I'm from Wisconsin where winters can be brutally cold...very snowy...and gray for days on end. I once heard a great line: that summer in Wisconsin is just three months of bad sledding.
So winter in Provence always seems quite tame to me...with some days bordering on balmy. Yes, it gets cold...but not cold cold. Every couple years we get a real snowfall but more likely it's a light dusting, once or twice each winter. December is extremely festive here, with villages all lit up beautifully, colorful Christmas markets on town squares, holiday concerts in churches everywhere and shops and stalls overflowing with seasonal foods: oysters, foie gras, confit, Champagne, truffles (both kinds) and the ingredients for hearty winter dishes such as daube and cassoulet. On sunny days you'll see people still eating on cafe terraces. Things quiet down in January: hotels close up again, shops and restaurants go on limited hours, and the locals who can go off seeking sun or skiing in the Alps. But with fewer crowds, lower prices, plenty of sunny days and lots of outdoor activities still possible, winter can be a wonderful time to visit Provence.
That said, here are a couple really nice winter packages for foodies...and some great hotel discounts...and few a la carte ideas for winter foodie fun.
Madeleine Vedel--who hops back and forth regularly between Provence and the US--has a charming old farmhouse on the island of Barthelasse, smack in the center of the Rhône River opposite the history-rich city of Avignon. And once again, she's welcoming food and wine lovers with a decadent winter package. Called the Winter Provence Truffle Tour (this year's dates January 24-31), it includes truffle hunting, duck confit and foie gras, wine tasting at Châteauneuf-du-Papes, chocolates, hill towns, feasts and your own personal guide to take you to to experience it all. For the details, click here.
Philip and Jude Reddaway have a B&B and wine school called La Madelene, where they base their year round business called Rhone Wine Holidays. This winter, they're hosting a three-day Truffle and Wine Tour, January 20 to 23. It includes truffle hunting in the Luberon hills; a truffle-and-wine pairing at a Châteauneuf-du-Papes estate; four top winery visits with tastings led by the winemakers; a visit to the famous truffle market at Richerenches and of course truffle-based dishes to savor in restaurants and back at La Madelene. For all the info, click here.
In Tarascon, Catherine Burtonboy is offering a special winter package at her foodie B&B Le Mas de Lilou. Rooms begin at 90€ with breakfast; book two nights and get a third free. Or, for groups of four or more staying a minimum of three nights, get a free gourmet dinner and a 10% discount on your stay. Cooking classes are also offered at a discount.
At Provence Paradise in St. Remy, there's a winter special designed to encourage longer stays. Book a week at the B&B rate (two people minimum) and you get subsequent weeks at 50% off (up to a four-week stay). The winter special B&B promo includes breakfast Monday to Saturday, a wine-and-cheese welcome and a romantic dinner for two in St. Remy, for each two-week stay. When booking, use promo code: ProvencePost.
The gorgeous Relais & Château hotel Crillon le Brave offers truffle-and-wine weekends, with some led specifically in English, in February and March. Click here for info.
In the Southern Luberon, truffle hunting continues all winter at the farm Les Pastras, run by the adorable Lisa and Johann Pepin. Their 11-hectare farm produces grapes, olives (they have 600 trees!), a wide range of fruit and--wait for it--black winter truffles. Yes, they also have a a stand of oak that regularly produces the prized tuber melanasporum, AKA truffes noires, AKA Black Gold. Sign on for their truffle tour and you’ll learn how truffle trees are cultivated, the signs indicating your trees might have truffles beneath them, the lengths people will go to in order to steal or even sabotage truffle hunters, how to clean and prepare fresh truffles, what dishes taste best with them and much more. You'll tag along while a duo of dogs dig for the hidden treasure and then tuck into a sampling of fresh truffle hors d'oeuvres, with Champagne, and a tasting of Les Pastras' organic olive and truffle oils. In winter, two-hour weekday tours are at 3 pm; weekend tours are at flexible hours. For 2-12 people. Cost per person: 70€, with a 20€ reduction for children, age 10-17. To book: email@example.com.
The ancient village of Richerenches has the largest black-truffle market in Europe. It’s in the department of the Vaucluse, which produces more than 90% of the black truffles sold in France. The Saturday morning market runs from mid-November to late March…and attracts restaurateurs, exporters and truffle lovers from far and wide. The best way to do the market is with an expert tour guide…and I’ve got just the gal. She lives nearby, knows the market in and out, often cooks with truffles…and loves to share her passion. As you poke amongst the stalls, you’ll learn how to choose, clean and preserve them, what wines pair best with them, what local restaurants specialize in them…and much more. You may even meet some trufficulteurs (truffle hunters), who work the market with their bulging linen bags, meeting discreetly with “courtiers” who evaluate and buy their precious “black gold.” You’ll break for coffee at the locals’ favorite café and visit a few historic sites too. You may even get to enjoy a festive communal lunch of truffled omelettes (with salad, cheese, bread, wine and dessert) served in the village hall. Tours are 3 hours (longer if you have lunch) and cost €150 for the first person, 75€ for each additional person, lunch is extra. Available: Saturday mornings, mid Nov to late March. To book: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In honor of the Fête de la Truffe in Uzès (Jan 16 and 17, 2016), chef Eric Fraudeau of Cook’n With Class Uzès is offering three workshops themed around truffles. Together you'll create seven different preparations, which will be paired with perfect wines. The class is offered in English January 15, 22 and 29; there are other dates for French speakers. For more info on the classes and to book, click here. Or, email: email@example.com.
Many of the tour guides, wine guides and cooking instructors I work with are happy to cut their prices to build winter business...some as much as 50%. If you're interested, have a look at WhatToDoinProvence.com and let me know what interests you. Everything there is customizable. (My email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
For info on seaside seafood festivals in winter, see my friend Sheila's website here.
For more about truffles in Provence--including markets, tours and restaurants that specialize in them--see my story from last year here but be sure to check for 2015/2016 dates.
For truffle festivals and markets in Languedoc-Roussillon, click here.
Looking for Christmas markets in Provence? See my growing list here...
And a really nice list of winter events in Provence here.
Photos: (1) Happy truffle hunter Pierre Sauvayre at the Richerenches Truffle Market. (2) Delicious truffled omelettes are served up on most Saturday mornings in Richerenches; check the schedule here and be sure to reserve ahead. (3, 4) Cooking classes at Mas de Lilou are discounted in winter, for two people minimum. The foodie B&B, in a restored 18th-century farmhouse in Tarascon, is also offering the third night free. (5) Prized black winter truffles from Provence--truffes noires--are also known as Black Gold. (6, 7) La Madelene, home to the company Rhone Wine Holidays, is hosting a three-day Truffle and Wine Tour in January. (8, 9) Madeleine Vedel's charming farmhouse sits on an island in the Rhône, opposite Avignon. Madeleine is a professional cheesemaker, a goat-raising expert and a passionate foodie...the perfect host for a winter food tour. (10, 11). The village of Crillon le Brave and the Hotel Crillon le Brave; both are gorgeous. (12) The winter sea urchin festival in Carry le Rouet, along the "Blue Coast," is usually held in early February. Check with the Tourist Office for 2016 dates. (13) One of the pretty antique-filled bedrooms at Provence Paradise offered in the winter B&B package.