Here are three invaluable rules on how to eat outside when the mistral, the wind which whistles down the Rhône valley in southern France, is in full swing:
- hold on tight to your menu and wine list,
- make sure your water and wine glasses are at least half full for ballast, and
- don't be surprised if, just as the waiter is about to serve you, he whips the plate back to the kitchen because the wind has blown away an essential ingredient and it is making its way towards the nearby pool rather than your knife and fork.
I learnt all the above by experience sitting one sunny, windswept lunchtime in one of the world's great restaurant settings – under the two magnificent plane trees whose well tended branches provide essential shade for the 25 outside tables at Oustaù de Baumanière just under the craggy hilltop of Les Baux in Provence.
This hotel, restaurant and setting are all extraordinary which is why we had travelled there to join friends who had chosen it for their twentieth wedding anniversary dinner. And doubly fortunately, they had let slip that their menu would comprise two dishes for which this kitchen has been renowned for years: fillets of the very freshest red mullet with basil and a canon of lamb en croûte served with creamy gratin dauphinoise and aubergine Provençal.
This meant that at lunchtime we could experiment, a decision which necessitated only a brief scan of the menu. There, lurking in the bottom right-hand corner, was the vegetarian menu – nobly here entitled 'la balade dans notre jardin' – which seemed, quite simply, the most suitable choice. Like drinking whisky on a damp Scottish moor or champagne when there is something to celebrate, eating anything other than ripe vegetables, which would have barely travelled from where they had been grown and picked, in the heat of sunny Provence seemed just the most appropriate thing to do.
For the next couple of hours I did try and exclude all extraneous circumstances – sun, wind, view and a great sense of good fortune – to consider whether any of the four stunning courses would have tasted as good had they been served in an urban setting. But without taking anything away from this ultra-professional kitchen the answer is undoubtedly no.
Certainly, the 'main course' would not have survived any lengthier journey. Described simply as 'haricot beans from our garden' these were beans as thin as baby eels and had obviously been picked that morning. Briefly cooked and then dressed in local olive oil (the cooperative in the nearby village of Maussane produces one of France's best) they were quite unlike any other rendition of this delicious vegetable.
Whilst this course exuded freshness, others exemplified dexterity and great depth of flavour. A tartar of various distinguished varieties of tomato looked fabulous on a white rectangular plate with its flavours enhanced by whole almonds, an ochre sauce of ground almonds and shavings of Parmesan. A lasagne of aubergines, not an uncommon dish nowadays, was made memorable by the addition of pinenuts and white currants which provided the vital crunch and acidity respectively. A mille feuille of potatoes and girolles looked stunning because the wafer-thin, ultra crisp potatoes themselves provided the leaves of the dish.
This modern expression of the kitchen's professionalism were followed by two examples of its maturity – Oustaû has been in business since 1945.
First came what is often described as a 'chariot des fromages' but here is more like a camion (lorry), its doubledecker shelves holding over 50 different cheeses. As notable as their freshness was the generosity with which they were served. This was followed by its stablemate, loaded with desserts, slightly ahead of a third, smaller chariot with six highly polished silver containers of sorbets and ice creams.
But our meals at Ousteaù Baumanière did leave two disappointments.
The first, and more obvious at lunchtime, had been the absence of any new, refreshing rosés from the wine list. It is the drink of the region, unbeatable when it is from the most recent vintage and the sun is shining. But the range was limited, uninspiring and very dear.
And the continual presence in the diningroom of the peripapetic chef/proprietor, Jean-André Charial, is disconcerting not only to the customers but also to his restaurant staff.
Charial is obviously an exemplary chef and a tough cookie (when I tried to peep into the kitchen all I could see was a large sign which read Silence à la Passe, where the waiters collect the food from the kitchen) but he is neither particularly charming nor seemingly at ease in this role. His presence precludes the restaurant managers from establishing their own characters, an arrangement that injects an unnecessary note of tension into one of the most remarkable eating areas Man has ever created – with the indispensable assistance of Nature, of course.
Oustaù de Baumanière, 13520 Les Baux de Provence (tel 04 90 54 33 07, web www.oustaudebaumaniere.com
A la carte approx 80 euros.