Upstairs, downstairs in Provence


A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

This column gives me the opportunity to apologise to Peter Chittick. 

Twenty five years ago Chittick left his native Canada and his training as a lawyer to follow the dream to open a hotel in Provence, France. Every year he used to email me with the progress he and his team had made at Crillon le Brave and every year he used to tell me not just how relaxing the place was, but how good the food was, and how unforgettable the views from the restaurant on the terrace overlooking the Provençal countryside are.

I finally made it to this small hilltop hotel in June, too late to meet Chittick. He had sold the hotel to Rosewood Hotels, who have sold it on again and he has moved on.

Chittick has certainly put this tiny village, 40 minutes’ drive north east of Avignon, on the map. The narrow streets at the top of the hill are now replete with places to eat and to drink, and even at 7 pm the car parks were full.

The hotel has grown and now boasts 36 bedrooms and two restaurants, one of them ‘gastronomique’, to use the awful differentiation given by the receptionist, but its layout remains pretty much as it always has been. That is to say, it is a warren of different levels, terraces and rooms carved out of a huddle of old stone village houses.

This becomes obvious once you have walked through the reception and head down the steep incline that leads to the restaurant. The more relaxed restaurant, the pool and the row of sunbeds occupy such level space as there is and the flights of steps through them are narrow, steep and uneven, albeit charming. The terrace where dinner is normally served, together with the bar, occupy more level space but on the night we were there the evening was judged to be ‘orageux’ or potentially stormy – although nothing but a lovely sunset ensued.

We were shown into an empty restaurant, whose stone walls echo the building’s long history, although the rather dismal still lifes hanging on them need replacing. It was just before 7.30 (we still had to find our way to Crestet for the weekend's think tank) and fortunately we were shown to table number 6. Professionally, this table proved to be the most fascinating of all.

Table 6 is at the very bottom of a flight of steep steps, eleven in all, which become narrower towards the top and provide the only conduit between the restaurant and the kitchen that is on the floor above. Down these steps every plate of food must travel, from amuse-bouches to the plate of petits fours, and then out on to the terrace when it is being used. Service here is a quite extraordinary feat, although one that has obviously become accepted by the staff. Thinking about this procedure still sends a shiver down my spine.

Nor does the talented chef, Jérôme Blanchet, allow logistics to get in the way. His menu is relatively short, half a dozen starters and main courses, and extremely well priced at €75 for four courses including cheese. And, in this respect, perhaps most distinctive, it is highly seasonal.

We began with two ingredients I always associate with Provence and the Mediterranean, courgette flowers and daurade royale or gilt head bream.

The former, stuffed with diced courgettes and many other vegetables, lobster, and with a poached lobster claw on the top, was served in a shallow bowl surrounded by a dark, brown, creamy lobster bisque laced with just the right amount of cognac. It was absolutely delicious. By contrast, the gilt head bream had been marinated in kaffir lime before being attractively presented with a slightly overly sweet scoop of cucumber ice cream and a sorbet made from the leaves of the green shiso plant.

This was followed by fillets of red mullet, served with poached rhubarb and a bowl containing a light green fennel mousse, and their vegetarian main course, supplemented by summer truffles unearthed by Eric Jaumard, the local truffle hunter. These were abundant and together with the first of the summer’s baby turnips combined to make a memorable dish.

Disappointment came only with the desserts, after a fine selection of cows’, sheep and ewes' milk cheeses via Claudine Vigier, whose base is in nearby Carpentras. Both of those we chose, based on the first of the season’s cherries and apricots, were too heavy; the flavour of the cherries overpowered by that of the chocolate mousse that accompanied it, while the freshness of the apricots was lost in the crème brûlée that lay underneath. All was too much, too intricate, leading to the overall effect of a loss of freshness.

This was to a certain extent made up for by a smart selection of wines by the glass chosen for us by Benoit Liebus, who has been sommelier here since 2013 and knows the wines of Ventoux particularly well, although it was he who served us the Muscadet that partly inspired Jancis’s recent wine of the week.

I paid my bill of €175 including wine and service for dinner for two and we clambered back, past the terrace with its wonderful view, to our car. Replete, we were glad to have finally made it here. Thank you, Mr Chittick.

Hotel Crillon le Brave  Place de l’Église, 84410 Crillon le Brave, France; tel +33 (0)4 90 65 61 61