Saint Remy de Provence is famous for being the place where Vincent Van Gogh tried to regain sanity. Unfortunately, it seems it did not work (He shot himself a year later, it’s thought). It’s a cacophony of a village, confused and overrun. Tiny, colourful and quaint, and full of loud tourists dressed in white t-shirts and socks under sandals. They fill the narrow lanes like a plague of locusts with cameras, snapping at everything, buying tack and gorging on the regional delicacies, which are beautifully displayed in slovenly glamour and sold at high prices in hungry portion-sizes. I did try to ask the nougat seller to ‘super-size me’. Apparently that’s not funny.
Market day is both mayhem and a homage to french tourism. I described the Tarascon market as Maman, but Saint Remy is a PR agent. It’s both perfect and horrible. The stalls are designed for photographers, with distressed wood, antique linen and provincial yellow predominating all backdrops. Lavender in bunches rest as prettily as a Fragonard damsel in rickety baskets, or in colourful cotton pouches. Shoppers speaking only english snap them up as if they still use things that smell like grandma in their knickers drawers. Brocante traders tote silver plate and buffed copper with appropriate dents and bruises of history. They snarl at children with their sticky fingers and clumsy elbows, yet bow and flower at anyone who knows how to say “how much is this lovely thing?” in French.
The food is good, but not as special as it can be (e.g. at Tarascon). Locals avoid this place like the plague, so food is to be bought and munched presently – no cooking required. It’s understood the clients stay in hotels. Cheese is comprehensive, as is saucisson, and most baked goods – look for both macarons and macaroons, and even some macaroons that think they are macarons. The treat is the nougat. Pavlova-sized pats shaped with Van Gough’s palette knife, and exploding with just about anything you can think of. I bought some with salted caramel chunks in a cake-shaped wedge, and was rewarded with enough sugar to last me until Christmas, and a new crown for my molar into the bargain.
Don’t fill up at the market though. Saint Remy de Provence may even be better called upon when it is not market day (Wednesday for the big one, but Tuesday and Saturday also have small markets). It may be possible to at least find a carpark within a one-kilometre walk of the town in Summer.
- Seek out the Bistrot Decouvert, with its cult following, well priced regional dishes, some with a modern twist, and excellent wine list
- The tourist favourite, Grain de Sel.
- There are also a couple of Michelin Stars in the village – Marc de Passorio at Hotel Le Vallon de Valrugues, just a short stroll out of town, with his modern cuisine
- and La Maison Jaune, which sticks to a more traditional style.
La Maison Jaune gets mixed reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. It is definitely a love-it-or-leave it kind of place, and personally I’m heading towards the love-it end. It seems very likely that some past reviews have hurt, but that advice has been taken. Prices are (now) reasonable – a 38 Euro set lunch menu will give you four courses and mini-bits at either end. The menu remains simple, but could never be called negligent. Flavours are fresh and seasonal in the main. Perhaps some expect fireworks when dining in a Michelin Star restaurant. They probably won’t find them here. It’s a little yellow house, that is all. It’s tiny (only seats 35+), and the menu and wine list are also brief. But the food is really quite good, and the atmosphere sweet and gentle.
Amuse bouches were amusing – pretty quail eggs with tomato creme, salt cod mousse and a very good and mild chevre shaped like mini marshmallows. The Pistou froid de légumes – a cold vegetable dish with a thorough understanding of the summer palate was perfectly balanced and sized. The pigeon richly flavoured and exactly cooked for main (this was the only let-down. The advertised pintade with anise was not available)
Cheese was a celebration of la Chevre (the goat), and partnered with a very inspiring green tomato marmalade (see recipe below). Dessert was extraordinary, yet uncomplicated. Pithless orange segments spiralled in a peach-tea soup with candied peel and micro basil. My son stole my passionfruit granita. “Friandises”, served after the meal, were equally perfect. Tropical pate de fruits in pyramid form, wafers of nougat and candied drunken cumquats had both me and my companions moaning.
After the meal, we met with chef Francois Perraud, who was kind enough to share the recipe for his excellent accompaniment to salty and zesty goats cheese. Our friends will return next week to relive the experience a nuit. We might compare Marc de Passorio’s offering.
Marmelade de tomates vertes
- 1 kg green zebra tomatoes, peeled and deseeded
- 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla bean greans (1 bean)
- 1 cinnamon quill (or 1/2 tsp cinnamon powder)
- 2 tsp fleur du sel (coarse salt)
- a dash of balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- Chop tomatoes, then marinate in vinegar, salt, cinnamon and vanilla for several hours (preferably 24)
- Add tomatoes to sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to the boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer.
- Stir frequently, adding a dash of water if necessary to stop sticking. When tomatoes are very soft and liquid has reduced (about 2 hours) remove from heat, blend, cool, and pour into sterilized jars.
Green Zebra tomatoes are found at markets all over Provence in season (summer) – either with a yellow or red hue. If not available, try and find any kind of green or yellow tomato variety that is not simply a rock-hard under-ripe fruit.