There’s plenty of room at this inn….

Auberge des Michels, Hameau les Michels, 13790 Peynier 04 42 53 02 83

In the run up to Christmas the two things you don’t want to do are to eat rich food, and to spend lots of money.

So December’s restaurant recommendation is a jolly little lean-to (rather seasonally stable-like, actually!) on a forested hill behind Peynier, where even the two of us struggled to get our bill up to 50 euros, for our 3 course menu du jour, bottle of rosé and coffee.

It’s such an out-of-the-way, tucked-away place, that, once you’ve ventured in, the policy of the family who own and run it so merilly and efficiently, is, clearly, to swamp you with so much friendliness and good humour, that you’ll want to come back time and again. The warmth starts right at the entrance, where Monsieur gives you a genuinely huge ear-to-ear grin of welcome, as he hooks one crispy-thin crackling pizza out of his fiery furnace with his pitch-fork, before shovelling another in. Madame takes over to your table, describing the 16 euro menu du jour — which we happily chose: 3 antipasti per person from about 20 options; cannelloni of cod and spinach (with a generous dose of nutmeg); and a good selection of desserts. The weather was rotten outside, but inside we felt as if we were already an accepted part of this happy extended family.

There are other, posher (but never poncy) menus at 26 and 35 euros, plus a short carte and three pages of specialities: pasta, pizzas and grills au feu du bois (which looked and smelled tantalising — next time I’m going to try the lamb.)

The shortish wine list wasn’t bad, though occasionally surprisingly overpriced — if you want really good value go for the excellent local Mauvan range of white and rosé (at 16 euros) and red.

It’s difficult to describe the place — a long polished wooden refectory floor, a bit creaky and bouncy under the 50 or so white-linen-clad tables (all full) and teak chairs, a wooden wall on one side, with plastic roll-up windows (to let in summer breezes when relevant) on the other. Overhead is mostly wood, too, and partly plastic sheeting (!) with fairy lights and twinkling fisherman’s nets…hopefully you’re getting the picture? Inclusively eclective? It’s got to be a fire hazard — the pizza flames and all that wood — and it probably fails certain health regulations — the WC’s are clean, but badly served by the one cramped basin…

But, it’s the second time we’ve been here, and it’s obvious that, like us, the lunchtime customers absolutely love it here: it heaves with chatter and gossip and deals being finalised. A lot of them come from the Rousset Zone Industrielle, entertaining be-suited colleagues or clients, welcoming the relaxed atmosphere and unpretentious scoff. There are also lots of locals, as well as people from further away — it’s only 20 minutes from Aix — and with its good prices and variety, it clearly attracts families at weekends. But book ahead, some of the opening hours are, like the rest of the place, a bit eccentric.

It’s warm and comforting in winter, and although we’ve not visited in summer, there is wood decking out the back, and yet more teak furniture — again, wood, wood, wood.

We’ll definitely be back there this spring, and I’d love to give it a try too, outside, on that outside shaded terrace decking… In the words of My Fair Lady, the musical where real people with genuine warm personalities win through… “WOODEN IT BE LUVVERLY?”

Juliet Young
Copyright © 2005 Anglo-American Group of Provence