1 August 2014

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The Mercedes-Benz Wine Tour - Provence


A week in Provence

Summer is here, so it must be time to crack open the rosé. Natasha Hughes heads off to Provence in a Mercedes-Benz GL ?320  CDI to find some good examples

For most people, the south of France is all about the Côte d'Azur. From the cinematic glitz of Cannes to Nice's old-world charm and the hedonistic glamour of St Tropez, it is France's Mediterranean coastline that grabs our attention. The region also grabs a fair few headlines during the summer season, as the models, film stars and rock 'n' rollers flock there in droves.

provence2.jpgThis narrow focus is both a tragedy and a blessing for the stunning hill country that lies just behind Europe's most famous beaches. It's a tragedy because the back country misses out on the lucrative benefits of tourism, but a blessing, too, because those independent-minded souls who venture inland can enjoy an unspoiled part of southern France.

Even in a fairly big town such as Grasse, the centre of the perfume industry, life unfolds at a relaxed pace. People stroll through the streets in the sunshine, share coffee with friends under the shaded awning of a pavement café, and stop and smell the roses.

Indeed, smell - often undervalued as one of the senses - seems to be indispensible here in Provence.  My nose was assaulted - though in a thoroughly pleasant way - as I drove through the wild French countryside. It was the smell of garrigue, an aromatic scrub that covers the hillsides and, here in Provence, it is a heady mixture of wild thyme, juniper, rosemary, fennel and lavender. With the windows of the Mercedes-Benz GL 320  CDI wide open, it filled the inside of my car with the smell of summer.

I'd taken the scenic route south from Lyon, over the foothills of the Alps and down into Grasse - a couple of hundred kilometres of long, winding roads that meander slowly up slopes, only to plunge steeply back down the other side. It was a rollercoaster ride that the car handled with ease.

This, I was later told, was known as the Route Napoleon, along which Napoleon and his army travelled in 1815 when he set out to overthrow Louis XVIII after his return from exile in Elba.
Once I'd reached Grasse, I headed straight for Confiserie Florian on the outskirts of the town. This pleasant villa has been turned over to the production of all kinds of flower-flavoured culinary delights, and I was offered a scoop of lavender-scented ice-cream before being taken on a tour of the facilities.

I witnessed boiled sweets being made from pressed violets, jasmine blossoms turned into jam, and whole clementines being provence1.jpgsoaked in baths of sugar syrup during a long and labour-intensive candying process.

Sweet treats
Needless to say, I spent a fortune in the confiserie's shop on floral nougats, sugar-coated rose petals and other perfumed goodies. Then I dragged myself away to the other side of town, where I was booked in to spend the night at the delightful Bastide Saint Antoine.
The next morning, replete after breakfast on a terrace overlooking a sweep of forested hillside, I set out with a strong sense of purpose. I was on a mission to discover this summer's perfect wine for alfresco drinking.

Rosé has come back into fashion in the UK in the past few years. I've long been a fan of the style - probably as a result of having spent summers as a teenager in a small village in Provence, where winemakers have long taken pink wines seriously.

To my mind, rosé is the ideal wine for long, hot summer days, when you don't want the hefty alcohol and tannic structure of a big red wine, but a white just won't do.

Perfect match
What's more, rosé works well with the kind of food most of us want to eat in summer: plates of charcuterie, char-grilled seafood or barbecued sausages. It can also be startlingly good with spicy Asian cuisines - all that fruit and very little tannin works remarkably well with Thai, Indian and Chinese dishes. Some wine critics don't take rosé seriously, but I think they are missing the point entirely.

provence5.jpgI thought a good place to start my search would be La Maison des Vins in the small village of Les Arcs sur Argens. As the headquarters for the organisation that promotes the region's wines, its cellars house examples of the reds, whites and rosés made by some of the Côtes de Provence's leading producers.

If you want to find out about the six terroirs of the region, staff can guide you through the diversity of soils, microclimates and grape varieties found in this sprawling appellation - east to west, the Côtes de Provence AOC is about 200km wide.

Alternatively, you can choose to conduct your own tasting based on the 15 wines available in the shop - the list of open bottles changes weekly to ensure visitors always find something new each time they call in.

I found several interesting rosés (see overleaf), but I was also surprised by the quality of some of the whites and reds that I tasted. Several of the whites, particularly those based on Vermentino (or Rolle), were rich and weighty, but had enough acidity to ensure they weren't cloying.

At the bottom end of the price scale, reds, which are usually made with a blend of different grapes that might include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon, were fresh and juicy. At the top end of the quality scale, they held their own when compared with equivalent domaines in the Languedoc or southern Rhône.

My next stop was the Château Font du Broc. My initial guess - that the property dated back several centuries - proved to be resoundingly wrong. Winemaker Gérald Rouby told me the entire complex was built just 20 years ago by Sylvain Massa.

Massa, who made his fortune in the tyre business, decided to invest some of the profits in international-standard dressage horses (which live in the paddocks at the bottom of the property) and 22 hectares of vineyards.

Château tour
provence3.jpgVisitors to the domaine can take a tour round the impressive cellars, which are housed in a cloistered underground vault, the design of which was inspired by the 12th century Abbaye de Thoronet. Alternatively, they can just mooch around the pretty, manicured gardens, taste the property's wines or drop in for one of the open-air concerts held during the summer.
Not far down the road lies the cru classé domaine, Château Sainte Roseline. This former convent is the real medieval deal. It even has its own saint, Roseline herself, who lies mummified in a glass case in the property's chapel.

You don't often get to see a preserved saint, so visitors usually stop for a good gawp before moving off around the chapel to take a look at the artworks. These include a Giacometti sculpture, a Chagall mosaic and a 17th century baroque altarpiece. The property's owners are still dedicated to art - the château is used as a venue for art exhibitions and is a permanent sculpture park.

It was raining the next day, when I drove out to the Commanderie de Peyrassol. But although I was disappointed by the weather, Alban Cacaret, who manages the property, was delighted. There hasn't been anywhere near enough rain for the vineyards recently. This was a drizzle rather than a downpour, but it would be enough to keep the vines going in a region where irrigation is forbidden by law.

The commanderie itself was founded in the 13th century by Christian military order the Templars. But because the Templars so terrified the French monarchy, the king, Philip le Bel, destroyed the order in the early 14th century and the commanderie passed into the possession of the knights of Malta. After the French Revolution, it passed into private hands.
These days, the 700-hectare property is used to grow vines and truffles, hunt boars and host concerts. It is also the site of a permanent art exhibition - clearly, art and wine go hand in hand in this part of France.

It was still drizzling steadily as the Mercedes-Benz climbed the hill up to the Château Mentone, a property accessed through an impressive pair of wrought-iron gates and a wonderful alleyway of plane trees.

There may be no art here, but owner Marie-Pierre Caille's recent restoration of the château shows she has an eye for beauty. She has big plans for the winery, too, although at the moment the focus is on the tasting rooms housed in a former chapel.

Tasting and more
I ended my visit to Provence with a tasting at the Château de Berne, owned by British businessman Bill Muddyman, who decided 30 or so years ago to set up a domaine dedicated to the 'art de vivre en Provence'. The result is a complex that includes a winery and tasting room, a top-notch hotel with two restaurants, a cookery school and a venue for seminars.

Guests can learn to taste wines or blend perfumes, ride quad bikes round the estate, play tennis or simply kick back and enjoy the local hospitality. Life at the Château de Berne is all about the appreciation of the many sensual pleasures that life can afford.

The same can be said of Provence - and its wines. It's unlikely that the region's reds or whites will ever become world beaters and, although the top rosés are among the best of their type in the world, they are wines to be enjoyed in the here and now, rather than cellared for analysis some years hence. And, despite what the wine snobs would have you believe, there's nothing wrong with that.

Where and what to taste in Provence

La Maison Des Vins
RN7, 83460 Les Arcs sur Argens
Tel: 00 33 494 99 50 20
Taste (and buy) wines from across the Côtes de Provence appellation.
Recommended: Château Hermitage St Martin, Grande Cuvée Enzo 2004 (white); Saint André de Figuière, Cuvée Delphine 2004 (white); Château Maravene 2006 (rosé); Château Rimauresq 2006 (rosé); Domaine Tropez Beraud 2004 (red); Mas de Cadenet Mas Négrel Cadenet 2003 (red)

Château Font du Broc
83460 Les Arcs sur Argens
Tel: 00 33 494 47 48 20
At the time of writing this article, the current cellar master, Gérald Rouby, had only held his position for a few months. However, if the barrel samples I tasted on my visit are anything to go by, his 2006 red wine should be potent and heady, without being over-extracted.

Château Sainte Roseline
83460 Les Arcs sur Argens
Tel: 00 33 494 99 50 30
Recommended: Barons de Sainte Roseline Blanc 2005 (white); Rosé 2006 (rosé).

Commanderie de Peyrassol
83340 Flassans sur Issole
Tel: 00 33 494 69 71 02
Recommended: Château Peyrassol Rosé 2006 (rosé); Commanderie de Peyrassol Rouge 2004 (red)

Château Mentone
401 Chemin de Mentone
83510 Saint-Antonin-du-Var
Tel: 00 33 494 04 42 00
Email: [email protected]
Recommended: Château de Mentone Blanc - both the 2005 and the 2006, although there's not much of the 2005 left (white); Château de Mentone Rosé 2006 (rosé); Château de Mentone Rouge 2004 (red)

Château de Berne
Route de Salernes
83510 Lorgues
Tel: 00 33 494 60 43 60
Recommended: Cuvée Spéciale Rosé 2006 (rosé); Cuvée Spéciale Blanc 2004 (white); Cuvée Spéciale Rouge 2002 (red)

Where to eat and sleep in Provence

La Bastide Saint Antoine -
Jacques Chibois
48 Avenue Henri-Dunant
06130 Grasse
Tel: 00 33 493 70 94 94
Email: [email protected]
This small but perfectly formed boutique hotel, housed in an 18th century bastide, is also the location for Jacques Chibois' two-Michelin-starred restaurant. A delight for all the senses.

La Bastide des Magnans
20 Avenue de la Resistance
83550 Vidauban
Tel: 00 33 494 99 43 91
The shady terrasse of the Bastide des Magnans is the ideal spot for a long, lazy summer lunch or dinner. Portions are large, but the food is delicious. Luckily, you can sleep it all off in one of the pretty, individually decorated rooms upstairs.

La Vigne à Table
RN7, 83460 Les Arcs sur Argens
Tel: 00 33 494 47 48 47
Housed in the same building as La Maison des Vins, La Vigne à Table is much more than a simple pit-stop for refuelling. It serves unexpectedly classy food based on seasonal ingredients, and a great wine list.

Château Mentone
401 Chemin de Mentone
83510 Saint-Antonin-du-Var
Tel: 00 33 494 04 42 00
Email: [email protected]
A highly sophisticated chambre d'hôte housed inside a delightfully restored château. Each room has its own theme - and there's even a small private chapel for weddings. The on-site winery is worth a visit. Dinner by arrangement.

Campagne Mariette
83512 Lorgues
Tel: 00 33 494 85 93 93
You've got to have a larger-than-life personality to get away with calling your restaurant simply 'Bruno'. Good thing chef Bruno Clément has as much charm and chutzpah as he has girth - which is considerable. If you love all things truffley, this is the place for you. Chances are you'll find much to like in Bruno's six-roomed hotel too.

Château de Berne
Route de Salernes
83510 Lorgues
Tel: 00 33 494 60 43 60
Your sat nav will need to be working at full efficiency to help you find the Château de Berne, but once you have, you won't want to leave. After a visit to the sophisticated winery or a ride round the estate on a quad bike, check into one of the tastefully decorated rooms (each named after a fruit or vegetable).

Travel Tips

Eurotunnel can be contacted on 0870 535 3535 or www.eurotunnel.com

Mercedes-Benz GL320 CDI

provence4.jpgEngine: 2987cc
BHP: 224
0-62mph: 9.5 seconds
Top speed: 130mph
On-the-road price: £52,472

Natasha Hughes' verdict: I was delighted to find that the GL ?320  CDI steered like a nippy little city car. Unlike a city car, though, it was a delight on the motorway, gobbling up the many miles to Provence and back with consummate ease. What's more, I've never felt so safe travelling at 130kph in my entire driving life.

Top Gear's Andy Wilman adds: This is the seven-seat answer to parents who buy the five-seat M-Class and then find their reproductive organs are still running at full throttle. The three-litre diesel engine is a peach, and the fittings are lovely.

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