One of the areas of France we have wanted to visit is Provence. We love the wines from the region, plus we've wanted to take a French cooking class while here, so we combined both interests into a Provence getaway this week in Avignon, the capital of the Rhone region.
First up was a cooking class at Jean-Mark Villard's French Cuisine school. Jean-Marc, the chef, and his lovely wife Alice, the business manager, run this school out of their beautiful home in the village of Maubec, located 30km (18 miles) east of Avignon. Priscilla is going to take over the writing duties to tell you about Jean-Marc's class.
Jean-Marc Villard's School of French Cuisine
I asked Tom if I might write a bit in the blog about our cooking class as I thought it might be one of the highlights of our time here. I was right! Many years ago, I served on the board of Kantorei, a Twin Cities based choral ensemble. One of the singers/board members had a serious side gig teaching cooking classes in Provence. Occasionally he teaches in Julia Child's former home. Since hearing of his classes, I've always wanted to take a cooking class in Provence. While Jean-Marc and Alice's home is not Julie Child's, it is a dream of a home. I could live the rest of my life there...Hah!
The home is set in the countryside, with small vineyards, horses grazing and beautiful homes dotting the land. You enter the home through the garden and up onto a stone patio, where a table sits in the middle. Two large trees, planted close together, have been pruned and trained to grown up onto a pergola and provide enough shade for any hot day. Jean-Marc said it is now too cold to take their morning coffee out there. As Minnesotans we thought 60 degrees sounded perfect. Our taxi arrived 20 minutes late so we arrived late to our class. But thankfully everyone was very kind about our delayed arrival. Next time we will take more photos of the outside of the house.
Jean-Marc and Alice are such welcoming people. Alice took note of my caffeine habit and served me an espresso at every opportunity. As soon as I had finished my second espresso and a couple of lovely shortbread cookies, we headed off to the local co-op to do our shopping for our class. This co-op is such an amazing place. It is owned and run by the farmers that provide everything that is sold. From the vegetables and fruit to meat and fish, everything is produced by the farmers. Each farmer is required to also devote time to working in the co-op during the week. During Covid, the co-op was able to remain open and the community was able to eat and still support the farmers. Jean-Marc only shops at this co-op as everything is fresh and he knows every farmer. Nothing is wasted in the co-op. If any of the fresh food is aging, farmers will put is in a jar. Fruit is turned into jam, meat into a terrine or pâté. I couldn't help thinking of my Grandma Halsted during the war. She and my Grandpa Halsted owned a grocery store, and when the food was on the "edge", she would can it. Even if it was just a half a pint.
Alice runs the back of the house and Jean-Marc, the front end. Alice's brother, who lives on the property, assists with clean-up while cooking is going on, bussing dishes out of sight quick as a flash and returning them to duty minutes later. It is quite the operation. Jean-Marc has a lot of experience teaching in culinary schools, serving as a chef in several restaurants, and in his own cooking school which we experienced. Jean-Marc also had a stint in St. Louis, MO in the USA where he perfected his command of English. All of this to say that we had wonderful instruction. I learned so much and plan to use all of Jean-Marc's tricks to enhance my own cooking and baking. I think you get the idea that I loved this experience and plan to make a repeat visit. I'll let the photos speak for the rest.
On the second day of our time in Avignon we took in a Chateauneuf du Pape wine tour. The reds of the Chateauneuf du Pape region happen to be Priscilla's favorite. In fact, they were her entrée to red wines in general. Our tour was put on by Provence Panorama. We were in a small group of eight...a couple from Sweden, a couple from Poland and Switzerland, a couple from Tennessee (soon to be North Carolina), and us. We were amazed at how incredibly rocky the soil is in the Chateuneuf du Pape area. The harvesting is done by hand. I can imagine the field workers have to be careful not to turn an ankle on those rocks.
In all we visited five wineries, tasting wines from the Gigondas, Lirac, and Chateauneuf du Pape appellations. We stopped for an excellent three-course meal at a restaurant on site at one of the wineries. One of the happy surprises of these tastings was the white wines of the region. Because the production of white wines only comprises about 5% of the total production from the region, all of it stays in France. As our tour guide, Gilles, said, we keep the best for us. Priscilla, who tends to prefer red wines, especially enjoyed the whites from the region. We ended up buying bottles from each winery. We had no intentions of bringing any of this back to the states with us. It will all be consumed or gifted in France. I'd say our favorite red was actually a Gigondas–the 2019 Domaine Grand Romane from Pierre Amadieu. We bought two bottles of that wine.
Schlepping ten bottles of wine back on the train was not for the weak of heart, but we made it no worse for the wear. We have a short outing this weekend to the Royaumont Abbey which we will write about in an upcoming post. Then we will prepare for the Thursday arrival of guests from Minnesota, Priscilla's sister Roberta and our niece Maddie. And then on Friday our daughter Anna arrives on the train from Nantes, where she has her study abroad. She will spend the weekend with us all before heading back on Sunday.
Wednesday of this week we set off by train for Beaune in the heart of the Bourgogne (Burgundy) wine-making region of France. Our high-speed train left the Paris Gare de Lyon station at around 12:20. We arrived in Beaune around 3 pm and were met at the train station by Bourgogne’s flesh and blood version of the Energizer Bunny, Patrick Chabrolle, the proprietor of our five-suite, boutique hotel, Les Climats de Beaune.
Although it rained much of our first day in Beaune, we did get out to walk a bit of this quaint town. Things were a bit quiet around town, since the French observe a national holiday on May 8 to commemorate the end of World War II. We did manage to find a restaurant for supper, as did seemingly all the dog owners in town who can’t abide the thought of dining out without their hound at their feet. Three dogs in a small French establishment is three too many in my book. Sorry all you dog lovers out there, but I’d rather not dine out with other peoples’ dogs, especially not when it’s tight quarters and one of the dogs is a standard poodle and the other two are barking terriers who were a bit agitated about the larger poodle and were getting fed from the table. I won’t write about the meal, since the food was average.
Thursday morning, around 9, our guide from Burgundy Discovery, Patrick, picked us up in the VW van. After picking up one more couple, for a total of three couples, all from America, we were on our way to our first vineyard, Domaine Michel Prunier & Fille. The owner, Michel, was our host and guide. You will notice the word “Fille” in the name of the domaine. That indicates that Michel is passing the winery on to his daughter, which in the past would have been unheard of. You’ll see from the photos below, though, that women are making inroads into the winemaking industry in Bourgogne.
Michel took us through their 300+ year-old cellars and discussed winemaking in Bourgogne. One fascinating thing about vineyards in the Bourgogne region is that they are almost all small operations. This is unlike what you might see in Bordeaux or California. Many of the operators in Bourgogne own only 10 hectares of vineyard, or roughly 25 acres. The vineyards surround the villages, and the winemaking operations tend to be right in the villages. The wineries are largely family owned and operated, with extended family members helping in the vineyards. The way French law works, descendants must inherit equal shares of any property, so it can be a challenge for someone to amass enough acreage to support a winery.
Our second vineyard was Domaine Desvignes. The young vigneron (grows the grapes and makes the wine) Gautier, is the son of the owner. Gautier studied in Oregon under a Burgundian winemaker, so he uses a mix of new and old approaches, although many of the wine-making methods are stipulated by French law and cannot be altered.
At each of the vineyards we visited we had a wine tasting. In traditional wine tasting style, we generally didn’t swallow the wine but instead swirled it around in our mouths, giving it a good tasting, before spitting it out into a vessel. While this might sound a bit nasty, believe me, when tasting four to six wines at three wineries, if you didn’t spit the wine out you’d be fairly well soused by the end of the day. I will admit to allowing myself to swallow the last wee little bit of each pour.
It was fascinating learning of the winemaking methods in the Bourgogne. We have always enjoyed the Chardonnays of Bourgogne, but I knew much less about the reds from the region, almost entirely made from the Pinot Noir grape. Our third winery for the day was Domaine Lejeune, where they produce some amazing Premier Cru reds. After kicking things off, Aubert, the owner, turned things over to one of his winemakers, Guillemette, a relatively recent graduate of winemaking school. The Premier Cru vineyards are rated just behind Grand Cru in terms of quality. After Premier Cru comes the Village wines. The ratings are specific to plots of land and were established back in the 1930s. Generally, the ratings do not change, although at Domaine Lejeune they are making an effort to get one of their plots of land designated as Grand Cru. To be honest, most of what we drink back home would fall into the Village category, which is just fine for this value-wine aficionado. One fascinating tidbit about Domaine Lejeune is that they still use humans to stomp the grapes. I’ll see if I can sniff that out in the two bottles we brought back to Paris.
Priscilla and I had decided beforehand that we were going to buy six bottles of wine today at each of the wineries we visited, assuming that shipping was available. So sometime in the fall, we will take delivery of 18 bottles of wonderful Bourgogne wine, 2 Chardonnays, 2 Crémant (Bougogne’s version of champagne), and 14 Premier Cru Pinot Noirs. We also picked up two everyday bottles of Pinot Noir to bring back to Paris with us.
All in all, we were extremely pleased with our time in Bourgogne. The tour we selected focused on lesser known wineries, which I’m glad we chose. The Bourgogne countryside is simply gorgeous, and the small-scale nature of the winemaking there helped make things seem super accessible and approachable. None of the winemakers were stuffy or pretentious, they were simple people who are rooted to the land in an incredibly intimate way. That attitude was refreshing, as were the lovely, delicate wines of the Bourgogne. I will conclude this post with a slideshow of photos to give you more of a sense for our time in Beautiful Burgundy.