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.