I had my first taste of the Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle a few years ago when Philippe and I, with two-year-old Sam in tow, spent a few days meandering through Provence, stopping at all the country auberges run by Alain Ducasse.
I had my first taste of the Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle a few years ago when Philippe and I, with two-year-old Sam in tow, spent a few days meandering through Provence, stopping at all the country auberges run by Alain Ducasse. I will forever blame that experience for Sam's expensive tastes, the upside of which is that he will sit through a seven-course meal without complaint.
The ten-room Abbaye lies just a few minutes from the frenzied traffic of the A8 autoroute on the outskirts of Marseille, yet it's hard to imagine a more serene spot. As staff drift among the trees in floaty white robes while frogs croak contentedly in the pond, it's easy to imagine what the days must have been like for the Benedictine monks who lived here in the 18th century.
Enviable as their life might have been, I doubt that the food was quite as good as it is today. The Abbaye celebrates its tenth birthday this year, and a festive lunch under the plane trees in blossom confirmed my initial impression that Benoît Witz is one of the best of Ducasse's proteges. One thing I appreciate about Ducasse is the freedom he gives each of his chefs to experiment within his signature Mediterranean style. Witz, who is lucky enough to work with the bounty of Provence, is clearly in his element.
It's not usually a good sign when the highlight of a meal comes at the beginning, but Witz's fried acacia blossoms were so unusual and so ethereal, with a touch of honey-sweetness from the flowers, that I could have crunched my way through a dozen of them (which is exactly what a local winemaker who eats here nearly every day proceeded to do).
This cocotte of spring vegetables was pure Ducasse, playing with the gentle colors and textures of pink-tipped asparagus, carrot, radish and snow pea. Vanilla could easily have been an unwelcome addition to the light jus, but Witz got the balance just right.
A slow-cooked egg, its liquid yolk the color of buttercup, provided an irresistibly wobbly counterpoint to the classic combination of asparagus and fresh morels.
All the flavors of the Riviera came together in this red mullet, the most distinctive of Mediterranean fish.
For me, the outstanding dish of the meal was this extraordinarily delicate slice of lamb studded with olives and served with breaded lamb sweetbreads as light as the clouds that drifted across the sky that day.
But the strawberry and rhubarb tart was also an event, the tartness of the pristine fruit seeming to cancel out the richness of the shortbread crust (never mind if it was just an illusion).
On the way out, we stopped into the neighboring Maison des Coteaux Varois en Provence to pick up some of the wines we had tasted at lunch, particularly a rosé the color of cotton candy from the Domaine du Loou. The winemaker told us that to obtain this vivid color he picks and presses the grapes between midnight and 4am, when they are at their coolest. In the happy haze that followed the meal, this seemed perfectly logical.