Of Pots and Potagers

La Ferme de Ste Cécile, rte de Castellane, 04360 Moustiers-Ste-Marie 04 92 74 64 18

I think the winter is much the best time of year to visit Moustiers. Clear mountain days. Crisp. Cold but exhilerating. Lac Ste Croix is just as beautifully limpidly aquamarine, but without its summer flotillas of pedalos, Moustier’s tiny streets are uncrowded, parking is easy, and afterwards you can wind your way slowly along the narrow, intestinal roads overlooking each sheer side of the magnificent Gorges du Verdon — Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon — without coming face to frightening face with hordes of touristic trippers in caravan-campervans.

Moustiers has been, as everone knows, the charming centre of Provence’s pottery production ever since the 17th century, when a monk arrived here from Farenza in Italy (the place that gave its name to the word ‘faïence’), and, maybe under the influence of a flagon too far of the local rosé, spilt the beans on some of the hitherto secret Italian skills of the kiln. Nowadays the little town’s tiny passages and covered walkways criss-crossing the River Rioul are packed with shops displaying the famous blue camieu on white enamelling and the later ‘grotesque’ motifs.

So it is fitting, and not entirely surprising that blue and white are also the colours that greet you when you enter the small pretty farm tucked away off the road between the lake and the village. No, this is not the grand and famous Bastide de Moustiers, with its even more famous potager; the Ferme de Cecile is a more modest establishment, with more modest prices, but Patrick Crespin’s kitchen garden, along with his cuisine certainly rivals that of his neighbourly rival, Alain Ducasse.

The terrace of this restored 17th century farm, shaded by giant lime trees, looks over verdant terraces of asparagus, raspberries, lettuce, fennel and tomato plants, all worked by Patrick’s father, down to the stream below. But, at the table, it is not just the herbs and vegetables that are local. The superbly succulent pigeon is from nearby Valensole, the lamb, rabbits and ducks are raised at neighbouring farms, as are the olives that are often here, turned, with a twist of imagination that must make Ducasse shake in his toque, into intricate sorbets to offset anchovy terrines or rouget tartelets. Roast garlic also gets triumphally transformed in the Ste Cécile ice-cream machine.

Patrick’s enthusiasm for farming stops at the sea, though, and since he is especially keen on fish, he makes the 120 km trip to Marseille’s Vieux Port twice a week, personally to pick out fresh line-caught specimens for his kitchen.

Despite this care and creativity the menus roll out at 23 and 32€ — and the extensive wine list, chosen by the effervescent Samuel Bouton, starts at a refreshing 18€.

The Ferme Ste Cécile is a delightful, intimate hideaway, even in the turmoil of touristic summer. But perhaps, like Moustiers, it is still more appealing in winter, where its honest warmth and reasonable prices bely the sophistication of its irreproachable cuisine.

Juliet Young

Revisited August 06
Still excellent

Copyright © 2007 Anglo-American Group of Provence