ROAD magazine March 2013 : Page 80

Provincial Roots with Provençal Flair By: Peter Easton avier Mathieu’s neatly fl owing mane of gray-streaked, shoulder length hair ages the thirty-six year old super chef prematurely, but only in appearance. Deep in the scrubby forest that drapes the hillside of the village of Joucas in Provence, Mathieu tends to his property like a farmer tends his crops, a herder herds his fl ock and a vintner tends his vines. In addition to being a remarkable chef, Mathieu is all of these, exuding the electrifying combination of disciplined artist and young chef extraordinaire while maintaining the steely gaze that personifi es life in the Luberon. Cycling from the tree lined driveway of Mathieu’s luxury stone enclave, the expansive and incredibly fertile Luberon plain bridges the northern Vaucluse Mountains with the Petit and Grand Luberon Mountains to the southeast. Th e cycling -a network of tiny back roads that seem to haphazardly connect farms, vineyards and ancient hilltop towns -is a rouleur’s dream. Th e food and wine are a resounding testament to the bounties produced by the land and the proud people who farm it. Th e personality, exemplifi ed by Mathieu and hidden behind the thick skin of Provençal life, is at once serious, creative and playful, the art of a man who personifi es a way of life that can be viewed as uniquely ordinary. Th is refreshing take on life fi rmly planted in the soil of one’s roots leaves little to the imagination, until you sit at Mathieu’s table for an unparalleled dining experience. And much like cycling in the Luberon, there may be nothing to initially draw one close other than a desire to experience the original reasons I started riding my bike in the fi rst place -the simple sensations of freedom, exploration and sensory indulgence. As an outsider, simply categorizing Provence as a contiguous region is an unfair assessment, both geographically and culturally. Each of the départements that comprises the region -there are six in all -maintain a unique expression of French life based on history and culture, food and wine, sports and business. Within the boundaries of the Vaucluse, which includes the Luberon region and the expansive Luberon National Park, the iconic Mont Ventoux and its slopes step forward as the watchtower of the area, the sole proprietor for the adventurous and crazy alike. Upon X conquering Mont Ventoux, it is necessary then to expand the cycling adventure and investigate what experiences lay beyond the massively stripped peak of Provence’s giant. In doing so, I believe the search can be a short one, as a multi-layered indulgence into the essence of what defi nes Provence lays just over the shallow ridge of the Vaucluse Mountains, in the heart of the Luberon. Southern France is best known for the allure of the Côte d'Azur, and the seemingly perfect lifestyle that is draped across its beaches. But it is as overpriced and overrated as it is overdeveloped. Further inland, the Vaucluse region stretches across a vast area of mildly developed land, highlighted by acres of vineyards, miles of forests and unique geological formations that rise out of the landscape. Th e physical enjoyment of cycling through the Vaucluse is complemented by the heightening of two primary senses -visual and aromatic. Amidst the emerald green spruce trees bowing gently in the breeze, clay colored limestone gorges, cliff s and mountains rise in stark contrast to the deep ruby shades of plump vineyard rows and the fi rst hint of the changing leaves. Th e Roman Empire fl ourished amidst the plains and rolling hills as the Rhône River yawns into the marshy bouchon that meanders and spreads into the Mediterranean. Time passes at a slower pace in this part of France, and the change is marked in centuries as Roman ruins remain proudly at the center of cultural life. Th e dizzying array of artistry from the local kitchens that is so meticulously crafted and elegantly presented is the perfect center piece for linking the physical sensations of cycling, the terroir and the sensory delights that come with tasting it. Add to this an endless selection of beautifully crafted wines, many unavailable outside of local boundaries, and one is forgiven for indulging in a prolonged descent into culinary excellence unrivalled anywhere else in the country – a remarkably diverse experience, even within the confi nes of what constitutes Provence. One element the varying landscapes share is the light, a magical combination of pink and orange that dresses the hillsides as if there is a great spotlight in the sky, and the

Provence

Peter Easton

Provincial Roots with Provençal Flair

Xavier Mathieu’s neatly flowing mane of gray-streaked, shoulder length hair ages the thirty-six year old super chef prematurely, but only in appearance. Deep in the scrubby forest that drapes the hillside of the village of Joucas in Provence, Mathieu tends to his property like a farmer tends his crops, a herder herds his flock and a vintner tends his vines. In addition to being a remarkable chef, Mathieu is all of these, exuding the electrifying combination of disciplined artist and young chef extraordinaire while maintaining the steely gaze that personifies life in the Luberon. Cycling from the tree lined driveway of Mathieu’s luxury stone enclave, the expansive and incredibly fertile Luberon plain bridges the northern Vaucluse Mountains with the Petit and Grand Luberon Mountains to the southeast. The cycling - a network of tiny back roads that seem to haphazardly connect farms, vineyards and ancient hilltop towns - is a rouleur’s dream. The food and wine are a resounding testament to the bounties produced by the land and the proud people who farm it. The personality, exemplified by Mathieu and hidden behind the thick skin of Provençal life, is at once serious, creative and playful, the art of a man who personifies a way of life that can be viewed as uniquely ordinary.This refreshing take on life firmly planted in the soil of one’s roots leaves little to the imagination, until you sit at Mathieu’s table for an unparalleled dining experience. And much like cycling in the Luberon, there may be nothing to initially draw one close other than a desire to experience the original reasons I started riding my bike in the first place - the simple sensations of freedom, exploration and sensory indulgence.

As an outsider, simply categorizing Provence as a contiguous region is an unfair assessment, both geographically and culturally. Each of the départements that comprises the region - there are six in all - maintain a unique expression of French life based on history and culture, food and wine, sports and business. Within the boundaries of the Vaucluse, which includes the Luberon region and the expansive Luberon National Park, the iconic Mont Ventoux and its slopes step forward as the watchtower of the area, the sole proprietor for the adventurous and crazy alike. Upon conquering Mont Ventoux, it is necessary then to expand the cycling adventure and investigate what experiences lay beyond the massively stripped peak of Provence’s giant. In doing so, I believe the search can be a short one, as a multi-layered indulgence into the essence of what defines Provence lays just over the shallow ridge of the Vaucluse Mountains, in the heart of the Luberon.

Southern France is best known for the allure of the Côte d'Azur, and the seemingly perfect lifestyle that is draped across its beaches. But it is as overpriced and overrated as it is overdeveloped. Further inland, the Vaucluse region stretches across a vast area of mildly developed land, highlighted by acres of vineyards, miles of forests and unique geological formations that rise out of the landscape. The physical enjoyment of cycling through the Vaucluse is complemented by the heightening of two primary senses - visual and aromatic. Amidst the emerald green spruce trees bowing gently in the breeze, clay colored limestone gorges, cliffs and mountains rise in stark contrast to the deep ruby shades of plump vineyard rows and the first hint of the changing leaves. The Roman Empire flourished amidst the plains and rolling hills as the Rhône River yawns into the marshy bouchon that meanders and spreads into the Mediterranean. Time passes at a slower pace in this part of France, and the change is marked in centuries as Roman ruins remain proudly at the center of cultural life. The dizzying array of artistry from the local kitchens that is so meticulously crafted and elegantly presented is the perfect center piece for linking the physical sensations of cycling, the terroir and the sensory delights that come with tasting it. Add to this an endless selection of beautifully crafted wines, many unavailable outside of local boundaries, and one is forgiven for indulging in a prolonged descent into culinary excellence unrivalled anywhere else in the country – a remarkably diverse experience, even within the confines of what constitutes Provence.

One element the varying landscapes share is the light, a magical combination of pink and orange that dresses the hillsides as if there is a great spotlight in the sky, and the Star of the show begins to sing at sunset. The ochre hills of Roussillon, the stone colored bastions of Gordes, the camouflaged hillside village of Joucas. Sunrise and sunset are the most brilliant times of the day, echoing the personality of the landscape that may sometimes seem monochromatic beneath a blinding sun and crystal blue sky. The reflections across the brilliant vineyards, soaked in vibrant shades of red, brown, yellow and green, shimmer in a kaleidoscope of contrast to the massive walls of grey rocks and cliffs, scaleless as they thrust upward, their shadows strewn across the tan walls and roofs of the simply constructed buildings that sit at their base.

The Luberon region consists of two mountain ranges - the Petit Luberon and the Grand Luberon, with the range neatly divided in half by the impressive Combe de Lourmarin, a massive gorge that twists its way from the remnants of the village of Buoux to the doorstep of the Château de Lourmarin, a famous 12th century fortress. Cycling in the Luberon is far different than other areas of Provence, and is certainly about more than just the methodical churning of the pedals to climb Mont Ventoux. The landscape is a cornucopia of sights and aromas that are indigenous to this area, worked by the olive growers, cheese makers, winemakers and farmers. It is here that the aromas of Xavier’s kitchen and the artistry that adorns his plates are founded in an expression of this distinctly insular region. And the best way to consume the flavors of the Luberon is to indulge in what I enjoy most - cycling, food and wine. There is no better place to begin than in the neighborhood surrounding Mathieu’s enclave.

Riding the Col de Murs is not as much about climbing a col, in the Alpine sense, as it is weaving along a swath of road cut into the Mediterranean landscape - garrigue as it is called, describing the burnt ochre shrub and pine colored scrub that fills hillsides across the region - climbing to a maximum height of 670 meters just beyond the remote village of Murs. The dividing line between the Luberon and the Vaucluse visually, sensory, and for the cyclist, terrain wise, is this village. And while the Luberon is technically part of the Vaucluse, there is a distinct difference in the cultural identities, landscape and history that singles out the Luberon. The Luberon maintains a remote, almost solitary feel that can at times feel proudly indigenous and self-sufficient, and at other times wildly abandoned. The bucolic and charming is all present in a maze of narrow, crooked roads seemingly intertwined with itself, leading any number of ways to the same place - a perfect example of choosing the long way to get somewhere, a sense of underlining the sensation that permeates life here - what’s the hurry? Olive groves and sage brush; a midday heat even in September that can shutter a town so silent the only noise is a breeze. To ride through the Luberon is to embrace this same ideal. To not have anywhere to go specifically, but to explore the valleys and the hillsides and marvel at the landscape that explodes in three dimensions, scaleless in its appearance, breathtaking in its power.

The Vaucluse will exact Mont Ventoux on you, and the mountain fills the horizon from every vanishing point in the Luberon, an epicenter that seems to provide rotating views, lest we forget it is there. The Gorges de la Nesque, which is far more enjoyable after descending the Col Notre Dame des Abeilles with its bird’s-eye view of a descent before the short rise and 22-kilometer descent through the Gorge, is a remarkable example of the magnificent geological formations that make for blissful cycling. In addition there is the Combe de Lioux, the Combe de Lourmarin and the remnants of multiple Châteaux that decorate the hilltop villages. The remote Col de L’Aire rises through the Grand Luberon, a graceful climb with a descent that puts one’s bike-handling skills to The test. Cycling in the Luberon across the ever changing landscape provides drama for a bicycle ride, it enthuses and inspires and presents a backdrop for one to move through, as it remains still and you are prancing, pedaling, moving across a screen, randomly positioned in locations that are hundreds of thousands of years old, that solidify themselves to the culture and the people. Everything moves and exists within the shadow of Mont Ventoux, its white stoned peak glistening in the day’s sun, glowing rose in the evening sunset.

Shimmering under this watchful eye of Mont Ventoux are the Côtes du Ventoux, the hills that are both a pleasure to cycle through and bountiful producers of elegant, terroir-driven wines. The Côtes du Luberon borders the Côtes du Ventoux, separated by the Cavalon River with the Durance River the final valley frontier to the south before the landscape crawls to the sea. The low altitude Luberon mountain range is an ideal barrier to help protect the Luberon vineyards, and within the fertile hills of both the northern and southern faces, the scree and scrub of the garrigue is exchanged for beautifully rich terrain that undulates, offering not only ideal growing grounds for the vineyards, but also the right amount of challenging, sub-700 meter cycling through remote roads, challenging climbs, magnificently decorated descents, and sweeping vistas.Imagine moving inside a richly detailed painting that has suddenly been brought to a life-size scale, the pigments at once blinding and soothing, the brushstrokes creating hillsides, mountain roads and gloriously colored panoramas. Castles and high-perched villages decorate the horizon, peering down below and standing guard over its territory, its provision and the lifestyle, providing a repetitive sensation unique to the Luberon.

The village of Ménerbes floats over the Luberon, having been described as the bow of a ship because of the rocky spur on which it sits. Ménerbes is one of the five villages known as the “Hauts Lieux du Luberon” - the high villages of the Luberon - and Features all the characteristics of the quintessentially charming Provençal village, with light blue shutters decorating stone walls, narrow streets arcing around tiny outdoor cafes, church bells ringing on the hour from the bell tower. This is a scene repeated in Bonnieux, Lacoste, Gordes, Roussillon and St. Saturnin. Within the village of Ménerbes is also a wine-growing zone with over 3,000 hectares of vineyards in the surrounding area, made up of both cooperatives and private wine cellars. Yves and Alexis Rousset Rouard are the owners of Domaine de la Citadelle, a small winery that lines the hills of the Petit Luberon near the hilltop village of Oppede le Vieux. The two became wine makers, choosing the Luberon “quite simply out of our love for the land and for the taste of wine.” There is no simpler, or better, reason. Today, in command of 44 hectares of vines and a modern wine installation and corkscrew museum, Yves and Alexis produce a range of wines nourished with the great sun and rich soil. And being France, the French will make an extraordinary effort at celebrating what is done most simply, and most passionately.

With France and cycling, it is not long before a conversation turns to the Tour de France, and there is a sense that the Tour de France attempts this same Francophile ideal. As written previously, the ASO tends to oversell its cultural impact beyond simply appreciating the ordinary, or traditional. The Tour de France is remarkable in its publicity for the regions, departments, cities and villages it visits. There is an effort to accentuate the cultural diversity of the start and finish towns, as if to justify the reason for visiting these cities and towns is beyond purely financial benefits. The Tour itself is always ready to present the Alps, including the Alpes de Haute Provence, but do they at all embrace the rich cultural and agricultural heritage that they are so readily making claim to understand and appreciate? Perhaps. But more likely, no. Sisteron, Gap, Avignon, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence are all big city names in Tour history, all with a marketable identity that surpasses the tranquility that exists in most of the Vaucluse and Luberon. Yet somehow, I’m intrigued not by the fact that Stage 15 will finish on Mont Ventoux, but the rest day that follows in the Vaucluse, and then Stage 16, which will go 168 kilometers from Vaison-la- Romaine to Gap. This stage will take the riders through the Montagne de Bluye, a startling low level mountain range that hides on the northside of Mont Ventoux, on its way to the village of Montbrun-les-Bains and the eleven kilometer Climb of the Col de Macuègne. The stage will finish with an ascent of the 9.5 kilometer Col de Masne, last seen in Stage 16 of the 2011 Tour de France. Is this a crucial stage in the race? No. A demanding, leg breaking, tour changing climb? No. The race is filled with transition stages, and it’s embracing these stages, and the roads the race passes over, that offers a level of anticipation that otherwise is left to peak every sixth stage or so. In this case, there is the anticipation of the Alps stages that will decide the champion of the Tour’s 100th edition. I sense the locals in this sleepy part of Provence will respond much like always, with partial attention for a brief period of time before returning to their daily routine. The anticipation here of the impending Alpine stages and the finale of the race’s 100th edition will likely be on par with the anticipation that comes with an afternoon glass of wine and an evening meal. In some ways, there is no outdoing the ordinary, and that for many is extraordinary enough.

As the sun sets on another quiet, remarkably ordinary day in the Luberon, the sounds and smells emanating from Xavier Mathieu’s kitchen are enough to bring the most critical of noses to an inquisitive pause and exploratory inhale. Watching the sky in slow motion changing its mood is a perfect time to reflect on the land, the people, the lifestyle and the experience. And while a day’s riding through the magical landscape holds enough pleasure to take one to the end of any day, it’s the anticipation of an evening’s meal that will culminate the day’s excitement. To think this is life everyday in Provence makes the ordinary seem, at least to an outsider, quite extraordinary. I will guess that come July 16th, Mathieu’s luxury hideout will be filled to capacity. And whether the Tour de France was one mile or 100 miles away, it would still be
filled to capacity.

Read the full article at http://bluetoad.com/article/Provence/1282759/142073/article.html.

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