Recently we took one of our regular trips to the Vaucluse to stock up with some favourite Rhône wines. Our boot laden with booty, we wound up in Vaison-la-Romaine at mid-day, searching for a restaurant that would live up to our successful morning’s activities.
I’d never visited Vaison before, though I’d always been intrigued. After all, this historic place is famous for 4 things: its extensive Roman ruins of extraordinary richness — this was the Beverly Hills of yesteryear, known as ‘Urbs Opulentissima’ by its wealthy be-togaed inhabitants; the medieval town huddled below the perched 12th century fortified castle; the bright bustle of today’s attractive market town; and, most importantly, for being home to Patricia Wells, France’s favourite American, and doyenne of all things gastronomic — and you can be sure that if she lives here, there has to be good food just around the corner.
Of course, we also can’t forget that day in September 1992, when violent storms turned the River Ouzèse, which cuts through the town centre, into a roaring tidal wave, breasting its banks and sweeping away whole houses, destroying the entire Zone Industrielle (well, there’s always a silver lining), and flooding the carefully excavated Roman sites. 36 people died. The only structure that stoutly resisted the destructive torrent was the 2000 year-old Roman bridge. This, perhaps, explains why there are no Latin phrases for for ‘built-in obsolescence’ or ‘cowboy builders’.
It was just next door to that brave bridge that we found our restaurant. Le Brin d’Olivier is run by the delightful Rogne couple, and for a change it is husband Olivier who runs front of house in the charmingly tiled dining rooms and the shady summer courtyard, whilst his wife Olivia is in charge of the excellent cuisine. At lunchtime they offer a great value 2 course no-choice, market menu for 19 euros (or 3 courses for 25 euros). The day we were there this consisted of a deliciously peppery soupe de courge with parsley oil accompanied by a baby pot of gratin de courge, followed by a melt-in-the-mouth rabbit hotpot, where, at our request, they changed the accompanying tagliatelli for crushed potatoes without the usual pained look of protest. Although more pricy, the 38 euro menu also turned out to be good value. After an amuse-gueule of mini-caillettes, it was difficult to choose between a nage de ravioles de langoustines and pan-fried foie gras on a chestnut pancake with apples and mixed nuts (les mendiants). Brilliantly contrasting textures. This was followed by a good selection of main courses — I chose the veal kidneys on a bed of celeriac. The cheese plate presented a triumvirate of chèvre — a fresh local crottin beside a bubbling pot of chèvre fondue and cheese fingers stuffed with olives. Desserts were followed by tiny potted chocolate ganaches topped with cream.
After such a meal it is imperative for both digestion and waistline to take a little post-prandial exercise. Cross that Roman Bridge and climb steeply upwards to the château, where you are rewarded with a terrific view of the countryside sweeping around the tonsure of nearby Mont Ventoux. Below, the different faces of the town are well defined, and if you squint, you can just make out the roof and courtyard of le Brin d’Olivier, the amazin’ maison you’ve just found in Vaison.Juliet Young