When you fall in love with a place, you don’t want it to change. And yet when
it does, there are sometimes wonderful surprises. Whatever alchemy originally made it so special often lends itself to a new configuration, resulting in something delightfully different yet comfortingly familiar. Provence is one of those places. While not all change here (or anywhere, for that matter) is good, exciting islands of creativity are popping up throughout the region. This sunny swath of southern France has long been a crossroads, and today as always outsiders—other French as well as foreigners—are behind many of these initiatives. These “newcomers” (many have lived here for years) are often as enamored and protective of this
land and lifestyle as the locals themselves, and their work invariably has a Provençal soul.
Below is a selection of exciting contemporary creations we found scattered from Arles to Aubagne—surely only the tip of a very cool iceberg.
By Karen Taylor
THE NEW FRENCH COUNTRY
Edouard Loubet was only 21 years old when he moved to Provence and opened his first hotel and restaurant, Le Moulin de Lourmarin. At 24, he received his first Michelin star (he was the youngest starred chef in France) and at 29, earned his second. Now 36, this talented and driven chef has left Lourmarin to pursue even more ambitious challenges in Bonnieux. Here, on a 17-acre site that was once a way station for shepherds, he and his wife, Isabelle, are creating an idyllic getaway celebrating Provençal art de vivre.
Originally from Savoy, the Loubets have always felt at home in Provence. “There is the same strong sense of family, with people getting together for big meals on weekends and holidays,” says Edouard. “And as in Savoy, people are close to nature and the seasons, the lifestyle is very authentic. When we moved to Bonnieux, we wanted to give our guests different ways to experience that lifestyle.”
They began with La Bastide, a new restaurant and hotel. Infused with the relaxed charm so typical of the region, the traditional stone building has large windows that make the sunlight and surrounding countryside as much a part of the décor as the natural linen tablecloths, antiqued-white wood furniture and cream-colored ceramics. The look is light and elegant yet rooted in the local terroir—much like Loubet’s cuisine.
The chef is famous for deftly weaving the region’s herbs, flowers, plants and heirloom vegetables into his creations. “I love all the wonderful tastes and colors here,” he says. “But Provençal meals typically consist of one hearty dish, and people no longer eat that way. They want lighter fare. So my approach is to put a lot of flavor in the juices and sauces; that way, you get a lot of taste without heaviness.” A perfect example is his carré d’agneau au serpolet des Claparèdes, a refined variation on a Provençal classic. Served in an enameled cast-iron dish, it is uncovered at the table: the steaming juices give off such an intense aroma of wild thyme that heads turn throughout the dining room.
Last year, La Bastide was joined by La Ferme, 14 ground-floor apartments that can be rented separately or en suite to accommodate up to 18 guests. While still respecting the basics of Provençal style—simplicity and natural materials such as stone, wood and wrought iron—they are resolutely modern, with polished-concrete kitchen counters, sleek soaking tubs and Italian throw rugs.
To make guests feel right at home, each apartment has a private terrace complete with an herb garden, and breakfast pastries are delivered in a straw basket hung on the front door. Guests may elect to cook in, dine out or have their meals catered. And as of this summer, they can also opt for meals at La Ferme’s new Pool House restaurant, which offers a more casual take on Loubet’s cuisine.
Yet another delicious possibility: cooking classes with the master himself. These may involve visiting producers of goat cheese, honey or other local goodies; collecting wild herbs in the garrigue; or harvesting vegetables from the chef’s garden. Meals are then prepared in the Loubets’ home kitchen and enjoyed around the family’s long wooden table. It would be difficult to imagine a more delightful way to share in this chef’s passionate love affair with Provence.
La Bastide de Capelongue, 84480 Bonneiux-en-Provence. Tel. 33/4-90-75-89-78; capelongue.com.
French vintners were understandably perplexed when wine labels from other countries began sporting kangaroos, penguins and an entire zoo’s worth of other fauna. Where were the châteaux? Where was the decorum?
Soon, though, they caught on that these designs reflected the public’s thirst for wines that were more approachable, fun even. Laurent Duménil and Ludovic Remaury, both with extensive experience in the wine business, have gone even further in catering to the demands of today’s consumers, coming up with an entirely new way to select and enjoy wine.
Don’t even think of cute little animals or clever puns—XL Wines are a class act. Packaged in clear, elegant bottles, they dispense with labels altogether, using metallic serigraphy to convey all written information. Of which there is, in fact, very little—no domain name, no grape varietal, no château or vineyard. Instead, big numbers indicate the perfect time of day to consume the contents: The Provençal rosés, for example, are 12:30 P.M. wines—the ideal accompaniment for lunch on a sunny balcony.
This simplicity and humor make the brand hip yet devoid of the snobbery often associated with wine. The partners put just as much thought into the wines themselves, working with some 25 vineyards in southern France to come up with quality blends—a red, a white and a rosé—that remain consistent from year to year. Their efforts have paid off: This June, Gault Millau included XL Wines among its 20 favorite rosés.
The concept is so different that it has created a new market, with the 25 cl bottles finding their way into minibars at boutique hotels and onto the shelves of the Paris concept store Colette. Launched in 2005, XL Wines are now distributed in some 20 countries, mostly in restaurants and hotels. Especially popular are the holiday gift bottles; last year, the X was encrusted with glittering Swarovski crystals. Coming soon: Champagne by XL Wines—sure to be perfect any time of day.
Few names evoke Provençal cuisine as immediately as that of Reine Sammut. Yet the Michelin-starred chef who has immersed herself in the culinary traditions of this region for more than three decades is originally from the Vosges—only her accent betrays that she was not born and bred here.
Sammut, who learned to cook from her mother-in-law, presided over a restaurant in Lourmarin for 22 years before moving down the road to a bucolic 17-acre property formerly occupied by an equestrian school. La Fenière, opened in 1997, includes several guestrooms decorated in classic Provençal style. In 2000, she added an amusing lodging option that shows a different side of the region’s heritage: two colorful gypsy caravans parked in a meadow.
This past October, Sammut renovated the restaurant, adding designer colors and accessories but generally paring things down. “When you stay in a place for a long time, you keep adding things bit by bit—I was beginning to feel suffocated!” She and her husband also moved out of their nearby mas, which they then turned into a guesthouse. Its four spacious rooms are now an inviting blend of traditional and modern, with antiques mixed in with contemporary paintings and baths with lava tiles and vessel sinks.
The boldest ideas, however, were saved for the old stables, now called Bellevue. “The building is made of concrete and not very attractive, so for years we tried to hide it with a row of cypress trees,” explains Sammut. “Finally, we realized that the answer was to give it a totally modern makeover.” The low-slung edifice now contains a series of five hip suites with views of the rolling countryside and private terraces opening onto a sleek black lap pool. Furnishings are a combination of Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand designs with a dash of IKEA thrown in for fun. Sammut credits a local interior decorator with the design—except, that is, for the black-and-white poster of Mick Jagger hanging above one of the beds. “That was my husband’s idea!” she laughs.
Auberge La Fenière, Route de Cadenet, BP 18, 84160 Lourmarin. Tel. 33/4-90-68-11-79; aubergelafeniere.com.