Sunday 5 December 2010

Truffle & Wine Weekend: Crillon le Brave, Provence

"This is a good place to be a dog", says truffier, Eric Jaurnard. Indeed. At La Trouffe du Ventoux in Provence, the dogs are fed truffles as puppies and are trained via the treasure hunt and reward method to hunt in the fields for the black, earthy nuggets that are so prized by gourmands everywhere.

We have been invited to join a 4 day truffle and wine weekend, staying at the stunning Hotel Crillon le Brave in the heart of the Rhone valley. The indulgent package includes wine tastings at the hotel's bar and in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a morning of truffle hunting, meals - including a 5 course truffle lunch and a 6 course truffle dinner, a truffle cooking demonstration, a visit to the antiques market at bustling Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, and some fairly hard core R&R.

The hotel itself is easily one of the most beautiful places I have stayed. Set in the picturesque Roman village of Crillon le Brave, it has scenic views of the vineyards and valleys below - and, for Tour de France enthusiasts, the nearby Mont Ventoux. (Cue TPG mentally planning future trips with his true love, the Serotta.)

The "hotel" is a cluster of 6 beautiful stone buildings forming part of the fortified village, which mostly have their origins in the 16th and 17th centuries. The large original house was once the priest's home and village school.

The entrance to the main building of the hotel

The hotel is a member of the association of prestige hotels, "Relais and Chateaux", and it has to be said that a wave of complete relaxation washes over as soon as you step into the luxurious, spacious bedrooms. They may be kitted out with all the mod cons you could ever want - including free wifi, flat screen TV, DVD player (and a DVD library at reception), mini bar, magazines, fab bathrooms that make me want to weep with joy, lovely L'Occitane products and views of the grounds and valleys below - but the best feature is quite easily the King sized bed which is so comfortable that you will wonder if Provence is worth getting up for.

Until now, I have only been to this part of the world in summer - but at this time of year, the autumnal colours are stunning and we are lucky to be bathed in sunshine much of the time despite the crisp temperatures. The pool is heated to 29 degrees making it available for a winter's dip if it's the Lapland experience you're after. We also see some light snow fall one day - a rarity at this time of year, but quite a pretty sight while you're knocking back your Cote du Rhone by the fireplace.

Truffle hunting:

Eureka - the dogs sniff out another truffle

Although truffle yields in the area have fallen to around 60 tonnes/year (from 1,500 tonnes/year before the 2 world wars), you wouldn't know it from the rate at which Eric Jaurnaud's dogs sniff them them out from the roots of the nearby oak fields. While pigs were traditionally used for the task, it's about as hard to pull a pig off a truffle as it is to pull me away from mine during the evening meal - dogs make for a more reliable master-servant relationship. The gorgeous dogs and the fields are a prime target for kid napping and late night skulduggery owing to the rarity and prices of these luxurious delicacies.

The truffle season in the area generally runs from 15th November - 31st March. After a chat about the ins and outs of truffles, and a stroll through the fields witnessing the thrill of the hunt, we amble back to kitchen where Eric and team rustle us up a brilliant, truffle filled rustic lunch.

Rich, creamy, scrambled eggs with truffle & jamon on toast

There are 5 terrific, truffley courses, but my favourite is the rich, creamy truffled scrambled eggs with thick cut toast and jamon. The simple things in life...

Over the feasting and merriment, our table shares a seemingly never ending supply of local white and red wines. As far as gluttonous travel adventures go, this one is going to be hard to beat.

The hotel restaurant

During the evenings, the truffle and wine weekend package includes dinner at Hotel Crillon le Brave's restaurant. And there it becomes apparent that there exists another reason that Autumn is a good time to be in Provence. Creamy pumpkin soup is laden with thick slices of chestnut and topped with hazlenut oil and eggwhite foam. Local milk fed lamb is cooked over the restaurant's fireplace for 3 hours and served tender and pink - it's the best dish of the trip. A thick, juicy bull chop, from Garrigues, is overcooked (well done when we order medium rare and medium when we order rare) but the flavour is full and earthy, it's tender and served with a rich sauce and a perfectly cooked array of pretty vegetables. Do NOT miss the lush, creamy mashed potato and the buttery green beans served as sides in little Le Creuset dishes.

Milk fed, slow cooked lamb

Bull chop

Apple tart

The cheese platter looks as good as it smells - pick your own selection, or opt for the house's 3 favourites. For dessert, the gigantic, big as a baby's head macaroon, the sticky tarte tartin or the rich, oozing chocolant fondant are hard to go past.

On our final night, there is a special 6 course truffle dinner. Fortunately, this is no longer held on same day as the huge truffle fuelled lunch after the hunt which might take the edge off somewhat. A luscious langoustine bisque contains a full, naked langoustine and is topped with a truffled foam. There's truffled foie gras terrine, a salmon ballotine with raw scallops and a pungent truffle jus and - my favourite course - a smashing fillet of beef, tender and supremely rich, with truffled mash potato and artichoke. To finish, a slab of truffled brie, and then a duo of chocolate (semifreddo) with a truffled creme anglais (which was too eggy, and not really my thing).

Beef with truffley mash and artichoke

Duo of chocolate...with truffles

If truffles count as one of your 5 a day, then I think I'm sorted for quite some time.

The wine list at Crillon le Brave is expensive but there are some great options at around the 35-40 euro mark. The sommelier seems to do a good job of picking wines to match your taste and budget but it's disconcerting to be given a bottle of something with minimal dialogue as to what it is, why it's presumed you will want it and how much it costs. To the sommelier's credit, he proved to be extremely trustworthy, not selling us more expensive options than we would have opted for ourselves and he seemed to pick our taste.

Breakfast overlooking the Provencale vistas 

One morning also includes a cooking demonstration which provides an opportunity to taste test and directly compare the tuber uncinatum truffle with the tuber melanosporum or "black diamond" nestled in a creamy omelette.

What to do besides eating?

Wine tasting: 

On the first night, managers Patrick Gillard and Andrea Kent have arranged a wine tasting with Philippe Danel and Marie Pirsch, the charming owners of Domaine du Tix, a tiny winery in the heart of the Rhone valley and Ventoux hills. The winery uses traditional methods, picking, sorting and leaf stripping by hand. We try a lot of wines over the course of our stay, and plenty that were more expensive, but these remain my favourite - an elegant, well balanced Cuvee des Grandes Pointes Viognier (gorgeous enough on its own, but with some local goats cheese it sings, €12.50/bottle), the velvety Bramefan Vintage Syrah (90%) / Grenache (10%) blend (€13/bottle) and the bolder, fruitier Dona Maria Vintage which is heavier on the grenache (60% Grenache / 40% Syrah, €17.50/bottle). This is a great introduction to 4 days of quaffing in the Rhone.

The area is dense with wineries, but we all meet up at the lovely Domaine du Grand Tinel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for a tour, an education on the requirements for a bottle to earn the special "Chateauneuf-du-Pape" label and a thorough tasting. The village itself is gorgeous, with plenty of options for tasting and, for lunch, there's a restaurant with a spectacular view at the top of the hill. (Yes, we're back to eating again...)

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market:

Many of the wineries in the region are closed on Sundays and some villages feel like ghost towns. However, on a quiet Sunday, the picturesque town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is the place to be - the town is bustling with an antiques market, food stalls (here's the place to stock up on local saucisson and cheese for the trip home) and lots of busy cafes.  And, just a week before our visit, a fantastic wine bar opened - at Le 17 Place Aux Vins, nibble charcuterie and cheeses while enjoying a free tasting of generous samples of fantastic local wines, many from small, rarely found producers. We stocked up here with a box to cart home - including some Domaine du Tix which was selling for around the same price per bottle as at the winery direct. A fun place, with passionate and knowledgeable owners, Christophe and Sylvain - and pay only 5 euro corkage to buy any bottle on offer and taste it there (or they will sell it to you by the glass). Le Place Aux Vins, 17, place Rose Goudard, 84800 Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Le 17 Place Aux Vins, wine bar

In a week where 2 giant white truffles were snaffled up at auction for £211,511, this feels like one decadent weekend.

The Truffle and Wine weekend package at Crillon le Brave costs €1,130 per couple and includes 3 nights accommodation, breakfast and dinner daily, the truffle hunt and lunch, a wine tasting at the bar, winery tour and tasting at Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a truffle cooking demonstration. The packages are run 3 times per year during October/November.

Alternatively, Crillon le Brave also runs a Vendanges package during the September wine harvest, or stay at the normal rates of €240 - €490 per night.

Planes go direct to Marseille and Montpellier, and trains go direct to Avignon where you can hire a car and be relaxing in utter bliss with your glass of Cote du Rhone about 40 minutes later. The train is recommended for carting boxes of wine back home.

Greedy Diva was a guest of Crillon le Brave.

Crillon le Brave, Place d'Eglise, 84410 Crillon le Brave, Provence, France (Tel: +33 (0) 490 65 6161)


  1. OH. MY. GOD. This looks amazing! So gorgeous. Delighted you had a lovely time. x

  2. Niamh - It was superb! I heartily recommend.

  3. What Niamh said!
    Looks marvellous!
    France is my favourite country, Pete and I had planned to get a place there one day, don't know if we'll ever be able to afford it, but it's what we dream...
    This place looks just wonderful.

  4. How amazing was this place! I absolutely loved my stay there as well.

  5. Kavey - It would be wonderful to have a house in France. I'm with you on that one!

    Gourmet Chick - It was superb!

  6. Can you really fly to Avignon from London? In the past when I've visited Provence, the closest airports I can find are Nice, Marseilles and Montepelier.

    The market at Isle sur la Sorgue was pretty, but there are a lot of similarly pretty markets that seem to travel around the region.

  7. Oops, I hit "post comment" a little early there.

    Anyway, I am super jealous of this particular freebie. : )

  8. An American in London - Thanks for picking up on the flights point - you're right. There are no direct flights to Avignon, I'll fix that little part of the post!

    There are so many great markets in France - one of my favourite parts of travelling there - but the Isle sur la Sorgue market is a really good option for a Sunday since most other towns in the area are so deserted then.

  9. omg I'm drooling, the truffles, the food, the wine.....I have to go!

  10. That trip sounds absolutely incredible... Now I just have to convince my boyfriend that he wants to take me! c


You might also like...

Related Posts with Thumbnails