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Five Small-Town French Cafés

Frédéric Lagrange

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

Magali Charousset and Brice Lambeaux met at hotel school in France in the 90’s, became a couple, and took over from her parents at L’Auberge five years ago, setting up housekeeping on the second floor. She cooks, he does everything else: watering a customer’s bulldog, running upstairs to fetch his hoodie for a Dutch lady who didn’t pack for the mistral, pouring into pretty etched glasses the on-the-house sangria-like aperitif of red wine from the village cooperative, apple juice, and crème de cassis. Charousset and Lambeaux are so fresh-faced and approach their jobs with so much optimism they’re like a pair of bistrotiers in a children’s book. Or maybe the creators of Ratatouille should make a movie about them.

Charousset is a young fogy, mounding vol-au-vents with crayfish, splashing trout with walnut vinegar, using only beef cheeks in her daube, sweetening a succulent quail with prunes and raisins and flaming it with cognac, roasting peaches with red wine. She also has ideas of her own, some a little weird for such an old-fashioned girl. Soupe au pistou—Provençal vegetable soup—comes not with the traditional sauce of basil, garlic, and olive oil, but with a teeny bouquet of the herb in a glass of water, a can of oil posed directly on the table, and chopped red onion(!?). Charousset is a chef whose concept of great winter food is pot-au-feu, poule au pot, and tête de veau. You just have to assume she’ll come around to serving soupe au pistou the right way.

The gold standard of Bistrots de Pays in the Midi is Emmanuelle Burollet’s camera-ready Café de la Lavande, lost in the countryside in Lardiers, population 120, 62 miles from St.-Pantaléon. AOC Haute-Provence olive oil from Burollet’s own trees is drawn and sold from a stainless-steel canister inside the front door. Bare wood and tile-top tables are freighted with old silver and lyrical still-lifes of lychees, squash, and clementines on ceramic platters. Armfuls of flowering almond branches screen soccer trophies behind the bar.

The hors d’oeuvres variées are amazing, and not because you’re drunk on charm. Artichokes are prepared à la grecque (braised with lemon, olive oil, and coriander seeds), cornichons are fanned atop house-made duck pâté, and a gratin of puréed salt cod hides a fleecy interior. The daube is yet more unctuous than Donnini’s. This may be the sticks, but Burollet is no bumpkin. For dessert, prunes join apples not in a cake but a terrine.

Lardiers’s only other business is a pottery. Burollet would like a few more to shore up the place. She says she can use the help, but she is saving it by herself.

Christopher Petkanas is a Travel + Leisure special correspondent.


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