Lamb around the Luberon

This month we’ve been ‘working’ our way around the Luberon on behalf of the Wine Club - Hachette in Ian’s hand for wine domaines, and red Michelin in mine, for restaurants. But our recent trips there have thrown up (and I use the words advisedly), the fact that you can’t always rely totally on our fat friend Bibendum… LUBERON = LAMB, and in March the slopes around Sistéron are baahing with gambolling menu fodder.

We were licking our lips in anticipation as we set out for our first research foray, recalling a wonderful meal of the tenderest lamb we’d had last spring at the lovely Auberge du Presbytère in Saignon (04 90 74 11 50). A pretty setting in the centre of this ancient village - eating outside the old presbytery under the spreading micocoulier tree - it is run by a charming, rather chaotic family, and serves only the simplest and best local fare.

This time we ended up in Manosque on market day, but sadly my first choice, La Barbotine(04 92 72 57 15), just by the Hôtel de Ville, was full. This buzzing bistro is justifiably popular, so I should have booked — the characterful, crooked room was packed to its heavy oak beams with cheery marketeers chomping their way through the choicest chump chops and aromatic vegetables.

So we took ourselves to the eponymous Restaurant du Luberon, which was not packed (bad sign), despite its recommendation in the ‘red Mich’. Their agneau appeared not to have frolicked on the foothills of the Alps so much as on the foothills of Cadarache. It glowed heavily in our stomachs for hours…

On our next trip, after 4 dégustations, I was looking forward to the unmissable experience of a meal at La Petite Maison at Cucuron (04 90 77 18 60). This is more expensive than our usual haunts, but it is an exceptionally pretty restaurant with exceptionally excellent food. “Exceptionellement”, also, they were closed (family funeral), so we fell into the dungeon-like cellars of Michelin’s next offering, the Restaurant de l’Horloge. Although not pricey, it’s just the sort of place I don’t like — simpering staff, over-fussy food, always an ingredient too far. The lamb was inferior, but not nuclear, at least.

The following week — success! L’Auberge de la Tour (04 90 07 34 64), opposite the church at Tour-d’Aigues is owned by Michel Mehdi, whose flagship is the Petite Maison at Cucuron (see above). This is his ‘homely, country version’. Here Provence’s cooking flourishes, with huge plates of steaming, mouth-watering pheasant and succulent hare. Madame Mehdi greeted us with as much warmth as she distributed to all her many regulars, and the food was as generous and memorable. Even the picodon cheeses, shimmering in golden olive oil in a huge ochre bowl straight from Roussillon, were a delight to the eye.

And, thankfully, there wasn’t one lamb dish on the menu!

Juliet Young

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