May is a ridiculous month in France – this year it contains 3 jours feriés (1st, 17th and 28th), which means, as the working population like to “bridge” the gap between weekends and these one day holidays, you can easily lose an entire week, in total, where shops, tax centres and mairies close their doors to the general public…
So, if you can’t beat ’em, as they say, join ’em. I recommend a little mini-break in Avignon – one of France’s most historic cities, and one so gloriously impressive that it’s impossible to explore properly in just one day.
Unwelcome hoards of medieval invaders were repelled by sturdy ramparts and brave bowmen. Modern Avignon has a more cunning plan. Most incomers are repulsed by the tasteless zones industrielles, that serve as a huge protective moat around the fortifications of the old town. But, trust me, push on to breach the fortifications, tether your sturdy steed in the dungeon of the Parking Palais des Papes, and start to discover the grandeur of the old town on shanks’ pony.
Avignon is a city anciently painted in red. From the crimson of the cardinals’ caps to the scarlet ceremonial sandals of the old pope himself. Red for the blood that was spilt defending the city, and also for the Châteauneuf du Pape wine that was spilt on the papal tablecloth. And obviously the carmine of the bright slippery tomettes covering the many crooked floors of the palace had all been brushed up with nothing less than Cardinal floor polish.
Red also features as a central point on the menu of the best restaurant in town run by Christian Etienne, buttressing the southern wall of the palais. His celebrated summer Menu Tomates which I selected, (this being my birthday treat), is a symphony of 7 light courses based around the central theme of…well, you guessed it…tomatoes. It starts with an allegro of 3 baby tomatoes stuffed with foie gras, aubergine and anchovies. Then each course gradually adds other more delicious and intricate layers and ingredients like crab, or lamb – all with differently coloured (including a new one to me – pineapple tomatoes), flavoured and textured tomato concoctions, climaxing, in a crescendo, with an exquisite dessert of tomato sorbet on a pistachio dacquise topped with sweet tomates confites. Even the gracious, spacious terrace was lined with fragrant pots of tomatoes and basil.
At 60€, the Menu Tomates was just cheaper than the Menu Homard (75€), which my fellow diners rejected as a little extreme, plumping instead for the 55€ Palais menu, launched by an unforgettable dish of deep fried frogs’ legs and mussels surrounding a barley risotto, followed by melting filets de rougets on a saffron-based fondue of fennel, finishing with a resounding dessert “autour de chocolat & abricot”. There is also a 30€ lunch menu. The Wine List containing a spectacular collection of over 100 Châteauneufs, “pleine de petits bijoux” as the sommelier put it.
For pure nocturnal atmosphere, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the romantic country Auberge de la Treille, on the island in the middle of the Rhône facing Avignon. Take the free ferry from below the Rocher des Doms and wander along the pleasant towpath, until you arrive at a lovely old courtyard, sheltered by ancient plane trees, sporting pretty tables gaily lit by flickering candles, the scene being completed by an elegant wisteria-clad 19th century bastide one side, and an orchestra of cicadas in the bamboo hedge on the other. Menus at 22€, 32€ and 42€ are waved before you by jolly waiters: successes included rabbit moussaka, mozzarella & melon carpaccio, a gingery gambas & squid tagliatelli, and cod in fresh herb sauce on a crushed lemon-potato bed. Then, feeling more than replete, stroll back over the nearby bridge, feasting your eyes on the walls of the papal city beautifully illuminated under the stars, its tall, glittering reflection plunging into the midnight black of the river.
On such a night it’s impossible to believe that gluttony could be regarded as a Cardinal Sin. No, on such a night even the most puritan of papists in Avignon would reject that outdated concept, surely, as just a load of old Papal Bull…Juliet Young
Sep 07 — Just been back to Avignon, and would like to add a couple of other good restos there. La Fourchette, 17 rue Racine 04 90 85 20 93, is a delightful family affair with great value excellent cooking. Mostly inside, there are a couple of tables by a window — so book ahead and ask for one of them, if it’s warm and sunny.
Also, facing right onto the Palais is Le Moutardier — 15 PL des Papes, 04 90 85 34 76 — a simple place but with some great cooking. Also boasts a vegetarian menu (which was good/imaginative when we went). If you stick to the menus it’s surprisingly good value, given how they could cash in on the spectacular venu — 27 for veggie 3 course, 30 for Menu du Marché 3 course — but if you step off the set menus onto the short carte, it quickly adds up. They also have matched wines by the glass with each dish, which is quite fun.