I'm not sure if it was my idea or Rowley's. A bit of both probably. It was certainly hatched over a fine lunch with some good bottles open for inspiration. The concept was pretty simple really - to host a Provençal feast partnering classic dishes with local wines. Obviously, this was to be a summer celebration and we had to select a date before schools broke up and mass migration from the capital began. So last Friday lunchtime some 40 diners sat down for the inaugural 'Grand Aïoli'at Le Café Anglais. In fact we started off standing up, enjoying a glass of a white Coteaux d'Aix 2009 from Domaine des Oullières, that was served as an aperitif with some excellent sardine pâté, saucisson sec and black Niçoise olives. This dry, herb-tinged wine is a new discovery of ours that is grown at altitude on the southern slopes of the Chaînes des Côtes and it is fresher and fruitier than many of its peers. It hails from an unusual blend of Grenache Blanc and Rolle and is très Provençal. The same estate bottles a decent rosé too but it is the scrub-scented white that really transports one to La France Profonde.
As we were seated a second wine was being poured - the Cassis: Clos Sainte Magdeleine 2008. This inimitable white wine comes from the Mediterranean coast between Bandol and Marseilles and is produced, by the Sack family, from a blend of Marsanne, Clairette and Ugni Blanc. It made for a marvellous foil to pungent bowls of freshly-made aïoli that accompanied hard boiled eggs and crudités of thinly sliced fennel, peppers and carrots along with peppery radishes and sticks of celery. My lunch guest, outspoken, wine-writer extraordinaire, Malcolm Gluck kindly provided me with his tasting note: 'This is one of France's great undiscovered 'secret' whites, preferable to many a soi-disant 'great' white burgundy in feel and fruit. It is beautifully textured, like ruffled silk, and it has a genteel finish of gooseberry and citrus.'
Things took on a distinctly piscine theme with the next two dishes to be served. Large platters of lightly-salted (wonderfully flaky) cod with new potatoes, and sea bass cooked with artichokes and olives were passed around all accompanied by lashing more aioli and a delicate,coral-pink Côtes du Luberon rosé from Château la Canorgue. Fortunately we were blessed with a lovely warm day and the high-ceilinged, light and airy dining room and friendly chatter really helped evoke a Provençal ambience to this most relaxed of lunches.
Some more robust cuisine was called for to partner a chest-thumping red Bandol: Mas de la Rouvière 2003 that, with bottle-age, was beginning to show the forest floor scents and game and mushroom tastes that define a good Mourvèdre. Le Café Anglais rose to the occasion with beef brisket served with chickpeas, and a superb roast ham with French beans. Once again Malcolm waxed lyrical: 'Astonishing coal-edged tannins, quite remarkably gorgeous and roasted, clinging to fruit which is seems as if it has been pressed in a coffee grinder. There is a herby element, perhaps cinnamon, certainly a touch of white pepper, but more sensually there is chocolate. Altogether a wine of momentous, almost heady, richness.'
Fortunately, I still had the stamina to toy with some lovely mature Brie de Maux
(chef's licence: 'there aren't many cows in Provence') and a budget-busting glass of Domaine de Trévallon 2006 that was just beginning to show its full potential and earthy garrigue flavours.
While we could have all departed fully sated at this juncture a divine peach and almond tart proved irresistible. Not too sweet with a nice grainy texture, served with small glasses of cold, golden Muscat de Beaumes de Venise from the peerless Domaine de Durban. A perfect finale to a perfect repast. Those wishing to attend next year's event would be prudent to contact us and get their names added to the waiting list!