Peerless Provence

Peerless Provence

Super chef-hotelier Jean Andre Charial is right. Everything about Provence is magical: the light, the countryside, the rocks. Driving from Avignon to Les Baux-de-Provence is the stuff that feel-good films are made of—endless fields, olive groves, stone houses with spewing chimneys. Like all good films, there’s a twist in the tale in the shape of Les Baux, as-much-citadel-as-village, high up in the jagged cliffs called the Alpilles.

The village of old buildings and uneven stone-paved lanes is beautiful, but it’s an eerie beautiful, in winter. The mayor’s Romanesque house resounds with echoes; an old woman in the solitary (open) shop yowls for attention; the muscle-flexing Mistral blows the church door ominously shut behind visitors.

It doesn’t help that within walking distance of Les Baux stands Val d’Enfer, or the Valley of Hell, which legend says is peopled by goblins and witches. Luckily, it’s also peopled by the delightful owners and staff of l’Oustav de Baumaniere, a 16th century farmhouse that is now a chic country retreat, and my destination.

It was in 1945 that Raymond Thuilier, an insurance executive from Lyon, spotted, fell in love with and bought the then-crumbling building. He repaired and refurbished it and created a gastronomic wonder called l’Oustau de Baumanière. This is now run by his grandson Jean-André Charial and his designer wife Geneviève.

Charial says when his grandfather started the hotel, Les Baux was nothing but a ghost town. “While all the great French restaurants were located along on the national highway that everyone took to reach the Riviera, my grandfather came into the wilds of Les Alpilles to invent a new concept of luxury. Oustau was the muse for the Relais & Châteaux hotel association, which was founded much later.” (Oustau was also the first French restaurant outside of Paris to earn three Michelin stars. It has only two now, but the third should be back.)

A luminous Mediterranean air overruns Baumaniere. Blue and white are in abundance, both indoors and out, with the colours of the earth filling in the blanks. The sky and pool evoke the inky blue of Van Gogh, who lived for many years in a sanatorium not too far away. Sophistication beds simplicity in the 30 guest rooms. Consider the tree growing at the foot of the bed in one room. A clock is embedded in the headboard in another. A flat screen acts as a virtual picture frame. The mood is lazy, but always luxurious. The dining room, with its vaulted ceiling, quirky table decorations and contemporary lighting, encourages lingering over good food and wine. Of which there is plenty.

The Oustau kitchen buzzes with energy and excitement. Most of the staff is young, but everyone marches to the dual beat that resonates through the house: perfection and simplicity. Jean-André, trained as a cook and winemaker, has worked with great chefs like Pierre Troisgros, Alain Chapel, Paul Bocuse and Frédy Girardet. The multiple grounding in modern gastronomy stands Charial in good stead. While never renouncing his heritage, he continually experiments and encourages experimentation, creating stylized flavours with home-grown produce and other carefully chosen ingredients.

The kitchen garden is his pride, brimming with peas, zucchini, tomatoes, and an overload of herbs. The hotelier, who has an exceptional wine cellar, also has his own olive grove and a wineyard, where he produces a wine he calls L’Affectif.

In recent year, Charial has begun to play a more relaxed role in the kitchen. He still dons his whites for a cooking class (more often than not for guests) or when extra hands are needed on busy summer days. But on others, you’ll see him sitting chatting with guests in the dining room, or away cultivating wine on ‘biodynamic principles’.

Writer Frédéric Dard once said of Thuilier’s Baumanière, “It is not a country inn; it is a reward. L’Oustau is a secret, hidden away on the fringe of the real world, born from the encounter between a place and a man, one just as exceptional as the other.” You could say the same of Charial’s Baumanière.

Courtesy: India Today Spice (First Oublished in March 2008)

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