Wednesday, 22 May 2013: Châteauneuf du Pape and the kindness of strangers
Written Friday, 7 June 2013
Okay, this time, we had been out pretty late, so even I slept in. And—rats—I'd come down with a cold. But I still made it out early enough to walk part of one of the routes marked on the city map.
On the left is the statue on the front lawn of the Hôtel Galéans-Gadagne, a private residence constructed in 1751 that now houses the Avignon School of Art. I assume it represents a singer. We walked back and forth past it at least once a day the whole time we were in town, but I never succeeded in finding any indication of what or who the statue is or was made by. The information may be encoded in the 2D bar code at the statue's feet, but I don't have a device able to read it. Is the definition of the photo great enough to allow any of you readers to scan it? I couldnt get any closer because I was shooting through an iron fence, but I can send you the full-size file if that would help.
On the right is a stone bridge between buildings that I just found interesting enough to photograph.
Once we all met again, on the usual corner at noon, we adjourned to a nearby square that was quieter than the main street (which I had discovered during my morning's wanderings) and chose La Princière (The Princely) for lunch. Three of us had so-so omelets containing various combinations of ham, cheese, and whatnot, and David got this interesting salad of raw ham and cooked vegetables, all sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Clearly, though, the specialty of the place was ice cream, so we treated ourselves to dessert; the coffee-hazelnut flavor was excellent!
After lunch, we set off to explore Châteauneuf du Pape, "the pope's new castle." I had known it was a wine appelation and a wine region, but I hadn't realized it was an actual town. I had also assumed the name referred to the papal palace in Avignon (new as opposed to the old one in Rome), then after touring the papal palace, I assumed it referred to the newer section of that. But no, it refers to the pope's summer place, the castle on the top of the hill—now a ruin—in the middle of the little town of the same name (which grew up around the foot of the castle.
When we're there, in Burgundy, Burgundies are David's favorite French wines, but they don't travel well, and the best ones never leave the area to begin with, so everywhere else, the wines of the Rhône valley are David's favorite. And among those, Châteauneuf du Pape is among the top few. CJ learned most of her French wine lore from David, and so this last year, when she was out to dinner with Jeff and some other friends and they were choosing a wine, she scanned the list and said confidently, "With beef we should order this one, Châteauneuf du Pape." They did, they were all wowed, and CJ's reputation was made.
So off we went to tour the place. We found lots of free parking at the village hall (not the town hall, where the city's offices would be, but the multipurpose room used for gatherings etc., at the time, not in use) and walked up the hill into town.
The castle was right at the top of the hill, so we kept on climbing. The density of winemakers was truly impressive. Fully two out of three doorways was at least a wine shop if not a wine maker. The one here on the left offered wines from the estates listed on the door. Vieux Telegraphe is one of David's all-time favorites.
On the right, CJ, Jeff, and me on one of the staircases we climbed once the hill got too steep for streets. Note a bad shot of me, despite the dork strap. And the strap was definitely needed!
We keep on going, up these picturesque sets of stairs, until we reached the flat area on top, where a couple of walls and a ruined tower of the castle are all that remain. The wind got stronger and stronger as we climbed, and on the top, it was truly dangerous to venture too close to the edge, because one was literally in danger of being blown over the cliff.
The views were magnificent. The photo on the right shows a huge bend of the Rhône upstream from Avignon.
On the way back down, we stopped at a café to have a drink and people-watch before trekking back down to the car. Before heading back to Avignon, we drove the Michelin-recommended loop through Baume-de-Venise, Gigondas, and Vaison la Romaine (essentially driving all the way around the huge mountain-and-rock formation called Les Dentelles de Montmirail); many mythic wine names in that area.
Dinner was even farther out of town than the night before. I found it difficult to Google-map La Maison Bru, because it goes by several different names, and I wasn't sure they were all the same place, but the GPS knew where it was. In their parking lot (entirely enclosed in jagged rock walls and studded with planters circled by the same thing, just to make maneuvering require particular attention) was this wonderful stylized metal bull.
On the right is the artwork on the cover of the menu.
We chose the smaller tasting menu, so once again we all ate the same things. The meal began, as usual, with a glass of champagne for everybody for me but after that, only Jeff continued with wine. CJ was afraid she was coming down with something and thought she should refrain, and David refrained so that I wouldn't have to drive back to Avignon.
Amuse-bouche: Tiny portions of two kinds of processed pork -- a little cylinder of head cheese and another of a ham-based packet. Decorations included a borage blossom, a tiny triangle of toast, a few minute croutons, a little cheese crisp.
First course: Cold lobster with mozzarella buratta, cilantro, a little radish, and red, yellow, and greenish heirloom cherry tomatoes. Delicious!
Rouget de roches (red mullet) with finely minced shiitake mushrooms, cockles and mussels, and champagne emulsion.
"American rib steak" (I think they mean cut American style and not actual American beef; French people are very picky about the sources of their beef, and most restaurants note on the menu that the beef is all of French origin) grilled medium rare, with mousseline of truffles and sweet onions with olive oil and special flaky sea salt. Baby broad beans on top. Excellent!
Another great cheese trolley. I chose, left to right Camembert, Salers, and Époisse, plus a little dab of house-made red-fruit jam. Then we each got to choose a dessert from the selection available.
Dessert, me: A layered pastry with coffee, chocolate, and caramel layers. Delicious but very rich. Fortunately, the "coffee beans" on top were solid chocolate and not actual chocolate-covered coffee beans. I would probably have eaten even the latter—I can't resist them—and I would probably have been sorry later. I've completely lost all my caffeine tolerance since we've gone completely decaf at home.
Dessert, Jeff and David: A layered pastry similar to mine but "black forest" flavor, with chocolate and cherries. I didn't see any leftovers on their plates.
Dessert, CJ: Here arose a problem. The menu included only three dessert choices, and all were thoroughly riddled with nuts, usually two or three kinds. The kitchen therefore scoured the pantry and produced a unique dessert for CJ. Being chefs, they couldnt just pile berries in a bowl, even decorated with cute little leaves and flowers, so somebody took a tiny pastry bag and stuffed each berry individually with lemon-flavored cream.
In the photo, you can also see the design of the broad-rimmed dish. We are frequently served food in French restaurants in bowls like this, with a small concavity in the center surrounded by a broad stylish rim, with the result that we have, more than once, put a little too much pressure on the rim (e.g., trying to cut the food or just catching it with an elbow) and upset the whole thing onto the table or into our laps. But look at this design. The outer edge of the broad rim is supported all the way around by a vertical extension of it that reaches all the way to the table! The dish cannot be tipped! The designers did have to leave a curved notch in the lower edge so that the server would have a way to pick the dish up with one hand. The fish course was served in the same dishes, and I highly approve!
Once we had maneuvered out of that murderous parking lot, we set off following the GPS home to the hotel. We were a couple of kilometers out of the village, headed for Avignon, when we came to a very sharp climbing left turn, up out of a small unpaved road onto a larger, paved one. We accordingly slowed to a crawl and swung up onto the new road, but the car is large by European standards, and the larger road wasn't quite wide enough. The left front tire abruptly slid into what turned out to be quite a deep ditch, and when David tried to back out, nothing happened.
We climbed out of the car to find that the whole thing was tipped on a sharp diagonal. The left front tire was deep in the ditch, the car rested on the right front and left rear, and the right rear tire was a foot and a half off the ground! We stood there, in the dark, in the middle of the countryside, tired, stunned, and nonplussed, without a working cell phone to our name. As David put it, "We are cooked." I figured the rest of the night was shot. I'd gotten as far as thinking that Jeff and I would have to hike back to the Eygalières looking for a phone while David and CJ stayed with the car, when not three minutes after the incident, three cars arrived from the direction of the village. They couldn't easily get past us, so the guy in the first car stopped and asked if we'd already called someone. I explained we didn't have a cell phone and asked whether he could call someone for us—did he know of a garage or maybe the police? He got out to look at the car, and at this point the driver of the second car got out and joined us. He was a middle-aged, squarely built guy with a weathered face, wearing a light blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows—the very image of a smart, competent country French winemaker and leader of men, the kind of guy who fixes his own tractors and whose neighbors ask his advice. He looked at both sides of the car, studied the situation for a minute, and said "We can do this." He called to his wife to have their cars backed out of the way, then summoned the driver of the first car (they apparently knew each other) to join him in grasping the built-in roof racks above the right rear wheel. They pulled downward with all their weight to tilt the car back toward level while we—Jeff and CJ in the ditch and David and me on the driver's side—pushed the car backward until all four wheels were back on the pavement. David then got in and set the brake while I profusely thanked one and all for the very welcome help. The winemaker crouched to peer under the front end, said he couldn't see any sign of damage, and solemnly admonished us to drive carefully, and then we all got back in our cars and continued on our way, still a little stunned but feeling that we had just lived a "Year in Provence" moment. Not 10 minutes elapsed from "things are just fine" to "OMG!" to "things are just fine" again, a real emotional rollercoaster. Fortunately, that's the last restaurant we'll have to drive to and from on the trip.
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