The story so far: After a long drive from London, we had finally arrived in northern Provence, spending our first afternoon exploring the lovely 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; followed by a visit to the Ochre Conservatory in Rousillon. From there we drove on to another picturesque hilltop village, Bonnieux, where we enjoyed a candle-lit tasting dinner by chef Edouard Loubet. The following morning we joined one of Edouard Loubet’s chefs for a cooking course in the Bastide de Capelongue kitchens, followed by a stellar lunch. Now read on…
Driving from Bonnieux to Mazan, there are a couple of things that catch your eye. First, there is the looming mass of Mont Ventoux, the largest mountain in the region made famous by repeated visits from the Tour de France cycle race. The top of the mountain is bare pale grey limestone, without vegetation or trees, which makes the mountain’s barren peak appear from a distance to be snow-capped all year round – it had us fooled when we first saw it! The other thing that strikes you if you visit in the early summer is the abundance of cherry trees field after field of them in between vineyards, branches hanging low under the weight of the most astonishingly beautiful heart-shaped cherries I have ever seen. It seemed an appropriate accompaniment on a trip to attend a cherry-themed dinner!
Mazan is a pretty little town about halfway between Mont Ventoux and the Montes de Vaucluse. There has been a village on this site since Roman times and today it is beautifully preserved and protected by its circled wall of buildings dating from the 14th century. The old village gates give to a maze of ancient narrow streets too narrow for cars, containing ancient houses, churches and fountains. Arguably the most famous building in the village is the Chateau de Mazan hotel, one of the many former homes of the Sade family (yes, as in the Marquis de Sade), built in about 1720. Although the Marquis spent most of his life in Paris, he often stayed at the Château and in 1772 he held what would become the first theatre festival in France there. The house remained in the Sade family until 1850 but today it is a luxury hotel, and this is where we headed at the end of a long day.
Entering the hotel still feels like entering a grand but slightly bohemian aunt’s home, with lofty ceilings and an eclectic collection of objets scattered throughout the public rooms on the ground floor. We were given a quick tour of the slightly louche yet cosy lounge bar and the bright and airy dining room overlooking the garden before heading up to our room. The hotel comprises just 25 rooms, ranging from standard rooms to garden suites with their own terraces. Ours was a HUGE junior suite on the top floor, all high ceilings, gleaming varnished terracotta floors, a giant bed, a jacuzzi bath, and views over the village rooftops as well as into the garden and swimming pool. Tempting as though it was to stay in the room and take advantage of the working wifi (!) it took us about 30 seconds to get locate our swimming costumes in the suitcases and head for the pool, G&T’s in hand. I can’t express how lovely this was – the pool is large enough to swim proper laps and is surrounded by plentiful loungers and deckchairs scattered across the lush green lawns. Lying on my lounger and staring at the sky I also realised that we were lying under the biggest mulberry tree I had seen since childhood – truly gorgeous. I could have stayed there a week.
But alas – duty called. We had a dinner date to meet with the lovely Valerie from Vaucluse Tourism in the hotel’s Ingenue restaurant – not just any dinner, but a cherry-themed dinner. Since March 2007, chef Franck Pujol has been in charge of the kitchen at Chateau de Mazan. A native of Brittany, he is a master of combining the flavours of the earth and the sea and sums up his philosophy of cooking in one sentence: “to give pleasure”. Meals are prepared only from high-quality fresh products supplied by small local producers. First to arrive was a small snack to enjoy with our sparking wine aperitif: glasses containing crunchy vegetable crudites to be dipped into olive cream and olive tapenade; mini avocado and salmon skewers; and a small smoked salmon savoury financier. I don’t know why everybody does not make savoury financiers constantly – they are so good. The mini-skewers were simple but deliciously fresh; and I fell a little bit in love with the olive cream – like a tapenade but subtler. This was followed by the amuse bouche : slow-cooked beef cheeks with cherries, topped with strips of smoked duck breast. This was wonderful – extremely rich, but a wonderful interplay of flavours between the rustic beef cheeks, the sweet cherries and the deep smoky flavour of the duck breast slivers.
This was followed by one of the nicest things I ate in 2012: a degustation of foie gras (one of the chef’s specialities): seared foie gras; foie gras confit perched on toasted brioche; and a crumbed croquette of foie gras, all accompanied by a cherry compote, a cherry reduction and some cherry halves (possibly poached?). The foie gras was seductively textured, and the cherries provided a perfect balance of tartness and sweetness – in fact, the cherry/foie combination is vastly underrated in my opinion! The meat course consisted of rack of Duroc de Batallé pork accompanied by crispy caramelised chicory, polenta and cherry jus. The Duroc de Batallé, in case anybody is puzzled, is a breed of pig known for its unusually high concentration of intramuscular fat (marbling) and therefore its superlatively moist and succulent meat. This truly was pork, Jim, but not as we know it. A thick chop, cooked to rose-pink perfection yet without a hint of blood; seared on the outside and as moist as can be. I am a sucker for crispy polenta and the cube we were served was no exception, and I loved the sweet/bitter contrast of the caramelised endive. But the pork was most certainly the star of the show here.
And from there we moved onto the sweet part of the meal: a pistachio baba with Morello cherry jus scented with cinnamon and Sichuan pepper; Kriek beer sorbet; and a cherry coulis. What a wonderful combination of colours, textures and flavours! The baba was dense, rich and satisfying without ever being too heavy, appropriately syrup-soaked and gently infused with the flavour of the spices; while the Kriek cherry beer sorbet added a tart contrasting note. Oh – and did I mention that it was super-pretty?? And in a final flourish, with our coffee we had violet macarons and little caramel and pistachio squares.
It’s hard to choose what I liked most about the meal – Valerie’s charming company; the elegant yet not at all stuffy or formal surroundings of the chateau dining room; or the wonderful food, which although decadent, never felt heavy. It is the kind of place where you can find a secluded table tucked in behind a potted palm and while the night away with your beloved, feasting as warm Provence air carries the sounds of the night through the windows. The hotel itself was probably the place I was most reluctant to leave in the entire trip – it is such a gracious haven of calm that I could easily picture myself spending a month or two in our corner room, writing the novel each of us apparently has in us, swimming daily in their pool and dining nightly in the beautiful restaurant. If you are ever in the area, don’t hesitate – just book.
By plane: The nearest airports are Avignon (40 mn), Marseille (1h30), Lyon (2h30), Nîmes (45mn), Nice (2h30). By train: Avignon station is served by the TGV Méditerranée, and Mazan is 30 mins by car from the station.
Le Chateau de Mazan
Tel. +33 (0) 490696261
Fax : +33 (0) 490697662
E-mail : [email protected]
The Chateau de Mazan hotel is open all year round and rooms start from €110 per night for a standard room to €350 per night for a suite, including breakfast. The Ingenue restaurant is open from March to December (closed Mon and Tues from 8 March-30 April; and from 1 October-31 December. Closed Tues only from 1 May-30 June and 1-30 September). Unique menu theme every Monday evening during the season – ours cost €45 per head without wine.
GOOD TO KNOW:
DISCLOSURE: I visited Chateau de Mazan as part of a self-drive trip that was partially funded by the Vaucluse Tourist Board, and both my meal and accommodation at the Chateau were paid for by the tourist board. I received no remuneration other than food and accommodation 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