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.