Friday, November 04, 2005

A&G Off to France--Day Five

(Author's note: This entry is the fifth of two weeks of daily entries about our trip to Provence.)

20 October 2005

It is necessary to put the divine light of the French Jesus first for this day's entry, so I might show mercy towards my fellow Americans, who even thousands of miles away from our home manage to disgust me too frequently. Eventually today's journal will get to a lovely road trip around the Dentelles, a happy hole in the ground and more, but I must begin with dinner and work back, if for nothing else than to get a bitchfest off my chest. Dinner was at Le Maison Gouin, a butcher shop by day, restaurant by night that received a glowing write-up in the Los Angeles Times months back from David Shaw, the sadly since passed away media critic/food writer. While Shaw's writing tended to bug me--over-elitist when it came to food, too moderate to say much when it came to the media--I wished him no harm, and he did seem to have good taste (in food, if not media). So we kept trying to find this storefront in Coustellet, just down the road from Gordes, and never did. It's as if the spirit of Shaw threw vengeful sand in our eyes for me calling him out on the blog way back when. We finally had the hotel desk book us a reservation and draw up a map, and sure enough, we had driven right by the place several times.

After sitting, we heard a nearby table with two American couples in their late 50s as one course was cleared remark, "That was terrible," and we assumed they were doing that ironic waiter shorthand people do in the States when they finish every bit on their plates. But then it became clear they weren't kidding, as they continued to berate the poor son of the owner waiter who did his best in English and was as polite as could be with questions like, "How long have you been open? Ten years?!" and other things you had to partially assume they said because they didn't think he could understand and be hurt. I mean I wanted to go over and say (among the 100 of things I rehearsed as my blood pressure rose and Amy tried to calm me): "Didn't your mothers teach you if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all? Well, my mother didn't teach that to me because she's a bit boorish and rude but I still learned that piece of advice. What's your problem?"

It got worse, as we started to get our meal (there's only one menu, so you take what they give you) and we loved the food. So, not only were these people so ungracious they made Hitler taking Poland seem like courtesy, but they had no taste. Heck, the place even made its own aperitif, a kind of bitters that tasted a bit like less stringent Campari. As a lamenter of the loss of the world of bitters (try orange bitters in your next gin martini--sorry for the redundancy, but too many people think you can put vodka in a martini--and you'll thank me later; buy it at Fee Bros.) I had to respect these folks.

The kicker was the dessert, which caused a further uproar of disgust and confusion at the table of the Ugly Americans. They were picking something up from the plate going, "What is this? Can you eat this? Why would they put something you can't eat on the plate? Do you think they're trying to kill us?" When we got our dessert, it became clear just what vulgar, tasteless rubes those folks were, for the mystery item was star anise. I sure hope no one ever serves them a cider with a cinamon stick in it.

As for the rest of the fine meal, as long as you weren't a mean idiot, that is, it included an entree of broccoli mousse with wild mushrooms and the best bacon I've ever had, a finely balanced air and earth combo; grilled lamb and rosemary with carrots and artichokes (the theme continues) and featherlight parmesan gnocchi; a trip to the cheese board with 15 deliciousnesses to opt for; a trip to the wine cellar to hunt down the wine you want--a wine geek's dream (or so this geek says)--we had Shaw's a bit rustic recommendation of a 2004 Cheateau la Canorgue Cotes du Luberon; and the dessert, a yin/yang sweet-spice/tang balance some kitchen as cutting edge as Sona's in LA might envy of oranges macerated in some liqueur (Muscat de Baum Venise?) and spices (clearly anise as the star) and a lime sorbet mouth-puckeringly tart. Get both in your mouth at the same time, and the clever kitchen alchemy happened. Risky, but brilliant.

OK, we did do things during the day, too, including a road trip up to more wines we love, namely Gigondas. There's something so grounding about seeing the spot where grapes grow and get turned into the juice you like. On the way we drive by one of Provence's most photographed sites, the Abbaye de Senanque. Only in this picture, the lavender is all harvested, and the place just looks severe, but monks live there, so I guess that's the point.

Gigondas is another sleepy lovely town on a hillside, but most of the others don't make such tasty wine at such a good price. At the base of the Dentelles, a mountain range named after lace because of their peculiar shape (although later when I see a lingerie store advertising dentelles, I think mountains and not lace...), Gigondas is chockful of tasting possibilities so we chose two. At Chateau de Saint Cosme we have to ring a bell and a pleasant woman opens the door and then many wines, including a Cote Rotie (alas, from the less than spectacular 2002 vintage). Then we go to Les Colliers Amadieu, which is set up to be more of a cattle-callish place but only 6 Brits are there while we are, one of whom sounds just like Wallace from Wallace & Grommit (a bet you say that about all the Brits...). The wines here are ok, but pale next to the Cosme experience. I go out on a limb and buy something I can only wear, not taste--their marc, a non-Cognac (of course) brandy that is so limited the tasting room worker can only apply a tiny bit of it to our wrists for us to sniff. I like floral brandies, and am sold, not to mention pleasant smelling.

Further along our clockwise ride around the Dentelles we visit Seguret, another sleepy lovely town on a hillside and learn that if the guidebooks don't say walk to the ruins, up and up and up a hill, then don't. The ruin walk doesn't ruin us, and the views are eagle-eye-rific, but we're also bearing down on lunch time. Still, Seguret has one of the approximately 394 ornate belltowers we saw, and have photographic evidence of.

We lunch at Brasserie de L'Oustal, a pizza place in Vaison-la-Romaine, where one pizza for two would do, but wisely pass on the ice cream creations, that come out in helmet-sized bowls with wooden parrots attached and lead everyone to become your friend in peals of complicit gluttony. Here we peek at the Roman ruins through the fence, a bit Roman-ed out from Nimes, and hit the road again, particularly because we have a 4:20 (no joke) tour to make at Grottes du Thouzon, which grottes to be good. I hadn't been in a cave in years and Amy was excited about it, so why not--since it was a French cave we figured it would have designer stalactites. The site is a bit sad, as it clearly was really something once in the day before TV, with the remains of a children's playground and a large picnic area. But once you're in the ground, wonder is still wonder, and wonder rarely comes on a 20" or even wide plasma screen.

On the drive back to Gordes we hit Pernes-les-Fontaines, which not only has lots of fountains but also the magic ability to make me think I'm 90 degrees turned on the map. Really I just want to take pictures, and you will see why (although this is the only spot in France we see where there's a sign that says "take pictures here"--and it probably was in English as we are the ones who would need it).

Dinner you know about, and sadly you probably also know about ignorant, inconsiderate louts abroad.


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