Äponem – L'Auberge du Presbytère

Aponem exterior

A vegetable-dominated, all-female enterprise in the hills of the Haut-Languedoc has won great acclaim. Nick went to investigate. Image above and third one below courtesy of @aponem.

Our reservation at Äponem, the highly regarded one-star Michelin restaurant in the tiny village of Vailhan in the Haut-Languedoc, took considerable planning for we needed to coordinate travel plans with a couple of friends from Belgium, and the restaurant is open only from Friday evening to Sunday lunch.

The reservation, a table for four in a restaurant that seats only 18, was finally made over two months in advance. The same was true of our reservation for accommodation afterwards, in the rather beautiful Chambres du Prieuré just north of Pézenas, a hotel that comes complete with its own 13th-century chapel (below) in the grounds, right next door to the winery Prieuré St-Jean de Bébian.

Prieure church

Then there was the question of lunch en route, which was solved by a reservation made only the day before at La Terrasse du Mimosa in Montpeyroux, as recommended in Eastern Languedoc travel, sustainably by Louise Hurren. This was excellent – every tourist’s ideal of a French meal: good food served outside under trees with the wind rustling above and my initial introduction to the French word déclinaison on a menu, as in déclinaison d’abricot (apricot declension’, ie apricot variations).

Here it was used to describe the chef’s sensitive handling of a dessert incorporating apricots, served in various different iterations, all part of one dish: poached, as a purée and as part of an apricot cake that came topped with slices of this delicious fruit. At dinner we were to encounter this French word in a less successful manifestation.

The journey from Pézenas to Vailhan is wonderful, a varied climb up through verdant countryside that brings you eventually to the first of two welcoming signs that read RESTAURANT. We parked in the shadow of a church (the alternative name of the restaurant is L’Auberge du Presbytère) and walked past a small graveyard – a first for me en route to a restaurant – round the entrance to the church and round again to where a formally dressed reception committee awaited us.

This was the first incongruity. Like the other customers, we had dressed semi-smartly. At the next table was a man in shorts. And yet the three members of the waiting team were all in formal black, with Gaby Benicio, sommelier and business partner of the restaurant’s celebrated chef Amélie Darvas, wearing a very smart pair of brown and white co-respondent shoes.

All thoughts of food at this stage were banished by the spectacular views. Across a gorge rose steep hillsides of crags and garrigue. We settled into a windy corner of the terrace and asked for the wine list, seen in the right-hand corner of the image below of our Belgian friend and Äponems somm.

Aponem view and champagne

A large leather-bound book arrived and silenced two of our party. The list, it transpired, is arranged not by region but by vintage with names written in fine black capitals that also made it quite difficult to read. We chose a bottle of Chartogne-Taillet champagne which apparently was out of stock but were happy with the suggested substitute from biodynamic Fleury. This we enjoyed with the restaurant’s own green olives and their rendition of the Brazilian cheesy roll, pão de queijo, topped with a square of refreshing guava jelly. Then the wine debate really got under way.

The smiling, engaging Benicio appeared and informed us that her entire list was biodynamic and that she herself was allergic to sulphites. Then, somewhat surprisingly in view of our Belgian friend’s delight at finding so many of his favourite cult wines on the list, Jancis’s opinion prevailed. ‘Let’s drink local and just ask the sommelier for what she thinks is her best recommendation of a white and a red’, she suggested. This we did and were handsomely rewarded.

The white was a bottle of Mas Lumen, Orphée 2012 made from Terret, an old Languedoc variety grown nearby, the red a 2005 Boria from Domaine Prés Lasses, a modest Faugères producer she assured us deserved much more attention. Both were the last bottles in her cellar, she explained, and both were delicious, as well as being well priced in view of their rarity and maturity at €90 each. Between these two, while Jancis was absent from the table, Benicio persuaded us to order a rather superfluous bottle of Poulsard from the Jura, Les Canons du Jean, Cuvée du P’tit Prince 2020 (€78).

Aponem chairs and view

At 8.20 we were asked to move into the restaurant, past the kitchen on the right, and into a room with extremely comfortable, well-upholstered chairs and great views. The restaurant does not start its service until all the seven tables are seated and we had to wait 20 minutes before the final table of six appeared. It was by now 8.45 and we were hungry.

Aponem kitchen door

Benicio explained that there would not be a menu and that we were in for a surprise, although what was arguably surprising was that, unlike similar establishments, there was no menu even at the end, presented with the bill. At the same time, she also explained that the kitchen, which was clearly visible through glass sliding doors, was staffed by an all-female brigade – including a female kitchen porter. We were, however, presented with a two-page statement of intent which explained that we could expect a no-choice menu for €165, some fabulous bread and some amazing vegetables.

Aponem first course

What eventually arrived, after a little glass of cucumber juice, was a torrent of approximately 10 different, beautifully presented dishes only very partially shown above: green olive and mint biscuits; a variation on a pissaladière; eggs with black garlic; variations on panisses; a small bowl of intense shellfish soup; as well as variation on a maki roll. All of these were very good with varied flavours and textures and some interesting spicing – and they quickly took the edge off our appetites.

Tomato declension

There then followed the second déclinaison of the day, this time of tomatoes. We began with tomatoes covered in a white foam; a dish of fresh tomatoes; their take on pan con tomate; finishing with two small tomatoes encased in something sweet.

This was followed by their interpretation of tomatoes cooked with the four vegetable elements of a ratatouille over which a fresh-faced chef poured a clear tomato water. This was all a bit too similar to the previous course alas.

Aponem rataouille ravioli

Then came a dish of marinated raw tuna, arguably just a little too warm, served with four slices of their bread on a plate. The main course was a dish of quail with courgette ‘spaghetti’ and a lovely pesto sauce.

Aponem quail

An ice cube of ginger and marigold was offered to clear our palates before three desserts, including a hot chocolate mousse and fruit-based meringue. We had now been seated for over three hours and it was time to pay our bill of €1,045 for four and to enjoy perhaps the most spectacular part of the evening, the walk back to our car.

As the evening progressed, the wind had strengthened considerably and was now blowing strongly. The scene, graveyard on the right, as we walked into the wind resembled something out of Wuthering Heights, the green light accentuating the rather weird evening.

Leaving Aponem

The evening had been saved by Benicio and her excellent wine choices but overall I was a bit disappointed by the food and the kitchen’s approach. The precision and bounty of the first course overwhelmed me. The lack of variety in the preparation of the tomatoes underwhelmed me. And all the time as I sat by the glass sliding door between kitchen and restaurant through which every single dish had to pass, I kept wondering why they suffered something so inconvenient. 

Äponem apparently means happiness in the Pataxó language of Bahia, Brazil. I’m obviously too practical and finicky an ex-restaurateur and restaurant consultant to have fallen under its spell. My verdict on Äponem has to be FAL: this will have been my first visit and my last.

La Terrasse du Mimosa 23 Place de lHorloge, 34150 Montpeyroux, France tel: +33 (0)4 67 44 49 80

Les Chambres du Prieuré (which has its own Michelin-starred restaurant attached), Route de Nizas, 34120 Pézenas, France tel: +33 (0)4 99 47 05 39

Äponem 1 rue de l’Église, 34320 Vailhan, France tel: +33 (0)4 67 24 76 49