Reining on the Plain

L’Auberge la Fenière, Route de Cadenet, 84160 Lourmarin 04 90 68 11 79

Yes, I know it’s another expensive one, and normally I try and vary my write-ups from month to month - not just by different areas, but also different price brackets — but I am just bursting to tell you about this delight — because this is a simply wonderful summer visit….

The Auberge la Fenière occupies a superb site on the rolling plain between Cadenet and Lourmarin, and, guided by signs from the carpark, you walk round the squat stone bastide that houses the restaurant, to confront a breathtaking view. In front of you rolls out an immaculate lawn with a couple of desert-harem-style tents, shading immediately inviting little individual luxurious bar areas, lovely olives and nut trees sprinkling the terrain, a sparkling, glimmering swimming pool, and, sculpted into the distance, as if designed by some theatre director, the hills above Lambesc on the other side of the Durance.

If you hadn’t been pre-warned by the Michelin star this restaurant bears with justifiable pride, you are now aware that you are entering a very special (and, yes I know, pricey) place, and the anticipation (and saliva) is starting to mount…

The story goes that when Reine Sammut, the “queen” of La Fenière, was asked, at the age of 14 whether she preferred her mother or her father, she answered “J’aime le lard”! Although that gives a flavour of her absorbing passion of the time, luckily she has since discovered olive oil, so it is totally misleading about her exquisite cuisine today. The high spots we sampled, in the extraordinarily good meal, started with the complex and comprehensive Japanese-style nibbles with our apéritifs, which we were strictly directed through by the “nibbles maestro” (every member of staff here has a determined rôle, and never encroaches on another’s territory, which can be a little frustrating, before you identify who is water wallah, who is menu bringer, who supplies ashtrays etc.). First we must taste the local jambon cru, then move on to the tapenade, next the light ‘cake aux olives’, finishing with a parmesan crisp before climaxing with micro-soup of layered mascarpone/pistou/potiron. (Don’t forget, we haven’t yet ordered lunch).

The starter of ‘pois chiches and tempura of prawns’ was a superb taste/texture contrast, the ‘céviche of oysters and coriander’ a triumph, the turbot was wonderfully balanced with a vanilla beurre blanc, and the rare pigeon couldn’t have oozed more ‘jus’… Disappointment came with the goat’s cheese — firstly it wasn’t local, it was from the Cevennes (why?), and secondly because the three cheeses were dry and unremarkable (even more why?) - I’m sure the Luberon could have supplied better... Desserts (preceded by a praline ‘avant dessert’) were pretty and stylish. And, with coffee came the ‘après nibbles’ — where the strawberry toffee apples were to die for…

Now, all this comes with a price tag, obviously. The 46 euro 3 course daily changing ‘menu du marché’ unfortunately had ‘pieds et pacquets’ as the central dish. No thanks. Not even from Reine’s culinary fingertips. Which meant choosing from the carte (average price for both starters and main courses 30 euros each) or plumping for the 78 euro 5 couse menu. Between four of us we varied the options — and I think no-one felt they’d been ripped off by the end of it. It was a special day, and the meal lived up to all our expectations.

If you want to have a go at cooking like Reine, she offers cooking courses at her new(ish) brasserie in Aix, ‘Le Passage’. You can do general or patisserie cooking courses — or, if you want a super-special dinner party you can cook their meal with her there (choice of various menus) — 7 guests and you from €550 — original or what? I’ll come if you’re offering…

Juliet Young

Copyright © 2005 Anglo-American Group of Provence