Alain Ducasse’s Provence, France, Etihad Airways
“No genius has ever come from the kitchen.” So says Alain Ducasse, France’s greatest living chef. He agrees that Marie Curie or Leonardo da Vinci shared rare gifts with the world, but Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià, even himself? Nothing more than a conduit between the farm and the plate.
It’s a theory I’m keen to put to the test at his former home, Le Bastide de Moustiers, a 12-bedroom country house in Moustiers Saint-Marie in Provence with a restaurant. Or a restaurant with 12 country-rooms, if you put your stomach in charge. Which is Ducasse’s intention.
That a celebrity, multi-Michelin-starred chef (at the last count he has 27) can open up his home as a hotel isn’t that far-fetched. Ducasse has 27 restaurants, a haute cuisine school, a series of best-selling cook books (J’Aime Paris and J’Aime Monaco are treated like Bibles in his homeland), tutorial apps, even a culinary encyclopaedia which he’s authored. It’s this overwhelming moralistic desire to teach the world how to cook and live a better life (through slow cooking and veg, veg, veg) that has brought me to Provence. To help master my own limited kitchen habits – and test out Ducasse’s ‘genius’ theory, I’ve driven from Nice to seek inspiration from France’s number one culinary visionary. The idea on paper is simple: drive a fast car, eat slow food, lead a better life. Really, how hard could it be?
Not that everyone arrives on four wheels, of course. At Le Bastide de Moustiers, there are two other ways to get past the wrought-iron gate. Firstly, there’s a helicopter pad cut into the grass lawn in front of the dining terrace. It’s for those, like the George Clooney A-listers at the annual Cannes Film Festival or Monte Carlo Grand Prix (both held in May), who can’t bear to waste a moment like me, driving the winding second- and third-gear roads that wind around the beautiful 700m-deep Gorge du Verdon river gorge. It’s known as France’s Grand Canyon, with an aquamarine river writhing at its base, but they’d still prefer to fly in from Nice. Alain Ducasse, perhaps to the surprise of many, first rode into town on the back of a motorbike.
The story, as he tells it, is that twenty years ago he discovered a house standing amidst lavender and olive trees. He was riding at random, without purpose, but compulsion drove him to drive in, tour the place and then buy it. “I made it my anchoring harbour, my home, before deciding to open it to others,” Ducasse recalls. “It has always had this very special place in my heart, and it still has today.”
For all its proximity to my home in the UK, I’ve never been to Provence. France yes, but Provence is not France. Don’t make that mistake. Sure it shares the same language, Gallic charm, and raison d’être, but it very much has its own rhythm, culture and specific personality. “Why would you want to go to Paris?” one woman shrugs, after asking if I’ve been to the southern French region before. More fool me. There isn’t the same wariness that you may find in Nice, or the French capital. Each café, restaurant or wine bar murmurs along with the lilting hom-di-hom gossip of the easy-going Provencal. The colours and smells of Provence, Ducasse says, run in his blood, almost as if they’re part of his DNA.
I sit for dinner, my belly in knots through a mix of anticipation and hunger. The table is laid out like an effortless picnic in the fading sunlight. Rather than a basket of sliced crusty bread, there is a wooden board, a bread knife and a whole oven-hot crusty loaf. The olive oil is the sweet and lemon yellow. There is toast with a hint of garlic and field greens, a fresh goat cheese tart, lightly braised apricots, lamb from Beauregard, cheese from Banon, truffle from Riez, melon from Cavaillon – it’s the most honest, simple cuisine. With each course, five in total, and accompanying Provencal wines, six, or maybe seven, the evening fades into soft focus and up into the stars.
The next morning I rise later than planned, waking to the sound of shrilling cicadas. Almost obsessively, I can see the handiwork of Ducasse around me. The chef has designed every inch of his inn. The wooden queen size bed has been chosen by him, as have the country wardrobes, the shabby chic bedside tables, lampshades, fixtures and fittings. The lacquered wooden floor, twin washbasins and bidet. The marble bathtub. The lavender hand soaps and face creams. Each and every small detail is precise, angled this way, not that way, and just so. Novelties picked up on antique hunts throughout Provence hang on the walls, picnic baskets collected by the baker’s dozen dot the building and there are bicycles to discover the country lanes that lead down to the nearby Lake of Sainte-Croix propped up outside. If he pops by later to stack wood by the fireplace and pull the shutters wide, letting the mid-morning light fall across the floor in ribbons, it wouldn’t surprise me. It very much feels like I’m wandering around inside his head.
Leaving the inn, down the path past the lavender and oleander bushes, I strike out to explore the surrounding countryside. Lush, wild and totally uncorrupted by motorways or urban clog, the region of Haute Provence is a rolling landscape of violet fields, pine-covered hills, emerald lakes, and rosemary-scented provincial towns, some of which have been wonderfully left behind in the late 19th century. I can see the farmers and sandal-wearing winemakers waving goodbye to the 21st century unplugging their phones and modems and settling in for a life of provincial bliss as if in a wonderful, hazy dream. Somehow, everything seems ripe and virgin.
Moustiers Saint-Marie is such a place. Dissected by a ravine and gushing waterfall, which sprays its charm down into the village below, it’s an eagle’s nest in which painters, ceramicists and food-lovers stumble upon and never quite find time to leave. The whole of the town, with its rough-scaled walls and limestone pavements, is effectively a car-free zone. You walk everywhere because you have to, but also because it’s so effortlessly rewarding. A brisk 15-minute from the centre, no more than a scattering of cafes serving charcuterie and chipped glasses of wine, brings you up 262-stone steps to the Chapel of Notre-Dame de Beauvoir. Plumped some 830m above the town, it was built in the late 12th century and is a beautiful mix of gothic and the medieval. If you asked a five-year-old child to draw a brilliant, seemingly impossible church, then this would be it.
Above the town, a gilded star hangs on a 225m-long chain, suspended between two cliffs. The locals say it was put there as a chivalrous gesture by a knight during the Crusades, who hung it as a token of affection for his lover before he left the valley. No one knows how it got there, and when it was needed replacing a decade ago, a helicopter was brought in to rehang it. Either way, the romance is all part of the puzzle.
Call it a sign, but later that day, Provence has well and truly gotten under my skin. I find it laid back, chatty, and everything seems so much more – well – pleasant and polite. “It’s all in the pronunciation,” a wine-seller tells me. “It’s merci beaucoup. If you say beau-coup, then, well…” She tails off. What she’s trying to tell me, I find out later, is my pronunciation makes it sound like ‘beau cul’. Which means nice butt. You’d never get that pity in Paris.
The following morning, with the car loaded up with far too many goodies (Provencal herbs, charcuterie and eye-watering cheap bottles of plonk), I beetle along roads lined with cedar and pine through Cotignac, a sinuous old town that’s the heart of Provence’s wine region. The road winds through sweet-scented fields of grape vines, burgeoning with white flowers and fruit, each one ripening in the midday sun. Many come to this part of Provence to see Cotignac’s old town quarter, cleft into the side of a rock-face, or hike on the trails 6km to the village of Sillans-la-Cascade, where you can find a 42-metre high waterfall. These are spectacles I’ll have to save for next time.
A short 30-minute drive away, is La Celle. With so many distractions on my doorstep, it’s the kind of place that would be easy to breeze past without blinking, but Ducasse has moved in and redrawn the Michelin map. Picture the scene: his second starred inn, Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, is now a charming residence adjoining a 12th century Benedictine abbey, a historical monument where nuns once went to war with the court in Versailles by organising trysts. Despite its grandiose history, and the national scandal that resulted, it’s an unfussy, uncluttered building and I instantly feel at home. Until that is the manager tells me Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed on their last visit and it was where former President Jacques Chirac spent weeks on end when he came to write his memoirs. Well, I never.
Not far from the inn, I pass the cloisters and pick my way through the garden. Another of Ducasse’s treasures, it’s made up of thematic gardens: one for herbs, salads, roots, wild plants and one for the everyday. There are find 25 varieties of tomato, 15 varieties of basil, four varieties of courgette and four varieties of squash and aubergine. And there are also peppers, strawberries, persimmon, fennel, beet and Swiss chard. “I wanted to plant a garden where everyone could make discoveries,” says Ducasse. “It reveals itself as you explore it.” The garden is punctuated with fir trees, unusual sculptures and centuries-old olive trees. Really, he’s thought about everything as if it were a ingredients for a pastry.
Before dinner, I take a short walk around the village, a sleepy collection of houses and little much else. Yet there’s a huge amount of respect, even reverence, from the locals: I’ve come to see their square, their abbey, their main street – and with some many hundreds of similar villages across the province to choose from – it’s taken as a serious compliment. How very Provencal.
Still, it’s the cooking at Le Hostellerie de l’Abbaye that now brings a steady stream of traffic to La Celle. Chef Benoit Witz heads up the kitchen – a long time disciple, he joined Alain Ducasse at the opening of the Louis XV in Monaco in 1987. Like Le Bastide, the cooking is delicate and fragrant: the menu bounces between chicken liver terrine, autumn salad with cep mushrooms, quail eggs and cured ham, and – naturally – tender vegetables from the garden. The heart and the soul of the menu, as it is in several of his other restaurants, is Ducasse’s signature cookpot, a blend of as many vegetables as he can fit into one casserole dish. And that’s plenty.
“No genius has ever come from the kitchen.” What nonsense. We may now agree on plenty of things – the importance of slow food, say, or the wonder of the colours and scents of his home region – but this opinion isn’t one of them. From this day on, wherever I am, if I’m in need of a pick-me up, I’ll close my eyes and think of Provence. If that appeals to the aesthete in you, then it’s the recipe for the perfect life.