Warning - this is a gush alert. Just as the crystal-clear white-waters rush, gushing over the rocky rapids down the steep-walled Gorge du Verdon, Europe’s grandest canyon, so I am about to gush about the lovely Bastide de Moustiers, the Alain Ducasse country house hotel, nestling in flower-strewn meadows, near the entrance to the gorge, right in the heart of the grandiose Verdon National Park.
Shall I start with its idyllic, isolated setting, with uninterrupted views down dale and up hill? Or with its blissful sound of silence, broken only by brittle birdsong? Or with the description of the complex, wonderfully intense flavours of each dish, executed, apparently, with such brilliant simplicity? Or with that faultlessly professional - but oh, so rare - genuinely friendly service that Ducasse manages to breed into all his staff?
No, I shall start with my beef – not the Charolais beef, which, with carrots, asparagus and gnocchi, was approaching perfection. No my beef about the wine prices. We knew it was going to be expensive, after all, this was Ian’s birthday treat, and so my credit card was already quaking quietly in my wallet, when we ordered our apéritifs. We were presented with two huge Cartes de Vin – one of Southern wines, and one of The Rest of France. The mark-up was massive. Local rosés started at 46 euros, and a Costières de Nîmes red from a producer we know who sells from his cave at €8 a bottle – was selling on this menu at a whopping €57! My carte bleu, knowing I was treating a wine-lover to a birthday lunch, was rapidly turning into a shivering wreck!
The lunch menu prices, at 44 euros (for 1 entrée, 1 plat, cheese + 2 sequential desserts) or 58 euros (for all of that plus an additional starter), were roughly as expected – not many choices, but I have no objection to small menus, they usually mean much more carefully cooked food.
It was a truly triumphant meal that will live long in the memory. We sat under plane trees on the pretty stone terrace of this carefully restored bastide, buried deep in the countryside, and between us, tried everything on the €44 menu. The starters were both magnificently beautiful both to behold and consume. Then came the aforementioned beef, and a dish of artichokes and chicken des Landes liberally sprinkled with truffles from Valensole. (Everything here has a provenance). 18 cheeses graced the cheese board, each one à point, and I do love it when restaurants bring a toss-and-help-yourself bowl of salad to your table, to accompany your cheese course. The confections that went under the lowly heading of ‘dessert’ arrived fresh from the Elysian Fields, and the whole symphony was finished off by a brilliant little shot-glass where dark chocolate panacotta was topped with whipped cream and finished with frozen coffee granita. The use of the familiar flavours in contrasting and unexpected textures was an absolute stroke of genius, which I’ve shamelessly copied since.
Next you definitely need a bit of exercise, but, after all that gorging I wouldn’t advise canoing down the gorge, or even paddling a pedalo out on the Lac Ste Croix, for fear of sinking under the extra ballast. But try a gentle stroll around the park to look at the potager – or, of course, you could potter around the pretty pottery village of Moustiers, or climb the rough winding stairway to the little chapel beneath the suspended star.
“In the mountains, there you feel free” to quote TS Eliot. Well, it’s not exactly free, in fact it’ll probably cost an arm and a leg, but you, like me, may end up forgiving the semi-amputation. Up at the Bastide you encounter grand air without the grand airs, and the grandeur of the meal makes for a truly memorable, great – nay, grand - day out.Juliet Young