Wine, truffles and chocolate! And that’s just to start. Who doesn’t love Provence? You could spend a lifetime here and still not sample all of its rich produce. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!
Weird, wonderful and wickedly delicious Vaucluse
If you’re going to try and eat and drink your way through an entire French department, a good place to start is l’Isle sur la Sorgue, where you can dilute your overindulgence with a plethora of other pursuits. About forty-five minutes’ drive east of Avignon, l’Isle sur la Sorgue is known for two things: its numerous canals and waterwheels and its even more numerous antiques shops. But scratch a bit deeper and there’s much more to unearth.
L’Isle sur la Sorgue dates back to the 12th century and has its roots in fishing, and silk, cloth and paper production. It’s home to a famous and fabulous Sunday market, a floating market in August, a twice-yearly international Antiques Fair and regular festivals for painters and sculptors.
Place de la Liberté is the central square where you’ll find cafés spilling out on to the pavements under the watchful eye of the imposing, Baroque style church. There were four different brotherhoods of penitents in the town and reminders of their time here are everywhere.
For great photo opportunities, Café de France is quintessentially French with an Art Nouveau style frontage. But before you get stuck into eating, meander the many back streets and along the canals, or build up an appetite by walking 7km upstream along the River Sorgue to the Fontaine de Vaucluse where you’ll find the largest natural spring in France.
Strange but true
The Fondation Villa Datris is in a beautiful 19th century, Provençal house and holds a strange but engaging contemporary art exhibition every year. For 2019, think sloths hanging from trees, curious insects in the basement and everything from the bizarre to the bewildering throughout the rest of the museum. Set out over a number of floors, entry is free.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Isle sur la Sorgue has forgotten its textile past but – not so. For example, Magali Beaumont is a traditional embroiderer who has a workshop where you can see her incredible craftmanship or take one of her short courses.
Not far from Magali’s, Brun de Vian-Tiran is an 8th generation family wool business dating back to 1808 and with the last spinning mill in France. Home to some of the finest wool in the world, they’ve recently opened a “sensory museum of noble fibres.” Here you can learn more about their history and indulge in some of their luxurious fabrics.
Back to the food
A short distance from Fondation Villa Datris is Maison Jouvaud. A family patisserie and confectioners, some of their traditional specialities include glacé apricots (local pink apricots) and glacé strawberries, chocolate (of course), cake and meringue. No self-respecting foodie should pass by their doors without stopping.
Le Jardin du Quai
One of my favourite places to eat in the town was Le Jardin du Quai. Hidden in a secluded and arboreal courtyard of wisteria and ancient trees, the proprietor chef is a self-proclaimed adventurer and Maitre Cuisinier de France! It feels rather sublime, lingering over a long lunch here in the warm shade.
Head north to Mazan
The ramparts of Mazan date back to the 12th and 14th century although now the town is famed for its truffles, fruit and wine as well as its Monday morning herb market.
About half an hour north of L’Isle sure la Sorgue, wind your way through its narrow streets and archways up to Chateau de Mazan. It’s been undergoing a refurbishment recently but when I visited, it was splendidly eccentric. Built in 1720, the castle was the birthplace of the father and uncle of the Divine Marquis, the famous Abbot from Sade who stayed here from time to time.
It has beautiful gardens, an eclectic collection of art and an undeniably grand if a little peculiar atmosphere. The restaurant spills onto a large terrace overlooking the grounds. There are original tiled floors, arched doorways, elegant plants and a faintly art deco feel. For a charismatic base as you set out to explore, you couldn’t do much better.
The Vaucluse is the top producer of truffles in France and in Puyméras (about 40 mins drive north of Mazan), you’ll find Maison Plantin, one of the biggest truffle companies in France.
Puyméras is perched on a hilltop under the watchful eye of the castle ruins. The surrounding region provides the perfect environment for truffles, with the right aged trees, soil and climatic conditions. Because truffles are fussy little things.
At Maison Plantin the truffles are still sorted by hand, and the air is heavy with the rich, earthy smell of hundreds of these fresh little fungi. There’s a small truffle information area and a kitchen island in the shop where staff will cook you up a truffle infused dish as you browse truffles and truffle-based products of every description.
Before you head back to Isle sur le Sorgue, detour via Beaumes de Venise and the new style wine cooperative Rhonéa.
Rhonéa is cradled in the arms of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains. And there’s no better way to understand the “terroir” than with a 4×4 tour and picnic in amongst the vines and the mountains, surrounded by green oaks and Aleppo pines. You can also hike or horse ride through the vineyards and the Dentelles or opt for one of the other Rhonéa activities. These include tours of the different vineyards, gourmand walking tours, cookery workshops (with local ingredients of course) and tastings. www.rhonea.fr
If you really are hell bent on eating your way through Provence, then you’re going to need extra time. But perhaps, just to aid your digestion, keep coming back to this region again and again rather than try to eat it all in one serving! Bon Appetit.
Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the antiques capital of southern France
Top things to do in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
You can find out more about the Vaucluse in Provence at www.provenceguide.com