Once I wrote a 250-word essay, entered it in a contest sponsored by Red Bicyclette wines, and won a 25 day trip to France. When I won, the Red Bicyclette legal team insisted that I begin the trip on September 4, 2005—which happened to be my wedding day.
“Can we get on the plane at 11:55 p.m.?” I asked after reviewing flight plans out of SFO.
Yes we could. My husband and I cancelled our meticulously planned honeymoon to Kauai, and when September 4 rolled around we got married, wept at some toasts, did a dance, ate some cake, and left our own party early to hit the airport.
We would live for a month in a tiny village in the Provence region at a place called “La Baronnette” which sounds like a reality TV show about a trollopey French countess set in the 1800s, but it was not. It was even better. The “maison” was grand with tiled floors, a pool and olive tree in the back yard. The town of Cabrieres was paved with cobblestone roads and the houses were made of hand-hewn stone. Just down the winding street from “La Baronette” was a boulangerie/patisserie, a charcuterie and a marché with tiny wheels of thick-rined cheese for sale, each from a different local cheese maker. No doubt about it, this was the Southern France I’d been dreaming about. I decided I was going to get fat there. Happily.
They call the wind in Provence “the Mistral” and it made me hungry. Alex and I launched our trip with a technique called “wander dining.” That’s when you wander aimlessly until it’s time to dine. That first night we wandered nearly one full block until we rounded a corner and found Le Vieux Bistro.
“Bonjour,” we said, in unison to the host. “Bon soir,” he replied. Heads turned. A brief silence ensued. “Bon soir!” we replied. The other guests resumed eating. We ordered the prix fixe menu without understanding any of it and sat back to see what arrived.
The first dish was a creamy sorrel soup. It was served in a delicate two-ounce sipping glass with a straw. Next appeared small mounds of chopped fish wrapped in cured salmon served in tulip shaped bowls. The capper in the pre-entrée selection was the plumpest fig I have ever seen stuffed with silky chevre and a spicy basil leaf so thick you could almost eat it like a chip.
The main courses consisted of two crispy pieces of monkfish flanked by a row of cherry tomatoes roasted on the vine, and a duck breast cooked rosé and surrounded with more of that luscious fig—this time pureed into a thick, blushing sauce.
Suffice it to say, dessert was crazy. There were five different kinds but I could only handle the chocolate pot-de-crème. The rest went to the bottomless pit I could now call husband. I decided it was going to be a good honeymoon.
We had many culinary adventures but a few stand out. We learned that French farm house restaurants belong to real, live farmhouses. We found “Ferme de Peigros” 2 kilometers down a “road” that was actually just a bunch of little rocks pushed together. We were amazed to park and find all four of our tires still intact.
Dinner was served on a quiet balcony looking down on acres of forest. There was no menu and we settled back for the adventure. First up was a salad with lettuces picked from the garden, accompanied by house made pate studded with hazelnuts, prosciutto from last season’s hog, and tapenade with olives from the trees just up the slope. The meal progressed to a fragrant herb strewn chicken served with simple glazed carrots and a creamy gratin.There was a cheese course, followed by meringue and chestnut puree. We waddled out the door.
To aid digestion, we took a little walk before braving the “road” again. Stepping carefully over piles of manure, we trekked towards a pig pen that hosted a hog as big as a St. Bernard and just as friendly. Alex squatted down to talk to it and immediately we heard a pounding from the hill above us.
It was a donkey, and it was headed our way. “Go, go!” shouted Alex. We ran, scrambling down the rocky stairs away from the hog’s pen and onto the main dirt road. I began to regret the pate and gratin and goat cheese. We reached the car and tumbled in, closing and locking before daring to look.
The donkey was standing where we had just been, in front of the hog. From the safety of our car, it looked to us like he was protecting it. Heaven help the farmers when it comes time to slaughter that one for prosciutto.
A couple weeks in we took leave of our village and headed for St. Tropez, one of Alex’s brilliant requirements for our honeymoon. Sure that nothing in the port town would be within our price range, we rented a room over a bar in Ramatuelle, just 10 kilometers away. The bartender seemed surprised that we wanted to stay above the dingy, empty bar, but happily took our money and escorted us up a flight of stairs and into a cracked linoleum hallway with two spotted toilets standing sentry.
The walls of the room were stained brown in uneven places, and it occurred to me that the mattress on the floor was intended for bar guests who had met someone interesting just before closing. Alex assured me that I was being silly and threw open the double window to prove it. The view was perfect. Above the rooftops, we could just see a slice of blue ocean.
“See,” said Alex, “not creepy at all.” Then he promised me dinner at the Michelin star restaurant up the street. We got dolled up and headed off to eat.
Lucky us, the tail end of September marks the opening of mushroom season in France. We started the meal with a massive bowl of tiny freshly picked ones cooked in butter, garlic and parsley. Then there was beef from the Camargue, seared foie gras, and scallops drowned in olive oil and garlic. We were lucky we fit into our swimsuits the next day.
The beach offered plush orange lounging chairs, glasses of rose, a giant orange umbrella and mussels cooked in saffron for lunch. We arrived at 9a.m. and didn’t leave until dusk. Alex went in the water every hour like a punctual dolphin and I sat under my sun hat and umbrella reading IT by Steven King until I declared there was no way we were going back to that scary little room in Ramatuelle. The rest of our trip to St. Tropez took place in St. Tropez and I was actually kind of relieved that our budget was about to insist that we spend the remaining time cooking at ‘home.’
So back we went to the Baronette, and I can still remember, nearly 10 years and two kids later, thinking on the drive home that we would only get one trip like that one in life. One real win.
But what I can see now is that the win wasn’t the villa, the plane ticket, the car, the wine, or even those indulgent meals. It was the partner I landed -- the person who is mine to journey with, figuratively and literally -- for the rest of our forever. That’s the trip. That’s the grand adventure.