A Take of Two Worlds in Provence

Le Sambuc, France – As we were driving home from a recent lunch at La Chassagnette – the only totally organic Michelin-starred restaurant in France – my companion acclaimed: “That meal would have been intolerable if the food hadn’t been so interesting.”

It was my second visit to this lost-in-the-country spot just outside of Arles, and my love-hate relationship was growing. I’d been to dinner once before and the food was, yes, very interesting. But when I was served raw lamb and was told “That’s the way we eat it in France,” I almost lost control.

La Chassagnette has all the qualities that would make me the most enthusiastic customer: A huge, raised organic garden, a bread oven and giant spit for roasting, a country décor straight out of the latest decorating magazine, and food you won’t find anywhere else. For good and for bad.

As the two of us arrived that Friday for lunch, we were seated at the edge of a table for 12 on the large, shaded terrace. The awkwardness began there.

“Would you like a sangria,” the waiter asked. Sangria in Provence? I don’t think so. We asked instead to see the wine list and were told we’d have to see Sebastian. Since then we refer to the lunch as Waiting for Sebastian.

La Chassagnette has no written menu. Instead they bring you food. And bring and bring. Almost everything is aesthetically presented, in canning jars or cast iron casseroles, with festive napkins wrapped around the handles. We asked and asked for Sebastian but he was busy chatting up a pair of gentlemen at the next table. We were on about our fourth of many courses before he deemed to let us view the wine list. When our wine finally arrived – a fine white Puech-Haut from the Languedoc – Sebastian corrected my pronunciation of the wine, enunciating the name five times to make sure I understood.

The parade of food began with a tapenade on toast; a collection of sorry-looking radishes set in a canning jar; gloriously delicious deep-fried beet chips; and a collection of battered and fried fare, including zucchini, zucchini blossoms, and carrots. Perhaps the best dish of the day was a giant, open-faced sandwich of thinly shaved vegetables and herbs, with bright blue borage flowers, baby zucchini, thinly sliced young artichokes, lots of fresh coriander leaves, cucumbers, and olives.

Then came what we now call Moules Shapiro. As the waitress set a giant bowl of steamed mussels before us, she said “Moules Chipiron,” but my companion heard Shapiro. There were very few chipiron, or baby squid, but the dish was a winner, with plump, steamed mussels teamed up with strips of tasty chorizo sausage.

The small bowl of cubed tuna, peas, and fava beans made me think of dishes I create as I am cleaning out the refrigerator, as did the excellent cream of sardines topped with shavings of crisp, raw cauliflower. A giant green salad, aggressively dressed with a tangy vinaigrette made my head tingle. But when we found ourselves without utensils and requested a knife and fork we were told, “Eat it with your fingers.” And so went our day.

Only two days before we headed to Marseille for a celebratory bouillabaisse lunch. And the experience at Michel, Brasserie des Catalans, could not have been more of a contrast. Walking into the restaurant was like walking into a time warp. The average age of the diners must have been about 80, with plenty of well-coiffed matrons who clearly knew their way around the place. Since 1946 Michel has hosted locals and tourists alike, and by the looks of the fading snapshots lining the walls, also it’s share of French celebrities.

Bouillabaisse is one of France’s most iconic dishes, and this Mediterranean fish soup and Marseille are inseparable. It’s a crude dish that probably began as a way for the city’s fishermen to use up unsellable fish and fish scraps trapped in their nets. Today it is a dish filled with ceremony, pomp and ritual.

At the Michelin-starred Chez Michel, that begins with a waiter parading a platter of whole fish to your table for your approval. There were those at our table who doubted the fish was fresh, their dull cloudy eyes were the telltale. While early day bouillabaisse was probably nothing more than fish boiled in sea water, today’s version consists of a stock made of fish bones, enriched with onions, orange peel, leeks, fennel, tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme, and saffron. (I am told that historically in Provence every vegetable garden had a patch of crocus bulbs for supplying each household with enough saffron to prepare a proper bouillabaisse.) The mixture is boiled and passed through a food mill to create a rather granular stock. Then the saffron, potatoes, and fish fillets are cooked in that liquid. Chez Michel’s version was fine, though we all commented that today our palates are so accustomed to raw fish or fish that’s barely cooked, we are a bit startled by the texture of fish that’s been boiled to death. But the ritual is fine one, spreading spoonfuls of spicy garlic sauce known as rouille onto toast rounds that are floated in the golden broth, devouring slices of potato, and plenty of that boiled fish, sipping chilled rose, and taking part in the mythic feast.

La Chassagnette
13200 Le Sambuc
Telephone: 04 90 97 26 96

Closed all day Tuesday and Wednesday at lunch. 37 € lunch menu, 60 € dinner menu.

Chez Michel
Brasserie des Catalans
6 rue Catalans
13007 Marseille
Telephone: 04 91 52 30 63

Open daily. From 45 to 75 € per person, including service but not wine.