The village bistro that may or may not also function as a café, grocery store, and bread drop-off is one of rural France’s coziest, most sustaining traditions. Since it is often the only spot to congregate and buy a newspaper in a village, as well as the place’s only business, the bistro acts as switchboard, nerve center, and lifeline. But when it goes the village goes too: the French countryside is crowded with the tombstones of isolated communities whose populaces have bolted to the cities, looking for life. Yet save the bistro and you give villagers a reason to stay. You save the village.
Travelers who hate being led by the nose are crazy about these institutions. Even if they can’t understand the gossip they overhear or the mutterings of the town drunk, they love the atmosphere of a social hub where non-villagers are received alongside the widowed pensioner nursing a pastis and the nonagenarian in carpet slippers shopping for a baguette. Rotary Clubs favor these places for their annual dinners, just as new parents book them for christenings. In the corner, often, is a bunch of guys behind a wall of smoke, playing cards and arguing about de Gaulle. On the other hand, it’s not as if everyone is born 20 feet from the front door. A couple of months ago, I ran into the director Adrian Lyne at Café de la Lavande, in Haute-Provence, dining on a magnificently fatty sauté of veal with salsify.
Is there anyone who doesn’t like to eat well and for not a lot of money?Who doesn’t want to help mend the holes in the economic fabric of a Provençal backwater?For some scholarly French pulse-taking I used to go to the basement level of the Paris department store BHV, the farmers’ market in Velleron in the Vaucluse, a certain droguerie in Roanne. These bistros are better.
They and their host villages are a threatened species. But maybe not for long. Bistrot de Pays, a grassroots initiative, creates new multiservice bistros and supports existing ones, grouping them into regional networks. Choose a network and the work of planning an itinerary for a great back-roads trip is done for you. Most of the association’s 210 members are in the south, in the Midi-Pyrénées and Provence, but circuits are planned for the entire country.
To qualify, the locality must have a population of less than 2,000 (“off the map,” it obviously can’t have a tourist office), and the bistro must be the village’s sole business, or at least just one of a few (the others can be butcher’s shops or boulangeries but not bistros). Owners sign an annually renewable contract, agreeing to attend training classes and regular meetings at which experts deliver talks on olive oil, say, or how to cook wild field greens. According to the Bistrot de Pays charter, they also pledge to play ambassador by furnishing guides and brochures and being knowledgeable enough about points of interest in their area to answer tourists’ questions.
Members are asked to sell postcards, newspapers, and regional food products; hold periodic events like concerts and boules tournaments to bring villagers together; and use ingredients and serve dishes identified with the locale. If at lunch you eat a goat cheese made nearby and want to visit the producer, your waiter should know if this is possible and, if it is, how to arrange it. In the absence of a full or set menu at specific hours, a casse-croûte, or snack, of local foodstuffs like charcuterie is available throughout the day.
Ideally, the bistro should be open year-round and operate as a place where fresh bread is dropped off daily and sold. Beyond bringing the community a notch closer to self-sufficiency, the symbolism is powerful: a village that can offer its people bread controls its destiny. If the bistro has no grocery component, the deal is that residents can buy or borrow staples like flour and butter from the kitchen. This feature is particularly geared to elderly inhabitants who may be village-bound or have no way of getting to a supermarket.
For their dedication to the cause and an annual fee of $150, Bistrot de Pays owners are consigned a rack for printed materials and a sign with the association’s logo, a rural landscape customized for each region: a perched village for the Drôme, a castle for the Ariège, a musketeer for the Gers. Early members still use the glass-fronted cabinets they were given to present items for sale. While the charter is not always as rigorously enforced as it might be, bistros have been stripped of their cabinets and kicked out for noncompliance. Missing from the charter but a not-unknown feature of the genre is a sometimes charming, always authentic cruddiness. The French seediness enshrined in La Mini Auberge, also in Haute-Provence, is as holy as any Romanesque church in the neighborhood and as such not to be missed.
Across the Durance River, the mayor of St.-Jurs believed so strongly in a bistro/café/grocery/bread drop-off that he built one, Les Deux Nines, with municipal funds. Before construction began on the village’s lone business, he knew that Eloïse Donnini, one of 150 residents, would run it. The grocery is adorable, a playtime vision of an épicerie. It stocks Orangina, boar pâté, lemons, chestnut purée, eggs, jars of pieds et paquets (lamb’s feet–and-tripe bundles), rice, and horse-milk soap. The dining room is filled with bouquets of dried phlomis, collections of antique soup tureens and battered straw hats, and tables laid with faded checked cloths and mismatched vintage plates. A cabinet displays the range of Henri Bardoui Provençal aperitifs and digestifs, honey, honey cookies, and honey-and–pine-sap boiled candies. Views are of the Valensole Plateau, the world’s largest living carpet of lavender. Thousands of acres of the plant bump right up against the horizon.
Home cooking is so abused as a come-on by restaurants in France you go expecting the worst and are served it. But the set menu at Les Deux Nines interprets the term as it was understood before corruption. Typically there are four appetizers: tapenade with tuna, an acceptable complication of the classic; endive-and-walnut salad; cured ham, tasting of hazelnuts and looking like folds of burnished leather; and a crusty carrot confection, neither cake nor custard, spiced with cumin. A main course of beef daube, flavored with bitter-orange peel and flanked by slabs of polenta, is as gelatinous as Donnini likes it, which is very, a happy sign that she couldn’t care less about wooing tourists. The menu includes a cheese course and two desserts, a flan and a walnut tart.
Thirty miles from St.-Jurs, an allée of chestnut trees leads to Le Bistrot de Pierrerue, in Pierrerue, whose 500 inhabitants last year celebrated five births and six marriages and mourned five deaths. Old-timers remember going to the bistro as children to screen movies. The unlikely people behind Pierrerue’s only storefront are Maryvonne and Mark Marinelli, Americans in their forties who formerly owned a corporate catering company in North Carolina. He’s in the kitchen, she’s out front in the dining room, running what is really the village’s common living room, hung with what the French call souvenirs de concierge. The reference is to the alleged mauvais goût of these postcards mounted on slices of wood and shellacked, popular 50’s keepsakes now collected for their kitsch value.
The Marinellis’ worries about being accepted ended when a local agency that promotes small businesses gave them an interest-free loan—“And they knew we were American!” Mark says. Aside from his very limited French and Maryvonne’s accent, there’s nothing that betrays the bistro as being run by foreigners. This is true not just of the atmosphere but the food: silky quenelles of chicken-liver mousse; a lush duckling à la provençale (zucchini, tomatoes, green olives); tarte Tatin. The only grumblings have come from an employee of the town dump who would like the couple to open at 7:45 rather than 8:00 so he could have a coffee before going to work. The bistro doesn’t offer newspapers or bread because a truck passes through the village with them every morning. A second truck selling groceries comes by on Wednesdays, triggering a fashion show of housecoats and support stockings.
You could have a long lunch in Pierrerue and, driving lazily but with a hidden sense of purpose, cover the 40 miles between it and L’Oustau de la Font in the medieval village of Reilhanette, in the Drôme, in time for dinner. As a white-tablecloth restaurant (well, the cloths are actually beige), L’Oustau breaks the Bistrot de Pays mold, playing against type with napkin rings; flat, square plates squirted with jus and reductions; an exhaustive wine list with an entire page of red magnums (including a 1995 Châteauneuf du Pape from Château Beauchêne for $220); polished service; edgy vegetable sorbets; fish with vanilla! The plates are a little impractical, but how can you not admire a commune of 131 souls that obliges fashion?
Stuck to a rocky hill face, Reilhanette is lavender and épeautre (wheat berry) country, wide-open, a little stark, humbling. The ruins of a 12th-century fortified castle crown the village, and a church from the same epoch has three Baroque altars and a reliquary with a morsel of Saint Eutrope’s radius. The other reason for visiting is L’Oustau, which occupies an ancient stone house beside the old public laundry basin there where the village drops quickly away and the fields, knitted into a valley with a mountainous backdrop, take over. Obviously the odds were not in favor of a demi-gastro version of a Bistrot de Pays here, but chef Ludovic Monier and Jean-Michel Valéry, his front-of-house associate, were determined not to serve ham sandwiches and steak frites even if it meant their kids went shoeless for a while. Both in their thirties and unafraid of a 14-hour day, they bet that, beyond vacationers, a serious restaurant would find an audience with people who live in the area if the portions were generous, or rather extravagant.
They weren’t wrong. The mayor and town council order thick slices of a sucré-salé terrine that dares and succeeds. Alternating layers of foie gras and spice bread, it’s set off by a little dice of pineapple dusted with Sichuan pepper. A first-course beggar’s purse—a crackling sheet of Moroccan brik loaded with leeks, pearl barley, and three disks of fresh goat cheese—is cut with a coulis of black Nyons olives loosened with olive oil. Monier overreaches a bit, but it’s in nobody’s interest to discourage a chef in a challenging location who’s raising the bar and is so keen to please. His lovely hand-painted water pitchers and organic sourdough bread are from a potter and a baker with a wood-burning oven down the road. You can’t argue with that.
L’Auberge—also in the Drôme, in St.-Pantaléon-les-Vignes—calls itself a restaurant gastronomique, and while it is not most people’s idea of one, like L’Oustau it earns your indulgence. The food is good, so who cares?Thirty-six miles northwest of Reilhanette, St.-Pantaléon is a modest Côtes du Rhône wine village that looks across vineyards and apricot and cherry orchards to the foothills of the Préalpes. At one point in its 146 years, L’Auberge also incorporated guest rooms, a grocery, a café, and a gas station. It’s a café-bistro only now, but still the village’s beating heart, anchored beside a washhouse and a thread of river under a canopy of wide-waisted plane trees. Permanently parked outside the entrance as a prop, next to a pyramid of wine casks, is a beautiful old Renault Juvaquatre, the ultimate French paysan getabout. The tiny post office across the street keeps the kind of manically precise and maddening hours that govern provincial life in France (it’s open from 8:45 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.) and is the only place besides the bistro in St.-Pantaléon where its 320 citizens can enjoy a cash transaction, buying their stamps at the window and a baguette or croissant at an improvised table on their way out.
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.
When to Go
The region is at its best from late spring to early fall.
Where to Eat and Stay
Place de la Fontaine, Lardiers; 33-4/92-73-31-52; lunch for two $74.
Local Inn: Le Jas du Boeuf
Great Value Lieudit Parrot, Cruis; 33-6/50-97-96-37; colourdimensions.com; doubles from $182.
Place du Village, St.-Pantaléon-les-Vignes; 33-4/75-27-98-27; lunch for two $95.
Local Inn: Une Autre Maison
Great Value Place de la République, Nyons; 33-4/75-26-43-09; uneautremaison.com; doubles from $130.
Rue de la Ferraille, Pierrerue; 33-4/92-75-33-00; lunch for two $54.
Local Inn: Le Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa
Mane en Provence; 33-4/92-74-77-77; couventdesminimes-hotelspa.com; doubles from $429.
Place Bellevue, St.-Jurs; 33-4/92-74-30-73; lunch for two $70.
Local Inn: Château d’Esparron
Esparron-de-Verdon; 33-4/92-77-12-05; esparron.com; doubles from $184, including breakfast.
Le Village, Reilhanette; 33-4/75-28-83-77; lunch for two $100.
Local Inn: Richarnau
Great Value Aurel; 33-4/90-64-03-62; richarnau-provence.com; doubles from $92, including breakfast.