Thursday, October 12, 2017

Another Fine French Book Giveaway!

Patricia Sands is one of the most peripatetic and prolific people I know. She seems to flit effortlessly between her homes in Toronto (main home) and Florida (vacation home) and then, once or twice a year, she pops up (for at least two months and often through home exchange) in the South of France, where she leads super-popular women's tours in Provence and on the Côte d'Azur.  She also loves to attend book signings, readings, authors conferences and other literary events in the US, Canada and beyond.

Plus, she's the happy matriarch of a large, Toronto-area blended family that includes seven adult 'kids’ and their partners and seven grandchildren (known as the Adorables).

And somehow, Patricia is also able to write books...lots of books...popular books!  Her award-winning debut novel, The Bridge Club, came out in 2010. Her second novel, The Promise of Provence, was followed by two more novels set in Provence...forming the bestselling Love in Provence trilogy. Her fifth novel, Drawing Lessons, is out this month. 

But wait, there's more!  In addition to writing for various Francophile websites, Patricia publishes a blog, a monthly email newsletter and a large number of social media posts--with beautiful photos--promoting things she and her friends feel passionate about. Her generosity with her online time is one of the many, many things I admire about her. She's constantly helping her followers and friends (both real and virtual) promote their own projects, their events, their blogs, websites, books and more. Those of us lucky enough to have found ourselves in her orbit can put up a post and be relatively certain she'll like it, comment on it, share it and/or re-tweet it, often at lightning speed. 

So now you know why there's no way I wasn't going to jump in and help spread the word about Patricia's newest book! Plus, the novel is set in Arles and the Camargue, two of my favorite places in Provence.  Plus, Patricia has generously offered a few copies for me to give away to my readers. Plus, this lady loves France as much as anyone I know!

Drawing Lessons is a portrait of a woman named Arianna who's forced to create a new life at age 62. She arrives in the South of France for a two-week artists’ workshop "full of anticipation but burdened by guilt" because back home in Toronto, she's been living with the devastating diagnosis of her husband’s dementia and the heartbreaking decision she’s had to make. Encouraged by family to take time for herself, she travels to Arles to paint in the same fields of poppies and sunflowers that inspired Van Gogh. Gradually, she draws strength from the warm companionship and gentle wisdom of her fellow artists...and gives herself permission to embrace the life in front of her.

Sound good? Then on to the giveaway! Patricia is offering us two signed print copies (one for readers in North America and one for readers in Europe) and  two ebooks (to readers living anywhere).  To enter, simply leave a comment under "comments" below. Please be sure to leave your email address or we won't be able to reach you if you win; signing in with your Google or Blogger account is not enough. When it says "reply as"...a good choice is "open ID" (use your name) or ID/URL (use your name and your website). If you can't comment for whatever reason, just email me at and I'll see that you're entered anyway.

If you'd like to go ahead and order the book, you'll find it in all the usual places...and on Amazon here. You may also order it from any book store.

Meanwhile, you can learn all about Patricia's background, books, trips and other activities on her website here.   

Bonne Chance!

Monday, September 18, 2017

One Restaurant I Love: Le Relais du Castelet

In a renovated hunting lodge on a gorgeous property originally owned by his grandfather’s grandfather, chef Jean-Baptiste Bert has opened Le Relais du Castelet, welcoming the public for lunch and dinner on weekends...and private groups the rest of the week. He’s cooking from old family recipes, using serving pieces that have been in the family for years and working with a small group of friends and family which creates a festive, party-like mood. Rather than a restaurant, he calls it a "Table Privée."

Located just 7 km from Arles--between the village of Fontvieille and the Abbaye de Montmajour--the 50-hectare property is known as Le Castelet...and it has a remarkably rich history dating to prehistoric times.

Locals all know it as the site of the Hypogee (or Hypogeum) du Castelet, an overgrown stone trench dating to the Megalithic period. In the 1st century, limestone quarried here was used to build the famous amphitheatre in Arles. The property was mentioned in the stories of both Frederic Mistral and Alphonse Daudet, two of the area’s most-beloved authors. (Daudet’s famous windmill, from Letters from My Windmill, is just down the road in Fontvieille.)

In July of 1888, while living in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh found his way to Le Castelet and painted Coucher de Soleil à Montmajour here. A letter on the restaurant wall, from the curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, authenticates this fact while a print of the painting sits on the hearth, alongside other historic photos.

The fifth generation to grow up here (his son Marcel, aged 2, is the sixth), Jean-Baptiste left home at 16 and went off to Portugal to learn horse training. He came home and then left again, this time for food-and-wine jobs in London.  He returned to Provence in 2007 and settled in at the Bistro du Paradou, a well-known and wildly popular local restaurant, working in both the dining room and the kitchen.

Finally, Jean-Baptiste decided he wanted his own place and that his family land—with its rustic relais or hunting lodge at its center--would be the perfect setting. From what Jean-Baptiste says it was more like a shack than a lodge...a simple place where family, friends and neighbors hung out to eat and drink before and after hunting. "And it was really more dirty than rustic," he says with a laugh.

So he and his family completely re-did it in May 2016, using traditional Provencal materials and pretty furniture bought at local antique markets. They started hosting private functions last summer and expanded to more traditional dining this summer. A large open kitchen lets guests see all the action and perfumes the dining room with fantastic smells. Tables are indoors and out...the terrace is strung with pretty lights...friends pop in and out of the run around...and the vibe is totally relaxed.

Meals are prix-fixe: 37€ at lunch (starter, main, dessert) and 40€ at dinner (starter, main, cheese, dessert).There aren't a lot of choices but the blackboard menu changes just about every day so you'll be eating what’s in season, what was best in the market that day and what Jean-Baptiste was most in the mood to cook!

Popular starters include crab soup, mussel soup with saffron, stuffed vegetables and traditional Provencal pistou, which you serve yourself from a lovely terrine on your table.

Main courses might be a rich daube (the beloved local bull stew) served with wild red rice, suckling pig, roast leg of lamb or a fish such as red mullet or salt-crusted sea bream. On special request Jean-Baptiste will make a bourride or a bouillabaisse, using his grandmere’s recipe.

Popular desserts include poached peaches with verbena syrup and almond biscuits, saffon pears with roasted hazelnuts and green tomato jam, chocolate mousse with walnuts, a simple apple crumble with vanilla ice cream and tarte tatin.

Wine and other drinks are extra; there’s an impressive cellar, a full bar and knowledgeable help to guide you.

Before or after your meal, you're welcome to wander the beautiful property, where you'll see 2000 or so olive trees, a large vegetable garden, horses...and all sorts of wildlife ranging from rabbits to game birds to wild boar.  

Want to hang out here a while?  You're in luck: there's a large vacation villa on the property that's available for weekly rental year round. Crafted from an 11th or 12th-century sheepfold, it was fully rebuilt and renovated in 1984. Today "La Bergerie" has three bedrooms, a huge dining room, an original fireplace, stone archways, a summer kitchen, a large pool, an outdoor living room and drop-dead views. For the rental info, click here.

For the time being, Le Relais has the delicious feel of an insiders' secret...that place that's sort of private but not really because they'll let you in if you know how to ask. There's no website and no Facebook page; it's not on Trip Advisor or La Fourchette...and a sign on the road (the D17) is easy to miss.  Still, the Berts know everyone and the word has spread and the dining room is full and event bookings are strong. So far they've hosted weddings, birthdays, business meetings, winemaker dinners, a truffle dinner and "lots of people who just wanted an excuse to share a moment with family and friends," Jean-Baptiste says.

Last fall, a Chicago chef friend of mine, Carrie Nahabedian, came to Provence with a group...and their tour guide, Sébastien Lopez, arranged a lunch party at Le Relais.  "Our afternoon was beyond stunning!" Carrie remembers "just so flawless and so Provence! Such idyllic amazing lunch in an incredibly memorable setting. We were overwhelmed with the French hospitality and the lusciousness of the food! I can still taste that crab bisque with croutons...I wish I were there right now..."

Le Relais du Castelet
Mas Castelet
13990 Fontvieille
Open Fri and Sat, for lunch and dinner, by reservation only.
+33 (0)9 80 40 74 81 or +33 (0)6 11 04 00 67
To see Le Relais on Instagram, click here.
For a map, click here.

Photos: (1) Welcome! Jean-Baptiste with his girlfriend Fanny Martin. Fanny's grandfather founded the well-known Provencal food company Jean Martin in Fanny runs the family's large boutique in Maussane. The couple have an adorable son name Marcel, aged two. (2) This is the sign you need to look for when coming from either direction on the D17. (3) Whether you eat inside by the crackling fire in winter...or outside on the terrace with the chirping cigales in summer...the atmosphere is laid-back, super friendly and totally Provencal. (4) The daily blackboard dinner menu.  (5, 6) The sunset I saw when I last went for dinner...and the sunset Van Gogh painted here in 1888. In his painting, "Coucher de Soleil à Montmajour" you can see the famous Abbaye de Montmajour at the back left. (7) The Relais just after renovation was finished last year. (8) The kitchen door is always open. (9) Slicing roast lamb. (10) Mussel soup with saffron. (11) Cote de Boeuf ready for the grill. (12) Party's over for these two little piggies...but it's just about to begin in the dining room. (13) Friends clowning around at dinner. (14) Sea bream in a salt crust. (15) Sardines on Camargue rice with chorizo and pata negra.(16) Jean-Baptiste loves to serve artichokes as either a starter or a side. (17) Guests serve themselves from a generous cheese platter plunked onto the table, with all the acoutrements. (18) All desserts are homemade, such as this apricot and almond tart. (19) As the song says, these are a few of his favorite things! Jean-Baptiste serves a small selection of top-quality local labels, many of them made by friends. (20) Can't decide what to drink? Smiling help is at hand, from Jean-Baptiste's cousin Julien.  (21) The terrace set for a party; Le Relais can handle 45 seated inside and 200 outside. (22, 23) Two shots from the Bergerie, the rental villa on the property.  (24) The area is heavily agricultural, very beautiful and very rich in history. The Abbaye is a major draw, as is the nearby Aqueduct de Barbegal, where flour was milled in the 1st century. Arles, with its world-class collection of Roman monuments, is just 7 km away; stone for the Roman amphitheater there was quarried here on the Bert family land. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

La Belugue: Sparkling New in the Luberon

In a beautiful 18th century farmhouse in a tiny village in the southeastern Luberon, a charming American named Kelly Goehler has launched a new business combining her passions for hospitality, local food, wine, fitness, art, nature, horses and more.

If you haven’t heard of Beaumont de Pertuis, chances are you will soon. It’s not that Kelly wants to put her town on the tourist map, per se, but rather, in her low-key but determined way, to create a deliciously inviting space where like-minded people can share, learn, cook and grow be active and be experience the wonderful artisans and products of the region...and immerse themselves in the peaceful beauty of this lesser-known corner of Provence.

For now she’s offering cooking classes, overnight stays and horseback picnics...with themed multi-day retreats coming in the months ahead.

Kelly calls her home La Belugue, which means “The Sparkle”in Provençal..and anyone who knows her knows she couldn’t have picked a more perfect name.

Born and raised in Nashville, Kelly graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and went on to climb the corporate ladder in marketing positions at Louis Vuitton and Novartis, mostly in New York.

On an expat assignment in Asia, Kelly was living on the beautiful island of Sentosa, off the coast of Singapore, when  the charming Philippe Pellegrin (born in Algeria and raised in Montpellier, France) moved in next door. She remembers saying something like:  “Oh, you’re French!  I’m from New York! We’re going to have great meals together!” That was five years ago and they’ve been together ever since.

After 2.5 years based in Singapore---and extensive travel throughout Asia--the couple decided to start a new life in France. Kelly knew she wanted to create some type of culinary or hospitality business so she enrolled in cooking classes at Gastronomicom in Cap d’Agde, south of Montpellier. Philippe, meanwhile, found a great job in his field of micro-electronics. And together, they rambled all over Provence looking for the right village and the perfect house. 

Very quickly, it became obvious that this part of the Luberon was exactly where they wanted to be. The region is heavily agricultural, with beautiful farms and orchards producing high-quality fruit, veg, wheat, meat, cheese, flowers, olive oil, wine grapes and more...and much of it is organic. Rolling hills and lush green valleys are dotted with historic villages and sites. The snow-topped peaks of the Alps are very often visible in the distance.

Kelly calls their decision to settle here a total no brainer: farm-to-table is a way of life and has been for centuries. It’s exactly the type of community they both dreamt of finding ...and buying the perfect property (in January, 2017) made the picture complete.

Then they hit the ground running: renovating, adding a second kitchen, upgrading the garden, pool and grounds, carving out two large guest suites (a third is underway), building a stable for their five horses. They filled the house with their combined collection of art, including an almost-life-size horse sculpture from Thailand and paintings by New York artist Tamara Kowal. They invited friends and family to come for cooking classes, wine tastings, horseback riding and overnights...and asked everyone to provide feedback. And they used every spare minute to get out and explore the region, to find their favorite vineyards, restaurants, farm markets, historic sites, hikes, hidden corners and more.

And now Kelly is ready to swing open the doors, offering one-day “Provencal immersion” cooking and dining experiences, with an overnight stay for those who want it. Starting around 3 pm in the large open kitchen, you’ll cook with a local chef (Kelly calls her “the mama of the village”) learning Provencale specialities such as daube, aïoli, bouillabaisse, legumes farci, gratins and tians. At 6 pm, everyone moves onto the terrace for the apero, enjoying nibbles with local wines, before a beautiful dinner, outdoors or in, depending on the season.

Kelly often invites local friends and food producers to join in. When he’s available, Kelly’s neighbor—a fourth generation winemaker--shows up for the apero, bringing “black label wine, right out of the barrel” for everyone to try. He loves to take guests for a short walk to show them his vineyard, while providing a crash course in the terroir and local varietals.

“Now that I’ve done this a few times,” Kelly says, “I know what guests really love. They want not just a class but a real Provencale experience...they want to see what it’s like to live in a small French village. Over the course of eight hours or so, you can get a taste of what life is like here, meet some interesting people and have a ton of fun.” For those who stay overnight, a lovely breakfast is included.

Because of the work involved, Kelly asks for a two-person minimum and can take up to ten people at a time. Classes are on demand, year round. Pricing is 150 per person...or 220 if you’d like to spend the night. One suite is designed for four people; the other perfect for a couple, with or without a child. The third suite will be completed by the end of the year.
For those who don’t want to cook, Kelly also welcomes overnight guests on a B&B basis at prices ranging from 130to 200 per night.

Guests who are accomplished equestrians are welcome to enjoy the network of trails that surround the property, on escorted tours. “Experienced riders only please,” Kelly says. She also offers escorted two-hour trail rides with a picnic lunch for 75€ per person. 

With her cooking program and B&B rooms now up and running, Kelly has set to work planning her “Wellness and Wandering” retreats: multi-day getaways focused on food, wine, yoga and more; she says La Belugue would also be perfect for writing, painting and photo workshops. In the months to come, she’ll be organizing her own retreats and providing a venue for other retreat-leaders who’ll come with their own guests. She’s also wide open to any other ideas and opportunities that may come her way.

“I want my home to be alive and filled with people,” she says. “I created La Belugue to be a gentle, loving place where people can nurture their creative spirit and go back to daily life feeling rejuvenated and inspired.  Whether you come for an evening, a weekend or more, you’ll drink in the beauty of Provence and the slower, French way of life. It’s a place to get your sparkle back.”

For more info:

La Belugue
Cours Nallin
84120 France
+33 (0)7 68 79 81 20

Photos: (1) The village of Beaumont de Pertuis, where the snow-topped peaks of the Alps are often visible in the distance. The city of Aix is just 30 minutes away; the Gorges du Verdon less than an hour. (2) Welcome! The tile was made by a local artist. (3) Kelly and Philippe met five years ago while working in Singapore and have been together ever since. (4-6) When I went to visit in late spring I had to pull over to let a female goatherd and her flock pass by. The village borders three Provencale departments: the Alpes de Haute Provence, the Var and the Bouches du Rhone. In the 14th century, Beaumont de Pertuis was a prosperous market town with roughly 1,000 residents; it has not many more today. (7, 8) Once part of the village’s original farm, the house was used as a shelter for sheep and storage of hay. A local artist lived in the dilapidated building for many years, before the previous owners purchased it 23 years ago. While the exterior is simple and rustic, the interior is vibrant and colorful, with high ceilings, lots of light and original architectural elements intact. (9-12) Good food and cooking will always be part of the La Belugue experience. (13) In late spring, Kelly hosted a group of friends for a cooking class and dinner, inviting local purveyors and wine makers to join in. (14) She loves to set a beautiful table, mixing it up according to the event and the season; this was the setting for our late spring dinner. (15) Cheese, Bread, Wine: Kelly loves to support and promote local organic producers. "Everything in this picture was made within 20 miles of us," she says. (16, 17) For the apero: foie gras yogurt with sweetness of cauliflower. And of course there's always plenty of local wine on hand. (18) Kelly's chef/instructor from culinary school, Samuel Breux, has become a close friend. He often comes over from his home in Sete to ride, relax and cook for special events. (19-21) Spend the night in one of Kelly's guest suites....enjoy a lovely breakfast overlooking the vines...and yes, you can come down in your robe. (22, 23) A pool for when it's hot...a fireplace for when it's not. The mantle-piece was made by the artist who once lived here. (24) Kelly, Philippe and Philippe's daughter Lou. (25) The couple after a match at the St. Cannat Polo Club; they both play. (26) Beautiful saddles are on display inside the house. (27) Syrah vines sparkling in the spring sunshine. (28) Interesting historic sites abound in the region...such as these vestiges of the Pont de Mirabeau, built in 1845 to cross the Durance River. It's a wonderful place to bike, hike or just drive around and explore.


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