Provence

Award-winning chef and baker Richard Bertinet was born in Brittany – but family holidays have converted him to all things Provençal.

Provence

I was born in Brittany

, but for the past six years holidays in France have been spent at our holiday home near a small town called Les Arcs in the Var region of Provence. It’s a few hours’ air travel from our home in Bath and 30 minutes from St Tropez – but a million miles from either in spirit. The surrounding countryside is wooded and hilly, full of medieval forts and working villages. The Var offers all the benefits of the French Riviera – good food, glorious weather, and great rosé – but without the crowds and crazy prices.

In Brittany, we love cream, butter, and big, earthy flavours, but Provence is Mediterranean; here we have a profusion of sunshine herbs, beautiful seafood, and fields of lavender and lemons.

Le Pain

Breakfast

In France, the day begins with a visit to the bakery. There’s a different kind of bread for every meal – a small

ficelle

for breakfast, baguettes during the day and le pain in the evening. Really good, boulangerie-baked bread is becoming harder to find in France as commercial bakeries, known as

depots de pains

, become more commonplace. To my mind, this destroys the identity that makes bread so special to its region.

Having said that, we still have a handful of traditional bakeries in Les Arcs. Our favourite is

Thierry Pezzulli

, where you can see through from the shop into the bakery and watch the baker working.

On market days, we head off early to a village or town hosting the market and install ourselves in a local café where, if they don’t serve breakfast themselves, you can go to the nearest bakery and bring back your croissants to eat out of the bag, while you sit at the café table. Imagine if you tried to do that in England! In Les Arcs, this is

Café de la Tour

, but most towns will have a café that offers a view of the market.

Provençal cheeses

Lunch

Lunch might be a picnic, gathered from the market – saucisson, good bread, tomatoes, salad and goat’s cheese. When you’re eating out with a young family, the easy option is to stop at the first brasserie you see, but the French will welcome kids, especially if they are prepared to eat what you’re eating. Sometimes our kids just want chips, and if they are good chips, we will order them, too.

The walled, medieval heart of Draguignan, the largest of the nearby towns, is a charming maze of small streets and artisan shops with faded signs. There’s a good food market and, on the wonderfully named Place aux Herbes, a lovely restaurant,

Brasserie les Mille Colonnes

. It looks fairly inauspicious from the outside, but the mirror-lined interior has hardly changed since the 19th century. We might have

petits farcis

(Provençal vegetables stuffed with minced meat), or a

tarte du jour

.

A big speciality in Provence is wild boar. In winter you will find it in big, hearty casseroles, in summer in saucisson. A great place to eat it is the disarmingly friendly Hotel Restaurant

le Provençal

in Aups. The décor is incredibly kitsch with a typically French mix of swirly patterns and flowers. We love it, especially for its wild boar with fresh tagliatelle.

A great place for a family day out with lunch thrown in is the idyllic

Château de Berne

, a vast wine estate near Lorgues. Apart from the caves and wine-tastings, the château has open-air entertainment and two restaurants: one on the terrace and a more informal one where they barbecue meat and seafood under the trees. It’s great for the kids.

Brasserie Les Mille Colonnes

Dinner

The place to eat truffles is

Restaurant Bruno

, also in Lorgues. Every dish on the menu contains truffles – from the fondant potatoes to the apple tart. You may need a babysitter, though; this is a grown-up place with proper napkins and sommeliers, so book ahead.

One of the most inspirational and uncompromising restaurants in the area is

La Fontaine d’Ampus

in Ampus, a little walled village on top of a hill. The drive to the restaurant around hairpin bends is fantastic, but not for the faint-hearted. The restaurant itself is a pretty place in a courtyard, run by chef Marc Haye and his wife Alexandra. There’s a continually changing but no-choice four-course menu (starter, fish, meat and dessert) that’s based on what is good at the market. Vegetarians and picky eaters aren’t catered for, but the food is always amazing.

Shopping

In France there is no shame in buying your dessert – in fact, to walk around with a box from a smart patisserie, tied with ribbon, is something of a status symbol. At

Patisserie Thierry Pouzarche

in Les Arcs, they make beautiful tartes including the local speciality, aux pignons (topped with pine nuts and caramel), and aux fraises de la garrigue (with the small, fragrant strawberries of the region).

We are also lucky enough to have a few good butchers in Les Arcs – a favourite is

Boucherie Daniel Dessert

, where they make wonderful pâtés and terrines. I’m a huge fan of

steak haché

(really good steak, ground and cooked rare), and here you can choose your steak and watch it being ground. For Jo and I it is a treat to sit outside on the terrace and watch the sun go down with a

steak haché

baguette, with lettuce, tomatoes, home-made mayonnaise and a glass of rosé

A big draw for locals and visitors alike is

Maison des Vins

,

which is the wine centre for the whole of the Provençal region. It stocks 700 or so Côte de Provence wines that you can taste and buy at growers’ prices – a few magnums in the fridge makes for a very happy summer!

You must drive through the lanes, looking out for the

huile d’olive

signs, to find farmers who produce extra-virgin olive oil. We visit

Moulin à huile de Foncabrette

– you have to be very unEnglish and simply go and knock on the door. Monsieur Rovera will come out and fill empty bottles with his deep-green, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. For me, such stuff is priceless.

Richard with children Jack and Tom

Markets

There are many fabulous markets locally – they’re always situated on the main street or square of the town concerned. You see many of the same farmers and growers on different days, selling purple garlic, olives, beefy tomatoes that burst with flavour, peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries, melons and grapes, or baby artichokes. One of the most typical is at Lorgues. There is a stall run by a local bakery selling bread baked in a wood-fired oven, and I particularly love their fougasse, a focaccia-style bread with olives.

There are stalls selling cheeses, especially goat’s cheeses which you can buy at various stages depending on the season:

frais

(fresh),

demi-sec

(semi-dry and hard) and

sec

(dry).

We are only around 30 kilometres from the coast, so there is always a good selection of fish: little rockfish for bouillabaisse, red mullet, tuna, monkfish and langoustines. Often we buy bagfuls of gambas (large prawns) to dip into mayonnaise. Other stalls sell saucisson, some of which is smoked or made with nuts.

I love the local truffles – from November to February, when they’re in season, Aups’ town square is awash with their heady scent. You have to go early to haggle over the price. The last time I was there I paid the equivalent of £40 for one truffle, but it was worth every penny.

Provence at a glance

When to visit:

Visit early in the year for sunny but cool weather, and in the summer, when it’s great for swimming, markets, eating and drinking, but too hot for much else.

How to get there:

Fly to Nice with EasyJet from airports across the country and from Heathrow with BA. Alternatively, take the Eurostar to Paris and the TGV to Draguignan-Les Arcs.

Where to stay:

For B&Bs and holiday rentals, go to

Visit Provence

or book accommodation through

French Country Cottages

.

Food markets

Les Arcs –

Thursdays, Place Général-de-Gaulle

Lorgues

– Tuesdays, Cours de la République

Aups

– Wednesdays and Saturdays, Rue Clemenceau; truffle market, Thursdays (November – February)

Cotignac

– Tuesdays, Cours Gambetta

Provence directory

£ = cheap and cheerful

££ = mid-range

£££ = splash out

Boucherie Daniel Dessert

£

Rue la Motte, 83460 Les Arcs

Tel: +33 4 94 47 40 60

Boulangerie Thierry Pezzulli

£

Place Paul Simon, 83460 Les Arcs

Tel: +33 4 94 73 32 52

Brasserie les Mille Colonnes

£

2 Place aux Herbes, 83300 Draguignan

Tel: +33 4 94 68 52 58

Café de la Tour

£

35 Boulevard Gambetta, 83460 Les Arcs

Tel: +33 4 94 73 41 02

Château de Berne

£££

Route de Salernes, 83510 Lorgues

Tel: +33 4 94 60 48 88 

Hotel Restaurant le Provençal

£

Place Martin Bidouré, 83630 Aups.

Tel: +33 4 94 70 00 24

La Fontaine d’Ampus

££

Place de la Mairie, Ampus

Tel: +33 4 94 70 98 08

Maison des Vins

£-££

Route Nationale 7, 83460 Les Arcs

Tel: +33 4 94 99 50 20

Moulin à huile de Foncabrette

£

Chemin de l’Estang, off Route des Arcs, near Flayosc

Tel: +33 4 94 70 40 17

Patisserie Thierry Pouzarche

£

Boulevard Gambetta, 83460 Les Arcs

Tel: +33 4 94 73 32 09

Restaurant Bruno

£££

Campagne Mariette, 2350 Route des Arcs, 83510 Lorgues

Tel: +33 4 94 85 93 93

Photographs: Andrew Montgomery

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