The Kindness of Strangers
Sunday last summer as I was traveling solo in Provence, I decided
to stop for a leisurely lunch at L'Oustau de Baumanière.
L'Oustau, a Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel, lies at the foot
of the village perché (hilltop village) of Les Baux-de-Provence
in the Alpilles mountains.* It also sits at the gate of le Val
d'enfer (the Valley of Hell) where, according to legend, Dante
found the inspiration for his Divine Comedy.
a landscape blessed by olive trees, lavender, vineyards, fig trees,
almond trees, apricot trees, oleander, jasmine, mimosa, sun, and
blue skies, L'Oustau's terrasse (terrace) in summer is a
shaded havre de paix (haven of calm) away from the tourist-thronged
streets of Les Baux. As soon as you sit down, discreet waiters bring
you bowls of tapenade (olive paste), a.k.a. the caviar of
southern France, and large green and black olives to accompany your
apéritif. Bottles of local olive oil remind you that
this is not the butter country of northern France.
this particular day, I was not up for a full menu (fixed
set of courses), and I wanted to be sure and save room for the magnificent
offerings from L'Oustau's chariot de fromages (cheese cart).
So I decided to skip the first course, or l'entrée,
and went straight to le plat principal (the main dish). I
ordered the turbot, an elegantly simple dish, as it turned out.
As I enjoyed the sublime flavors of the fish it its light sauce
and a glass of gorgeous white Châteauneuf-du-Pape,
I noticed a table of two French couples who sat down near me. The
maître d' greeted them like old friends and soon a
fabulous spread of Provençal "antipasti" appeared
on their table. It had definitely not been on the menu. A little
while later, the proprietor and former chef of L'Oustau, Jean-André
Charial, sat down and visited before heading back to the kitchen.
The group was clearly old friends.
moved on to the cheese course and the pleasure of choosing from
among the best of the best of French fromages. Unfortunately,
they had just run out of banon, the regional goat's cheese
wrapped in its signature chestnut leaves and a favorite of mine
while in Provence. Instead, I chose some other local goat cheeses
and un morceau de (a bit of) St. Marcellin. They were as
beautiful to look at as they were to eat.
I savored the meal and being in my favorite corner of Provence,
I continued to write notes in my journal and discreetly capture
a photo of each course. I could tell the French group near me was
intrigued by this-and by a woman on her own in such a setting. I
finished the cheese course and had a sip or two of red wine still
to enjoy. At that moment, the maître d' appeared at
my table and set down a plate that held a single slice of fromage
de brebis (sheep's cheese) and some spring onions fresh from
the garden. I looked at him quizzically. He informed me that this
was a gift from the French couples I had noticed earlier.
One of the French gentlemen at the table nearby then spoke. He
gathered by my journal and photo-taking that I was interested in
the food and culture. He and his companions wanted me to try the
sheep's cheese from Sardinia (the Mediterranean island near Corsica)
in honor of L'Oustau's maître d' who was sarde
(Sardinian). He went on to say that the onions were a must with
this particular cheese. As a final flourish, he sent the maître
d' to fetch another glass of white Châteauneuf-du-Pape
as "le vin rouge ne va pas très bien avec"
(the red wine I had wouldn't go well with the cheese).
I was enchanted and floored. The fromage de brebis sarde,
onions and white wine were outstanding. And the fact that this group
of French people wanted to share a cultural experience with a non-French
person was even better. As they rose to leave, I thanked them again
(in French) and gave them my business card in case I could ever
return the favor in Texas. "Mais nous n'avons que les bottes
et les chapeaux de cowboy là-bas" (but we only have
cowboy boots and cowboy hats over there), I said tongue in cheek.
After they left, the head waiter came to clear my table and bring
me un express (an expresso). He asked if I knew who the gentleman
was who had initiated the cultural offering. No, but he looked vaguely
familiar, I said. To myself, I added that he also had presence and
charisma. "C'était Pierre Arditi." Pierre
Arditi, the French actor and director.* The good friend of Monsieur
Charial. And a wonderful cultural ambassador for France.
I floated out into the Provençal sunshine nourished by an
impeccable meal and by the kindness of French strangers. Life was
* L'Oustau de Baumanière, 13520 Les Baux-de-Provence, www.oustaudebaumaniere.com.
L'Oustau's restaurant offers la haute cuisine in a refined
yet casual setting. Their wine cellar is extensive and has even
been recognized as a national treasure in France. I dined there
a few weeks ago and the food was as fabulous as ever. However, the
service was disappointingly distracted perhaps due to the full house
on a busy Friday evening in summer. Note to self: Avoid Friday and
Saturday nights in June, July and August!
* Pierre Arditi has played numerous roles in French films and on
the French stage. I remember him from his supporting role in the
film Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof) with
Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez.
July 23, 2008
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