrant lacy white flowers before we headed back to Odile’s house with our baskets full of wild bounty.
There we found on only Odile, but also two charming village ladies who immediately set to work deftly removing the elderflowers from their stems while chatting companionably, their fingers gnarled with age but made dextrous by years of practice. Meanwhile, Odile set is to work chopping, cutting, mixing and preparing lunch. You will notice that we relied heavily but not exclusively one did not use only the foods we had foraged – “We are not purists, we are gourmandes!” laughed Odile, “We eat what is fresh and tastes best.” It’s a hands-on affair with Odile cooking alongside you, offering encouragement here, correcting your method there, and always providing information on the ingredients we were using.
So what did we cook? The meal was completely vegetarian and sourced locally or as close to locally as possible (goat’s cheese and honey from neighbouring villages, for example), but anybody who thought that vegetarian and local wasn’t indulgent would be wrong. Our menu included:
- elderflower corial
- fresh apricot halves stuffed with herbed goat’s cheese, nuts and wild flowers (possibly the best thing I tasted all year)
- a peppery salad of radish, orange, wild rocket and wild flowers
- bruschetta of ripe red tomatoes, basil and black olives (so good that I have already repeated at home!)
- lentil flour blinis stuffed with pea, courgette and mint mousse (sumptuously good)
- deceptively simple elderflower tartlets with nuts in the base and sprinkled with brown sugar before baking, served with macerated strawberries
And once all the food was prepared and beautifully plated, we took off our aprons and carried plates, glasses, cutlery and serving platters out to Odile’s tiny stone terrace and sat down to feast, observed by the local cats and overlooking the magnificent Toulourenc valley below. It was one of the more magical moments of our trip. Odile is an inspirational teacher full of wisdom, not only about the way we eat but also about life. The best part is that you never feel as if you are being taught, but afterwards I remembered all sorts of tips that Odile showed us and that I now use in my own kitchen – and that’s the best travel souvenir you could wish for.
Les Aventurières du Goût run wild food courses run every Thursday at 16h00 and every Saturday at 10h00 from April to November. Classes (the walk, cookery class and lunch – about 3 hours in total) cost €35 a head. Maximum group size is 5-10 people and German or English speakers can be catered for. Wear walking shoes – and bring an umbrella/raincoat if the weather looks rainy! Aventurières is at the top of the village on the left, beside La Poterne. Odile and her team also offer a half-day workshop on the theme of your choice (e.g. gluten-free cooking, cooking with tofu or algae, soups, jam with wild fruit) in your own home, or in her kitchen. Prices range from €30 to €50 per head.
By plane: The nearest large airport is Avignon. By train: Avignon station is the nearest large station, served by the TGV Méditerranée. You will need your own car to get to Brantes.
DISCLOSURE: I visited Les Aventurièrs du Goût as part of a self-drive trip that was partially funded by the Vaucluse Tourist Board - meals, accommodation and this class were paid for by the tourist board. I received no further remuneration for the trip and all opinions are my own
Other posts in my Vaucluse series include:
- Visiting the Vaucluse: Coustellet farmer’s market
- A truffle lunch at La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, Menerbes
- Conservatoire des Ocres and Silvain nougat makers
- A tasting menu at Restaurant Edouard Loubet @ Bastide de Capelongue
- A cooking day at Bastide de Capelongue
- A cherry-themed dinner at Chateau de Mazan
- A cycle tour of the Terraventoux vineyards
- A wine blending workshop at Maison Lavau
- Dinner, bed and breakfast in Chateauneuf-du-Pape