La Ferme Auberge, Chemin Ruissatel, 13400 Aubagne 04 42 03 29 67

This summer, with Cézanne taking such centre stage, I think it might make a change to raise a glass to another Provençal artist of the past.

Marcel Pagnol was born in 1895 — the year Cézanne hired his cabanon in the Bibémus quarry beneath the wild limestone crags of his beloved Mont Ste Victoire, much captured on his canvases. In 1974 Pagnol was buried in the walled cemetery of the pretty little village of La Treille, below his beloved crooked Garlaban, much captured in his films and books. Two masters, two mountains, and three media — paint, projector and the printed page — all communicating their joint passion for Provence.

There are two places to “eat” Pagnol in Provence. One is in Marseille, at the bustling Bar de la Marine (see AAGP website, restaurants, Feb 04). This is the venue beside the ferry boat in the Vieux Port, where Marius poured pastis for the card players. The other, La Ferme Auberge, is magnificently situated bang in the middle of bucolic “Gloire de mon Père” hunting country. Just follow the brown “sentier Pagnol” signs out of Aubagne, up the winding D44 into the wilderness of the Garlaban foothills, then turn off onto a tinier twistier track, and climb for 4 kilometres until you reach the Ferme.

I thought it’d be a rustic farm not unlike Pagnol’s Bastide Neuve, but it’s much smarter than that. The airy dining room is a sort of pottery-cluttered, mock baronial, polished-floored pavilion. But forget that. The real experience, here, is to sit outside, under the huge shadow of the centenarian green oak with the garrigue-covered Garlaban towering above you, looking over the huddle of distant Aubagne towards the coastal massif. The views are spectacular in daytime, but this would be utterly magical on an evening in June.

It isn’t simple ferme-auberge food, it is more sophisticated and much better — but still generously and flavourfully Provençal, without being heavy. Marmites of supions, lightly toasted riz de veau, melting Sisteron milk lamb, coquilles St Jacques in lobster bisque…good and varied choice, and different every day.

No ferme-auberge prices either. The price for the full-blown 4 course meal with limitless coffee is as almost as steep as the Garlaban, at 50 euros, excluding wine — but you can opt for fewer courses at a lower cost. There is no written menu, instead each dish is tantalisingly described by our charming hostess (wife to the chef), punctuated with Marylin Monroe breathiness (“Bon appétit… Monsieur Président…”).

The opening hours are as eccentric as the place — open every lunchtime except Saturday, and only open on Friday and Saturday evenings. Closed for the whole of August. Best to book ahead. No dogs.

And if you want to do a bit more following in Pagnol’s footsteps, and walk off that 4 course lunch, just nearby lies one of the kicking off points of the Circuit Pagnol, which takes you, on foot, to all his old haunts.

The situation is superb — so remote, but just a few k’s from Aubagne and Marseille. The atmosphere is incredibly relaxed and enjoyable And the food is extremely good. This is just the place for that celebratory summer evening that you want to linger in your memory…

Juliet Young
Copyright © 2006 Anglo-American Group of Provence