Eating like a local in the Luberon

July 5th, 2008

Plunge into Provence, absorb the aromas and moods of each season with a stroll through the local market. For the vagabondgourmand, Apt is the market of choice, and summer is the season to catch the region at its aromatic best. I have made regular pilgrimages to this market for over a dozen years, always finding a few new twists on classic Provençal specialties. Apt, a crossroads since Roman times, lies in a valley at the foot of the Luberon mountain range, an hour east of Avignon. Midway between Cavaillon’s melon fields and the goat-dappled hills of Banon, this corner of the Vaucluse département has been a center of fruit production for centuries.

Saturday is the major market day, and a good starting point is the shady square facing Apt’s city hall. I stopped to buy a few cherries and a bottle of apple-quince juice when I noticed two flats of green almonds on the same stall. The shorter of two brothers, whose products caught my attention, quickly engaged me in conversation. As I paid the vendor, I ventured a few questions about the fresh almonds. The answers were supplied up by a large man, a regular customer who arrived with greetings to all around, eased himself behind the stall, plucked a few cherries to nibble on and purchased four kilos of the pale green nuts. The brothers deferred to “the chef” and left us to the questions and answers. In response to my query about how he would use these almonds, he chuckled and reached for another cherry: “…in a compote of fresh fruit, for instance”. His large sacks of both green almonds and glistening cherries piqued my curiosity, and I wondered how these ingredients would turn up on today’s menu. Sensing that he was ready to rush back to the Auberge du Luberon kitchen, I asked if we could book a table for dinner. “Bien sûr” Serge Peuzin replied, “à ce soir!

That evening, we were seated on the Auberge terrace and studied our menus. I could see how this Maitre Cuisinier de France is true to his terroir : an entire, elaborate menu is devoted to his interpretations of local ingredients using the fruit confit (glazed, preserved fruits), an industry that has put Apt on many a gastronome’s map. My focus returned to the subject at hand, almonds. I was pleased to discover Peuzin’s inspired touch of almond milk with a tender duck filet. Long story short: it was succulent, a contrast to the garnish of a savory polenta cake studded with plump cherries from this morning’s market. Later, when he rolled the dessert cart up to our table, I noted fresh green almonds in a compote of apricots, but my choice was an almond tart – Peuzin’s interpretation of a Savoy walnut tart, using caramelized almonds on a shortbread crust. As a garnish, I chose a small cup of brousse (sheep’s milk soft cheese) topped with a layer of pear compote. No doubt about it, this chef knows his terroir, and interprets each season’s market bounty with a flair. Reserve a table at Restaurant Serge Peuzin, l’Auberge du Luberon (a Logis de France hotel), 8 place Faubourg du Ballet, tel: 04 90 741 250 (to call from outside France, dial 33, and drop the first 0).

La Manade, a cozy restaurant deep in the heart of old Apt, is set on a narrow street leading from the rue des Marchands to the old Roman forum ruins on Place Jean Jaurès. Since it was opened by a young couple from Arles in 2004, I have enjoyed a lunch or dinner at La Manade during each visit to the area. The chef, Jean-François Christin, never ceases to surprise me with his interpretations of Provençal cuisine. Specialties of the Camargue region are featured: both le taureau – the black bull native to the Bouche du Rhône delta – and fresh fish are on the menu. The chef’s take on the traditional fish stew, cotriade, is a wonder of textures as firm strips of lotte (monkfish) form a pyramid over bulb fennel cooked al dente (perhaps with a splash of Pernod?). Call to reserve a table, tel: 04 90 04 79 06, at La Manade, 36 rue Rene Cassin. Katy Christin will welcome you warmly.

Another inventive chef in the center of Apt is Cyrille Petit, who explores seasonal themes for the tables at Le Platane on rue Jules Ferry. Their vegetarian menu always intrigues me, and on this visit it included a delicious lasagne aux épinards (spinach) et aux brousse. His touch with spice is a revelation, poaching fish with badiane (star anise) – but I would opt for the squid and shrimp, écornets et gambas aux legumes, any day. This summer, red fruit reigns on the dessert menu, which includes a creamy, perfect panna cotta coulis fruits rouge. Dine on the shady terrace or in the dining room, where Edith Petit’s whimsical, contemporary touch and selection of jazz brightens a sunny or rainy day. La Platane is a popular lunch spot after the Saturday market, so be sure to reserve, tel: 04 90 04 74 36.

** Let us know your favorite markets, contribute your own tips on market-fresh ingredients discovered during summer travel…..’tis the season!

Next up: Meet a wheat farmer and nut producer in the Charente…. anticipating a slim harvest.