Provence eats

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I decided to start this blog on the train back to Paris from two days of eating to blissful incapacitation in Provence. I just finished a roll I saved from a restaurant at Pont de Gard, home to a fantastic museum about the Roman aqueducts and famed aqueduct itself. Seeing the aqueduct and walking along the trails around it was an unforgettable experience, but the restaurant, whose name I’ve already forgotten, was totally average save for the bread basket, which I could tell would be worth every calorie as soon as I saw it. The rolls had a thin, firm crust that shattered easily into crackly, caramel bits when squeezed. The air quickly rushed out of an interior so soft and moist the bread had to be freshly baked. There’s butter, never provided in Paris but welcome, as well as olive oil and balsamic for dipping, a flavor profile reflecting the Mediterranean culture of the south of France.

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I wouldn’t bother going back to that restaurant for its flavorless fish, uninspired vegetables, lifeless flan, and total lack of atmosphere despite its proximity to a Roman aqueduct. If the food is unexciting even after lots of open-air hiking, the food is unexciting. The best way to have lunch at Pont de Gard is to find a spot on the surrounding hills among the trees, in nature with its stunning view of the river and this marvel of engineering, and have a picnic of something simple and wholesome as a Roman goatherd might have done centuries ago – some good bread, cheese and maybe a dried fruit would be perfect.

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Dinner the night before was the opposite experience. L’ousteau Gourmand in Fontvieille’s phyllo-wrapped goat cheese appetizer, topped with arugula and a balancing balsamic-citrus dressing was fantastic, as was the white fish with perfectly-textured and seasoned julienned vegetables. Everyone was freaking out about the dessert. Starting from the bottom, there was a layer of dark caramel sauce, apple pie-style apple filling, pain d’epices, homemade whipped cream, and some sort of hard, crumbly chocolate thing that definitely involved flour. I have no idea what it was, but it was a masterpiece of baking. However, L’ousteau Gourmand doesn’t take their bread seriously at all, and it always disappoints me when otherwise good restaurants can’t even be bothered to spend the few extra cents on a baguette de tradition they don’t make in-house, choosing instead to serve factory-made baguettes with tell-tale uniform bumps on the bottom, an unremarkable crust, and a crumb with absolutely no chewiness and no bubbles indicating natural yeast. When Franprix’s baguettes are better than yours, you need to do something. Life is too short for bad bread. Everything else was fantastic though; if you’re in the area, it’s worth checking out.

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Speaking of bread, apparently it’s quite French to spread jam and butter on a baguette and dip it in black coffee or hot chocolate for breakfast. I only learned this after I’d had a sad croissant that didn’t seem to be made with only butter as the fat, but managed to put away seven packets of hot chocolate. I can’t even justify that by pretending I was engaging with French history by saying Marie Antoinette had morning chocolate as well, because the hot chocolate she took was nowhere near as sugary as the packet stuff today. But who needs to justify the pursuit of happiness?

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L’ousteau Gourmand (Le Bel Ousteau)

159 Route du N, 13990 Fontvieille

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