Provence, as everyone knows, is the country’s most hedonistic region, but no one does pleasure-seeking—which, to be frank, often means squeaking by with doing as little as possible—like this pocket of the Bouches-du-Rhône. You smoke yourself to death over a pastis, toss a steel ball in an umpteenth game of boules, take three hours to do the marketing for lunch, read and reread the sports page of Le Provençal—and before you know it, it’s time for a nap. Idleness isn’t just its own reward here in the heart of Frédéric Mistral country, but a virtue. L’Ange et L’Éléphant taps into this lifestyle in a rather edgy way. It’s a huge success, the frustrated envy of every Maussane shopkeeper and hotel and restaurant proprietor intent on relieving tourists of their euros.
L’Ange et L’Éléphant requisitions a massive 18th-century staging post. It’s a lovely three-minute walk from the town’s main square, down an allée of plane trees and past the handsome washhouse inaugurated by Napoleon III in 1865 and the butcher selling garrigue-grazed Maussane lamb under a registered trademark. St.-Rémy (once charming, now over) is just on the other side of the Alpilles mountains. Les Baux, with its spectacular wind-hollowed bauxite cliffs, lurks above. Like St.-Rémy, Maussane suffers from being fashionable, but unlike the former it still retains a degree of authenticity. Despite the hype engulfing Provence, despite the bad food and subdivisions and grandes surfaces (ghastly stadium-sized supermarkets that, to be fair, are also filled with guilty pleasures), Maussane still resembles the sort of agrarian stronghold rich in folkways eulogized by Mistral in his memoirs. I rented a house here 20 years ago and amazingly, nothing much has changed since, except that during the summer fête votive (the feast day of the patron saint of the village church and the village itself), the girls who perform in the magnificently cheesy revue have harder bodies and are showing more of them.
What makes L’Ange et L’Éléphant so special?As the vise screws of "l’esprit boho" take another quarter-turn on the French imagination, it’s a relief to see that l’esprit hasn’t been totally co-opted by Parisians striking a subversive pose. This is the real thing. The fact that L’Ange et L’Éléphant is a little destabilizing and hard to nail down only heightens the experience. It’s a cultural and decorative stew. There were moments when I felt like I was in Tangier—or was it Chandernagore?Scratch that. What it really feels like (I think) is Santa Fe.
On motorcycles and in BMW’s they come to sip melon wine, nibble chicken in coconut milk (amateurish and eccentric, the food is far from the point), and nuzzle their dates under the stars in a sprawling courtyard. It’s appointed not with all that boilerplate stuff that romanticizes French rural life but with tole cacti, daybeds from Afghanistan lashed with buffalo thongs, embroidered straw rugs ravaged by the sun and rain, cedar panels of lacy moucharaby, old beaten shutters—and vintage Coca-Cola picnic coolers. (Nearly all of the above is for sale, augmented by Fez pottery, horn cups, and sequined babouches in the boutique.) A giant blow-up chair skims the surface of the kind of featureless anti-swimming-pool swimming pool the French term a bassin. It’s all casually banged together, the service is beyond relaxed, but it works.
The party goes on all night to an insinuating sound track of the African chanteuse Judith Sephuma and Brazil’s Rosalia de Souza, the neighbors—some of them farmers who must be up with the sun—be damned. (Even guests, cruelly deprived of sleep by the music, nattering, and clinking of glasses, sometimes feel that Juliette Godeau Ledieu and Joël Gourlot, L’Ange et L’Éléphant’s owners, go too far in the pursuit of a good time.) Down the lane, workers at Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille, the most famous olive-oil mill in France, have been at it for many hours before the couple have even thought about raising the shades.
It’s difficult to imagine, but Godeau Ledieu and Gourlot are veterans of the pharmaceutical industry. They are the only aubergistes in France (possibly in the world) ever to have met in a Johnson & Johnson laboratory.