Review by Fiona Duncan, published 19th October 2008.
We know about Provence in summer. Fields of lavender under Van Gogh’s fierce yellow sun; terraces of vines and olives rolling to blue horizons; white light reflecting off chalky hillsides; old men playing boules or drinking pastis under the shade of plane trees.
Idyllic, perhaps, but I shan’t go again. Not in summer. After recent trips in early spring and late autumn, Provence has joined my list of short-break destinations that are tailor-made for visits out of season.
Take November. Or, to be precise, the first of December, which found me swimming lazy lengths in an outdoor pool. Admittedly it was a chilly business getting from changing room to water, agreeably heated to 84ºF, but though sunbathing on one of the stylish grey poolside loungers wasn’t an option, there was easily enough warmth in the midday sun to want to relax afterwards in cabana with a glass of chilled rosé.
We were in Crillon-le-Brave, staying at the Relais & Châteaux hotel of the same name, while for our spring visit we lodged at the no less charming guesthouse, Villa Noria – also with a pool – of the hotel’s head chef, Philippe Monti. Both are just half an hour or so from the quiet airport at Avignon where we landed. Two nights were all we spent away, and all that were required to revive our rain-soaked British spirits: in the manner of successful breaks, it felt more like 10 days away.
Had it been summer we would have spent our time flopping uselessly by the pool; our unseasonal visits, by contrast, were packed with interest – as well as an intriguing new experience.
But first, the hotel. The view, or rather panorama, from our cabana encompassed the giant of Provence – Mont Ventoux – rising from the green and brown valley below, and we could trace its gentle slopes all the way from the summit, across the horizon to the distant Lubéron hills.
Down in the valley, bonfires were being made of the post harvest clippings in the vineyards, and the intoxicating smell of wood smoke perfumed the air.
Crillon-Le-Brave itself is one of those picturesque but improbable Provençal villages where every stone house is a restored second home and the handful of concrete ones belong to the few remaining locals.
By the end of the 19th century, it had a population of 800; by the mid 20th century, without its own water supply, it was in ruins, with almost no inhabitants. Now affluent incomers have breathed new life, albeit of a different kind, into the hilltop village, and the statue of its most celebrated feudal lord, a bellicose 16th-century general dubbed Le Brave Crillon, surveys a cat’s cradle of pristine streets and alleys that tumble downhill from the dramatically set village square and the church (now defunct, though the bells still strike the hour during the day).
As for the hotel, it discreetly encompasses several adjoining village properties, both large and small (the finest of which, housing the inviting restaurant, is a beauty).
It may be a luxury hotel, with restrained, cool, subtly coloured bedrooms, but it is also a place full of quirky character, with a foxing layout and plenty of surprises: a grand stone balustrade here, sunken terrace there, a tucked-away mini spa, easygoing, café-style bistro and sleek swimming pool. A flight of steps leads in one direction, a tiny pathway in another. It’s never easy to remember the way to your room, but that’s half the fun.
Finding your way to the restaurant or the bistro is a must: Monti’s deliberately simple yet refined cooking makes the perfect foil to the excesses of haute cuisine.
He’s a chef who has done the rounds of the finest kitchens (L’Espérance, L’Auberge de l’Ill, Taillevent) and gratefully returned home: he was born and bred in the next village, Bedoin.
At dinner, his gigot d’agneau, slow-cooked in the restaurant’s open hearth, and line-caught Mediterranean sea bass are signature dishes, while expansive buffet breakfasts and salads and grilled brochettes for lunch are served in the bistro or on the shaded terrace.
We, however, ate truffles. Brandade de morue with truffles, breast of chicken with truffles, omelette with truffles, salad with truffle-flavoured vinegarette, croutons of bread served with truffle pâté or generous shavings of raw truffle, a dish of steaming potatoes liberally anointed with truffle oil, even truffle ice cream and chocolate gâteau with truffle flavoured crème anglaise. You can’t go wrong with a truffle (I even loved the ice cream).
And you can’t go wrong with a truffle hound. Just one delicate gesture with a paw indicated to his master, Eric Jaumard, and to us fascinated onlookers, that the dog had found another knobbly black “diamond of the kitchen” – so named by the 19th-century French gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin – under the oak trees. “The dog is never wrong,” says Eric.
The region round Carpentras is renowned for its truffles, and Hotel Crillon le Brave hosts truffle weekends during the season, with truffles for dinner and a truffle-hunting expedition with Eric Jaumard, plus the chance to buy the very truffles, and truffle oil, that he produces at his farm, La Truffe de Ventoux, for top restaurateurs such as Michel Roux.
During a perfect lunch of truffle omelette and salad, cooked by his wife Dominique and served at a big wooden table in front of a roaring fire, Eric explained the mystery of the tubers and the extreme difficulty of cultivating them. Though not too much difficulty in the training of the hound, it would appear.
“When the dog is a puppy, I put truffle flavouring in its mother’s milk,” said Eric. “Pah, I don’t bother with that,” said his friend. “I just go to a dogs’ home with a truffle and hold it out. The first dog to come and have a sniff, I take home.”
There is much else to do at Crillon-le-Brave. If autumn is for truffle hunting, then spring is for taking one of the hotel’s gourmet packed lunches and heading for a picnic spot over the hills, or perhaps along the River Sorgue, on a peaceful glide by kayak.
Both seasons are likely to find you, as they did us, happily browsing in the famous outdoor Sunday antiques market at Ile-sur-la-Sorgue and the many little shops tucked down alleyways all over town. And if the prices make you faint, then the simple three-course set lunch, served in the garden almost all year round, at Le Jardin du Quai (0033 4 9020 1498) will restore your strength.
If you are only staying for a short time, and don’t want to go off exploring by car (there are, of course, many places of interest close at hand, such as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône wine route, plus the Lubéron, St Rémy and Les Alpilles, Vaison-la-Romaine and the Dentelles de Montmirail) there’s no need to stray far from the hotel, which has bicycles to borrow and well-described walks from the door.
Anyone fit enough can attempt the summit of Mont Ventoux by mountain bike. Book a massage or beauty treatment for your return.
A gentler alternative is to walk, as we did, for an hour to Bedoin among vineyards and ochre-coloured quarries. Once there, we ensconced ourselves in the Relais Ventoux bar with a couple of glasses of kir before taking a taxi back to Crillon-le-Brave.
Our ramble was all the more enjoyable for being an autumn one. If we had walked at all at the height of summer, we would have been hot and bothered. In late November, the sights, sounds and scents of the countryside were just as intense and there was a warm sun on our backs, not a fierce one.
All right, I’m lying. You won’t really have to force me to Provence in summer – but ask me to go out of season and I will be there like a shot.
Hotel Crillon-Le-Brave (0033 4 9065 6161; www.crillonlebrave.com); doubles from £183. The Truffle and Wine weekends cost £1,050 based on two sharing, and includes dinner, bed, breakfast and all events.
La Villa Noria in Modène (9062 5066; www.villa-noria.com); doubles from £60 per night, including breakfast; dinner on request.