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À la Provençal, in moderation

In a region rich with a variety of olive groves, not all of the fruits go to making oil. In a region rich with a variety of olive groves, not all of the fruits go to making oil. (Sarah Hearn for The Boston Globe)
By Sarah Hearn
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2010

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ST. REMY DE PROVENCE — Would I care to spend a few days “en Provence’’ at the home of my friend Mireille Guiliano, author of “French Women Don’t Get Fat,’’ and her husband, Edward? With a last-minute deal on Air France, I booked my ticket. I couldn’t wait.

I had been to Provence years ago, but with Mireille and Edward as guides, I would spend a few days visiting markets, dining at their favorite spots, and seeing the region through the eyes of locals. An overnight flight to Paris, followed by an hourlong connecting flight to Marseilles, and I was in Provence by 8 a.m.

During the 40-minute drive to Mireille and Edward’s I took in the dramatic views. As I got closer, the landscape became punctuated by olive groves, rows of fruit trees, vine yards, and beautifully restored — or in some cases romantically abandoned — stone houses.

I met my fellow houseguest, Giovanna, a young Italian woman, and over a simple lunch of tomato salad, burrata, and freshly baked bread on the patio, our hosts outlined what we might do the following few days.

Where to start? With a wine tasting, of course. For Mireille, the former CEO of Veuve Clicquot, and Edward, wine is one of life’s great pleasures. After lunch we drove to Chateau Romanin, a nearby winery, for a tour and tasting. Built into the mountains, this one-time castle features a stunning wine cave whose dramatic arched ceiling recalls the interior of a cathedral. After a quick tour in English and a tasting we purchased a few bottles of wines at a reasonable price.

We continued driving into the heart of St. Remy de Provence, a bustling market town with winding streets and smart shops. Mireille introduced us to sources for two more of her favorite indulgences: olive oil and chocolate. As Frenchwomen know and Mireille espouses, all things in moderation — including chocolate.

Our first stop was the famed chocolate shop Joel Durand, owned and operated by the master chocolatier. Inside the little store, one side was dominated by a glass case filled with trays of small chocolates. The shopkeeper asked if we wanted to try one. (Would three women care for a piece of chocolate? A unanimous oui!) After sampling, we made our selections and departed.

Next on our little excursion was Olive, a fantastic shop that offers an impressive selection of Provençal olive oils and other local treasures. The subtle smell of rosemary and lavender filled the air. To the right, a room was filled with the fabulous soaps for which Marseilles is known. “French women adore things like perfumes, sachets, and scented waters,’’ explained Mireille, surveying the selection. Nearby, a sign directed patrons to enter a long room whose wooden shelves were lined with a vast collection of French olive oils.

For many food lovers, a trip to Europe means plotting an itinerary around meals. The lovely thing about the French is that having multicourse dinners with wine, cheese, and dessert is expected, even encouraged. Quality ingredients, eating at a leisurely pace, and “appropriate’’ portions mean indulging without overdoing, as any Frenchwoman knows. Mireille and Edward chose some of their favorite restaurants, including two very different two-Michelin-star experiences: Chez Bru in Eygalieres and L’Atelier in Arles. The interior of Chez Bru is sleek and minimalist — think Los Angeles meets the south of France. The food is classic French with an emphasis on local ingredients. We began with a mussel soup with saffron and crème fraîche, followed by roasted foie gras with honey, and perfectly cooked rack of lamb with eggplant caviar and potato puree.

In contrast to the country setting and more formal ambience of Chez Bru, L’Atelier is a narrow, modern space located in one of Arles’s many winding alleyways a few steps from the Town Hall. It has none of the usual fine dining trappings. Here, there is no menu; instead guests are invited to sit back and enjoy 13 small but impactful courses by Jean-Luc Rabanel, the creative and celebrated French chef. With a play on texture, temperature, and flavors, each dish challenged and surprised the palate. The ingredients came primarily from Rabanel’s biodynamic garden, so fresh vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers figured heavily.

My favorite meal was in the little village of Cucuron. From the vine-covered trellis and stone floor of the walled patio to the hat rack filled with Provençal straw hats and tables set with crisp white linen and hotel china from Paris, La Petite Maison de Cucuron oozes old world charm. With a great respect for seasonality, Chef Eric Sapet expertly turns out the kind of classic cooking one fantasizes about eating while in the French countryside. A perfectly rosy duck breast with crispy skin lay beside a roasted white peach and was served with a rich jus and creamy pumpkin puree. For dessert we were served the classic Provençal dessert of Tropézienne aux Framboises, a light vanilla cake sliced in half and filled with orange blossom-perfumed whipped cream and fresh raspberries.

However, not all of our meals were taken in restaurants. A morning trip to Mireille’s local market was a sensory delight: huge vats of aromatic paella, golden chickens roasting, local goat cheese, honeys, and jams to sample, and bounties of beautiful produce to admire. Local pottery and handmade espadrilles rounded out the offerings. After a few tastes and several purchases, we returned home ready for lunch. Edward had picked up a juicy roasted chicken from their favorite butcher and Mireille quickly made ratatouille with the eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes she had bought. A baguette, some wine, and for dessert, cavaillon melons with a sprinkling of Muscat de Beaumes de Venises completed lunch.

With a bit of planning you can visit a market any day of the week and make picnicking a treat. The best way to see the region on your own is to pick a base and rent a car. With a map or GPS and signs along the roads, it is relatively easy to tour around. Provence comprises small cities (Aix en Provence, Avignon), large towns (St. Remy de Provence, Arles), and magical little villages with lyrical names (Lourmarin, Cucuron, Eygalieres). You will find cyclists, hikers, and campers are out in legions spring, summer, and fall.

I came to Provence for a summer escape, ready to absorb the rhythm of French living. Despite several decadent meals I felt rejuvenated . . . perhaps it was Mireille’s maxims of moderation, the daily walks and swims, or slowing down to “Provençal’’ time. Whatever it was, it worked.

I returned to Boston with a plan to introduce a bit of Provence into my daily routine: Some things were easy (wine with dinner? done) and some required rejiggering of the schedule (exercise), but these lessons from one savvy Frenchwoman were ones I intended to follow. If I need to go back to Provence for the occasional “refresher’’ course, so be it.

Sarah Hearn can be reached at shearn78@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
L’Oliviera
Chemin des Jaisses
Eygalieres
www.loliviera.fr
A quaint bed-and-breakfast a quick walk from the town center. Rooms from $154 a night.
La Bastide de Gordes & Spa
Rue de la Combe, Gordes
www.bastide-de-gordes.com
A luxurious hotel in a gorgeous setting that offers guests a beautiful pool that overlooks the valley. About $300 a night.
Where to eat
Chez Bru
Route d’Orgon, Eygalieres
www.chezbru.com
Tasting menu, $148.
L’Atelier
7 rue des Carmes, Arles
www.rabanel.com
Menu “Emotions,’’ $105 ($185 with wine pairings).
À Côté
21 rue des Carmes, Arles
www.bistro-acote.com
A less expensive and more casual option allows guests to enjoy Michelin-starred Chef Rabanel’s cuisine. Tapas about $7, entrees $10-$22, prix-fixe menu $52.
La Petite Maison de Cucuron
Place de l’Etang, Cucuron
www.lapetitemaisondecucu ron.com
Four-course menu about $50, six courses about $74.
What to do
Château Romanin
www.romanin.com
Olive
16 boulevard Victor Hugo
Extensive olive oil selection, flavored vinegars, locally produced soaps, linens, pottery, hand and body creams.
Joel Durand
3 boulevard Victor Hugo
Handmade chocolates, jams, ice cream.
Le Petit Duc
7 boulevard Victor Hugo
Sweet and savory biscuits, Provençal candies.