We are 10 strangers laughing, gathered around a gleaming stainless-steel-and-granite island peeling baby artichokes for our dinner. The luminous, beamed kitchen where we work, not to mention the endless glasses of chilled rosé, invite an easy camaraderie. It is the first evening of chef Carole Peck's Culinary Tour of Provence, a week of unapologetic indulgence and unexpected discovery. Carole, the gregarious chef and owner of the Good News Café in Woodbury, Connecticut, and her French husband, publisher Bernard Jarrier, host groups of 8 to 10 adventurous foodies several times a year at their home in the sleepy Provençal town of Montfrin, just across the Rhône from Avignon. Each tour offers a mix of cooking classes with Carole, as well as celebrated local chefs, sightseeing, shopping, antiquing, wine tasting, and eating—lots of eating—at the region's top restaurants. "Every tour is different," Carole notes. "It keeps things fresh and interesting for Bernard and me."
In our group of bons vivants are two couples from Connecticut, John and Laurie, and Dick and Gerry; Barbara and Alicia, a mother-daughter duo from Washington and Montana; Gail and Brynn, old friends from law school, now living on separate coasts; and me. We arrive separately in Avignon via the TGV high-speed train from Paris on Friday afternoon, and have just an hour or so to settle into our rooms and explore the house, which is nestled in the heart of the village. Across the narrow street is a 12th-century stone church, while a few paces on stands an ancient building whose stone plaque announces that it was the local commanderie, or headquarters, of the Knights Templar, who built the church in 1161. Renovated from roof to cave, the Peck-Jarrier house, also called the Prieuré Notre-Dame, shows its handsome old bones—wooden beams, period stonework, burnished terra-cotta tiles. Each of our bedrooms is different, but all reflect Carole's love of color, regional fabrics, and whimsical accents. My cozy room on the third floor has a gleaming modern bathroom and is decorated in shades of mint and raspberry, with an Art Deco vase, a turn-of-the-century armoire, and early-20th-century photographs. I am relieved to discover that the bed is firm, new, and very comfortable, something that all too seldom awaits you in a French country house or hotel.
Carole is a good-humored and accessible teacher, her recipe instructions punctuated with a wealth of helpful chef's trucs (technical tricks and tips). We are juicing lemons. "Roll the lemon back and forth on the cutting board, pressing firmly to break down the fibers, which aids in releasing the juice, okay?" Carole says. "Cut one end of the lemon off, about three-quarters of an inch down. Slice the flesh into a tic-tac-toe grid, cutting to the halfway point of the lemon. Okay?Squeeze. The juice comes spurting out, while the seeds stay in. Who needs a juicer?"
The menu on our first night exemplifies the best of Provençal home cooking: simple, savory, soul-satisfying. We are preparing confiture d'oignons, a sweet onion relish jazzed with red pepper flakes; caviar d'aubergines (an eggplant caviar); salade composée, a mixed salad with artichokes, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, and green beans; aigo boulido, a classic Provençal garlic soup said to cure everything from a hangover to the flu; grondin rouge rôti, a bonito-like Mediterranean fish baked with lemon, olive oil, and herbs; a Swiss chard tian baked with feta, preserved lemon, and fennel; and, for dessert, plum-and-almond clafouti.
A lavish spread in the cozy saffron-hued salon rewards our two hours of hard work. We snack on black and green tapenade; salt-cod brandade; anchoïade, a pungent anchovy dip; the onion relish we prepared earlier; and saucisson sec from the local butcher. Bernard serves red, white, and rosé wines; the anise-flavored liqueur pastis; and cocktails from a well-stocked bar. Dinner in a stone-walled, candlelit niche beneath the winding staircase is served on Carole's collection of vintage faïence from Apt and Vallauris. We are tired, but pretty pleased with ourselves. Look at the feast we've made!
Our adventures in the region begin in earnest the next morning with a short ride up the hill to the Château de Montfrin for a private olive oil tasting. The Château produces some of the region's finest olive oils—fruity, rich blends with remarkably low acidity. On the broad steps of the weathered 11th-century château, we are greeted by the chatelain, Jean-René de Fleurieu, a shabby-chic charmer with the credentials of an aristocrat and the stained pants and worn shoes of a farmworker. After a brief tour of the property, we take seats in an upstairs salon for a tasting led by Jean-René and a local olive oil educator named Françoise Pouget. We sample a variety of oils from tiny plastic cups, the flavors ranging from green and spicy, with an aroma of freshly mowed grass, to fruity and ripe, with chocolate and truffle top notes. Between tastes, we clear our palates with bites of tart green apple from local orchards.
The olive oil tasting sparks our appetites; a good thing, since the next stop, La Maison at the Domaine de Bournissac, is a Michelin one-star property. We wind our way along little country roads to Bournissac, a bucolic farm with olive groves and fig trees in the village of Les Paluds-de-Noves. Our lunch, prepared by La Maison's chef, Christian Peyre, begins with St.-Pierre poêlée—sautéed John Dory capped with bacon and served with a mini copper casserole of cèpes—and finishes, two hours later, with crème brûlée subtly perfumed with verbena leaves and topped with a sugary crust caramelized to crackling perfection.
By the time we return to Montfrin, it is late afternoon, and we have just two hours to relax or have an espresso at the Café du Commerce on the square before we're off to dinner in the Camargue, Provence's "cowboy country," southwest of Arles. We're dining at Chez Bob, a famously funky, beloved restaurant on the mosquito-infested plains. (Never go to the Camargue without slathering on mosquito repellent. The mosquitoes here are as vicious as piranhas.) Vintage photos cover the walls of this former ranch, many featuring the handsome Bob, a charismatic Resistance hero (Bob is a nom de guerre). Conviviality and generosity define the family-style meals here. Our table is a veritable groaning board of crudités, dips, platters of charcuterie, fire-seared lamb steaks, garlicky escargot brochettes, and duck confit, paired with several bottles of Domaine Haut Lirac 2004, a rosé from Languedoc.
Days pass in a mellow haze of sunshine and sated appetites. We drift down every morning for a breakfast of breads and croissants from the boulangerie, with jams, fruit salad, and fresh orange juice that sustain us until lunch. We have a cooking class with Jérôme Laurent, a fine local chef who owns Le Cilantro, one of the contemporary bistros in Arles; a wine tasting at Château Grand Callemand, a small, start-up winery rather far afield in the Luberon; and a casual cooking lesson with Carole as she prepares a succulent roast turkey leg stuffed with mustard and herbs for our brunch by the courtyard pool. One afternoon we visit La Bambouseraie, exotic bamboo gardens in Anduze, and later have a demonstration class and a marvelous meal a short drive away at the Michelin-starred Les Demeures du Ranquet, a dreamy country inn with aromatic herb gardens and lavender fields. We watch as the radiant blond chef-owner, Anne Majourel, who sports a cheeky white crew cap, prepares our basil-themed dinner: every course, including a dessert of roast figs with olive oil ice cream and strawberry-basil sauce, stars the iconic Mediterranean herb.
Tuesday morning finds us standing at attention in our embroidered aprons at the handsome kitchen of La Mirande, a luxurious hotel in the heart of Avignon. This is a master class with the husky, mustachioed Christian Étienne, one of Avignon's top chefs. Dessert today is a labor-intensive gratin of grapes and pine nuts in a sabayon sauce, and we set to work peeling and seeding 14 pounds of grapes. Have you ever tried to peel and seed even a single grape?We are galley slaves. Then it's time to fillet the rouget (red mullet) for the first course, and volunteers have dwindled to one—Alicia—for this slimy prep work. Alicia is teased about being such a diligent and enthusiastic pupil, but she defiantly shoots back, "When else in my life am I going to be able to work in the kitchen next to a chef like this?"
The next morning is devoted to the weekly market in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, a tantalizing array of stalls selling everything from olives and spices to fabrics, shawls, and tablecloths. Carole leads us to some of her favorite shops and vendors, among them the master chocolatier Joël Durand, who flavors his exquisite chocolates with flowers and herbs. Returning to Montfrin after a bistro lunch, we take a detour over the Alpilles foothills to the ancient village and medieval ruins of Les Baux-de-Provence, whose stark white bauxite cliffs are said to have inspired Dante's vision of the ninth circle of hell.
Dinner on our last night together takes us to Uzès, a magnificently restored historic hill town with cobblestoned streets and stately Renaissance houses. Our candlelit table awaits us at the elegant Les Trois Salons, ensconced in a mansion dating from 1699. The meal is a splendid finale to our week of gastronomy and gourmandise. We feast on a sauté of chanterelle mushrooms in a peppered cream sauce; monkfish, fragrant with saffron and lemon; a roast saddle of lamb, accompanied by a creamy polenta studded with fresh corn; and pomme en compote, a French rendition of an apple crisp, served with unctuous vanilla ice cream. Dessert is served, champagne flutes are set before us. John, seated in the center of our long table, raises his glass. "Here's to Carole and Bernard, and to the most memorable vacation I've ever had." From the other end of the table a high, sweet voice chirps, "And here's to the first glass of champagne I've had in eight days!" In the midst of plenty, there is still deprivation.
For more information, go to carolepeck.com or call 203/266-4622. Rates for the all-inclusive six-day tour are $3,500 per person, double, not including airfare or rail transportation to and from Avignon. Dates for 2008 are May 19–25, June 2–8, September 22–28, and October 6–12.
Here, some of our other favorite hands-on culinary experiences across Europe.
Ballymaloe Cookery School
Daylong classes (mushroom foraging, wine tasting, raising chickens) on a 100-acre organic farm with Irish chef Darina Allen. 353-21/464-6785; cookingisfun.ie; from $250.
This Catalan food-and-wine immersion program includes olive-oil tastings, vineyard visits, and meals in classic regional restaurants. 866/538-3519; catacurian.net; from $1,840.
Market to Table
One-day market and culinary tours of Florence with Tuscan-food expert Faith Willinger. 39-055/233-7014; faithwillinger.com; from $450.
Les Liaisons Délicieuses
Intimate sessions with star chefs; trips to vineyards and markets; and dinners in private châteaux of such regions as the Dordogne, Normandy, Basque Country, and the Côte d'Azur. 877/966-1810; cookfrance.com; from $2,890.
Raymond Blanc Cookery School
One- to four-day programs at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxford, England, on classical techniques and market-fresh ingredients with the celebrated chef himself. 44-1844/278-881; manoir.com; from $433.