The Vallée de la Gastronomie® is a unique route dedicated to food and wine. It straddles three major regions of France from the north to the south: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. In this article we’ll visit some of the most delicious destinations of southern France along this 1000 year old trade route.
Celebrating passionate producers of the food world from farmers and wine makers to chefs and all involved in the production, processing and traditions that make the rich heritage of French gastronomy so incredible, this is the king of gourmet routes, running for an astonishing 620km through France. Along the way it is liberally peppered with the most delicious and authentic producers, a mind-boggling several hundred who have signed up to offer a special welcome to visitors (usually in English as well as French), offering guided tours, sensational tastings and mouth-watering experiences.
Whilst this gastronomic journey is perfect for a road trip, you don’t need a car, you can go from town to town by train and bus as I did, stopping off to meet with artisans, farmers and chefs, indulge at the most fabulous restaurants and explore gorgeous villages and historic cities.
The Vallée de la Gastronomie website makes it super easy to find out more about these remarkable experiences.
A tasty trek
The Vallée de la Gastronomie broadly follows the path of the mighty Rhône River between vineyards and ancient towns, from Burgundy to the Mediterranean Sea. The climate and landscape differ hugely from place to place, and each area has its savoir-fair, it’s know-how, specialities and rich culinary history. The Phoenicians founded Marseille and introduced vines to France, Roman winemaking was intensive along the Rhône Valley, in the 14th century the Dukes of Burgundy planted Pinot Noir grapes in Burgundy and the Popes of Avignon in Provence planted yet more vines.
Meanwhile, the ‘gastronomic meal of the French’ is listed on the UNESCO world heritage list reflecting the exceptional standard of French cuisine. Every region has its own cuisine and specialities based on local products, Bresse chickens of Burgundy, bouillabaisse of Marseille, the black rice of the Camargue – the list is endless. And along the route of the Vallée de la Gastronomie, you’ll discover the culinary diversity of French food at its very best.
And though this route celebrates the historic tasty treasures of France, it also honours a constantly evolving gastronomic scene, innovative chefs and ardent artisans. To be included on the list requires the offering of a ‘remarkable experience’ to visitors, and every applicant is carefully vetted before acceptance.
What was most remarkable to me was how I discovered that everyone involved in gastronomy was fervent about supporting local producers, protecting traditions and practicing art de vivre, the art of living well, but also being innovative in creating food, being organic, recycling and respecting the land and the people who work on it. It was an ethos I encountered over and over, almost a movement that is people led – and people supported.
Frankly, I could write a book about my journey but there isn’t room! At the centre of the trail is Lyon, AKA the foodie capital of France, and to the south of it, like a string of pearls, are a plethora of towns and cities that pack a big food and wine punch. Here is a tasty teaser of what I discovered on my epicurean voyage of France in the southern half of the Vallée de la Gastronomie.
The sun-kissed cultural, cosmopolitan and elegant city of Aix is the Paris of Provence. Cut in half by the Cours Mirabeau – an avenue of stately mansions and bustling restaurants which separates the renaissance and medieval quarters, Aix is brimming with museums and art galleries, boutiques and a fabulous market, sunny terraces and tinkling fountains.
Who doesn’t love a tour of a chocolate workshop?! At Chocolaterie de Puyricard, a film, tour and tasting (available in English – book in advance), will satisfy your inner Willy Wonka and then some. “Butter from Charente, cream from Alsace, almonds and candied fruit from Provence…” says the guide as I watch the magical transformation of these delicious ingredients turned into chocolate, calissons, ice cream and sweets. French people eat 7-12 kg of chocolate a year – I’m only surprised it’s not more when it’s this good. They also host workshops. Forget night in a museum, I’m dreaming of night in a chocolate factory!
The Goat cheese lady
Cheese lovers will adore the Ferme du Brégalon. When I visited, Anais Girard, the goat lady, was surrounded by baby goats bleating and wanting cuddles or maybe to hear her play the piano she keeps in the barn “they love music as much as me” she says. The farm is in a lovely, tranquil location, perfect for picnics, about 20km from the city and Anais and her husband also breed goats for sale “we go on holidays at places where our goats are” she laughs, happiness is definitely goat shaped here. Production is organic, manual and carried out with love. You can meet the goats and taste the goat milk products from tangy cheeses and yoghurts to ice cream.
Innovative beer makers
In a former printworks factory turned brasserie in Aix, quench your thirst with Aix-made ale. What started as a passion project for a couple of young beer makers has won a legion of fans who flock to Aquae Maltae for the innovative beers served with tapas style snacks and a fun atmosphere. You’re likely to find their beers in local restaurants too – from lavender beer and garlic beer to their popular Sainte-Victoire, named after the local mountain that haunted the dreams of Cezanne, as well as Mistral, a blonde beer “perfect for hot days.”
Where to eat out:
Locals love: Restaurant Gaodina – lunch or dinner here is like taking a mini holiday in just a couple of hours. Just a mile or so from the commercial centre, it’s surrounded by meadows of wildflowers and Judas trees and looks like a film set for ‘A Year in Provence’. A fabulous menu at a great price, plus a barbeque kitchen for sunny days and a delicious wine list – outstandingly scrumptious!
Marseille takes the biscuit
Marseille is famous for its bouillabaisse – a rustic and chunky fish soup, but ask the locals what they love best and they’re sure to mention Les Navettes des Accoules. Jose Orsoni, AKA “Jo Navettes”, loves to talk about the famous biscuits of Marseille which he makes at his store on the edge of Le Panier, the old district of the city just 5 minutes walk from the world-famous Museum of Civilisations of Europe, MUCEM.
“Navettes are the perfect goûter, snack” he says “stick one in your pocket, it won’t break and you can nibble on it anytime – with coffee, with tea and perfect with champagne, they go with everything but not pastis” he grins.
The store is filled with divine aromas of these unique to Marseille biscuits being baked in front of you – it’s the “orange blossom water that makes them so good, it’s not too sweet” he says. He tells me that they were invented 300 years ago, and even after decades of making them, he still eats them every day. People come from far and wide for these sweet treats – if you want to make like a local, join the queue!
Where to eat out
Locals love: Sepia, perched on the Puget hill, there are fabulous views over the city as you indulge in the truly delectable dishes.
Push the boat out: Restaurant Gerarh, 50 Cours Julien, a vibrant quarter that the locals adore for its ambiance and brilliant restaurants. Chef Gerarh Habib epitomises the warm welcome of the south, with a restaurant both refined and cosy, and a menu that reflects his love of organic, local produce and spices. Food to make you smile.
Stay at: Hôtel Maison Montgrand in the centre of the city, close to the old port.
I end my journey in style in the luminescent seaside town of Cassis with a stay at the magnificent Hotel Les Roches-Blanches, the Hotel of the White Rocks. A former private mansion built in 1887, it became a hotel in the roaring 20s. Here where Winston Churchill played and Edith Piaf relaxed, you will find the sort of French paradise hotel that you dream of and see in films but don’t really believe it exists. There are 45 rooms, every one of them memorable. Four restaurants tease, tantalise and tempt your taste buds.
And the view from my room over the beautiful Cap Canaille, the tallest cliff in Europe, glowing the colour of toasted apricots as the sun kisses the Mediterranean Sea at the close of day is nothing short of soul inspiring. It is one of those places that everyone should experience for true pleasure and French art de vivre.
From Cassis (or nearby Marseille) the Calanques are a must-visit, soaring limestone coves lapped by the turquoise sea water – go in the morning if you can, the light is better! There’s just so much to fall in love with in this lovely little town from cobbled streets lined with boutiques, bars and bistros, to the famous route des Cretes along the coast and sandy beaches. But I’m here for the food and wine so I head to the restaurant La Vieille Auberge on the Quai Jean-Jacques Barthélémy for lunch. I would be happy just drinking in the views from this place but the menu is seriously lip-smacking.
Nectar of the gods
A stone’s throw from the centre of town, surrounded by vineyards you’ll find Domaine Tigana. And if that name rings a bell, it’s because the wine maker is legendary footballer and coach – Jean Tigana, formerly of Les Blues and Fulham FC amongst many other prestigious clubs. He produces 75% white and 25% rosé wines from 14 acres, “wine is about passion, not about money, and yes football is about passion too though playing football is harder” he laughs gleefully. He’s here every day and totally hands on from serving customers to delivering to local restaurants which lap up his award-winning wines “there’s never enough left to export” he says as he pours me a glass after a tour of the vineyards and cellars (in English), though luckily, if you go to the shop you can buy it – and it’s seriously good.
On my travels I only touched the tip of the taste sensation that makes up this incredible food and wine adventure trail – I’ll be back…
You can find heaps of details about the experiences, offers, the territories and destinations and book your visit here: valleedelagastronomie.com/en
See part 2 of my trip – the northern route, in the totally free to read The Good Life France Magazine, issue 35
By Janine Marsh, Editor of The Good Life France, and author of several books about France.
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