It’s a flawless spring weekend in the Provencal backcountry, all verdant hills dotted with blooming trees and ancient villages of golden stones under a robin egg blue sky. It’s so easy to lose track of time in these idyllic surroundings that it’s well past midday by the time we get to La Roque d’Anthéron, a tiny town on the left bank of the Durance river.
Although well within one-hour’s drive from most key destinations in the area, it remains a sleepy, off the beaten path little charmer best known for two architectural masterpieces: its twelfth century Abbaye de Silvacane and seventeenth century Château de Florans. Once a Cistercian monastery, the Romanesque abbey remains a prime example of conventual archictecture in medieval Provence. Meanwhile, the Renaissance castle, now a private healthcare facility closed to the public, still dominates the center of town.
A foodies’ Lucky Find
Yet, La Roque d’Anthéron has another, far more current claim to fame, which we discover as pangs of hunger shift our attention from the local architectural heritage to the more mundane issue of finding a restaurant for lunch. The streets are virtually empty during the midday lull, but among the shuttered shops the cheerful red awning of L’Auberge du Castellas catches my eye. The selections du moment (daily specials) listed on a blackboard hanging against the mellow stone façade are all the convincing needed for a consensus. We peer expectantly through open French doors into a small, rustic dining room filled with obviously delighted patrons. Katia, an elfin young woman with a welcoming smile, promptly ushers us to the last available table. The patron saint of foodies has come through once again!
Everything on the menu, Katia explains, is prepared in-house with seasonal products sourced from local artisan producers. Said menu seems simple enough: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, including a cheese tray. But this doesn’t make choices any easier. Roasted quail or pike mousseline for starter? Stuffed breast of veal or monkfish for main course? Covert glances at the plates on nearby tables only reinforce the dilemma.
Love at First Bite
I begin with the Terrine d’Asperges Vertes, a thick slab of silky asparagus Bavarois bursting with fresh asparagus flavor that has me smitten at the first mouthful. Next comes the succulent Agneau de Pâques (Easter Lamb), a generous portion of milk-fed lamb shoulder, roasted to perfection and served with a medlley of spring vegetables. Dessert is a swoon-worthy verrine of freshly picked strawberries, topped with chunks of meringue and an extravagant swirl of pistachio mousse.
Wine selection comes easier. To complement the decidedly Provencal menu, the small and fairly priced wine list favors the growing regions of southern France. We select a bottle Cuvée Tradition Rose from the nearby Lubéron Château Val Joanis. The fresh blend of Syrah and Grenache grapes, with hints of red fruit and spices subtly enhances the delicate flavors of our springtime meal.
A Passion for Traditional Cuisine
L’Auberge du Castellas is the brainchild of Celine Moulins and her husband Frank (Franky) Villani. After years of working in trendy ski resort and inns of the Provencal Alps, they longed to return to the classic cuisine born from the seasonal bounty of Provence. It is the abundance of high quality local suppliers that influenced their decision to open their restaurant in La Roque d’Anthéron. Celine, who developed her passion for traditional local cuisine as a child at the elbow of her professional chef grandmother, officiates in the kitchen. Meanwhile Franky, also a trained chef, manages the dining room with the assistance of the ever- attentive Katia, and oversees relations with suppliers.
With its memorable food and excellent service, L’Auberge du Castellas is a lucky random choice this time, but from now on it will warrant a detour, and a reservation, whenever I am in the area.
Good to Know
- Getting there – La Roque d’Anthéron is located 59 kilometers (36 miles) north of Marseilles, 31 kilometers (19 miles) north of Aix-en-Provence. It is easily accessible by road (A51) as well a public transportation (Bus no. 250) from both cities.
- The International Piano Festival – each year for the past four decades, from mid-july to mid-august, La Roque d’Anthéron is overrun with music and musicians as the host venue for a major summer event in the calendar of European Music Festivals. A number of performances featuring world-class artists and newly discovered talents take place on the grounds of the Abbey of Silvacane, as well as in the spectacular gardens of the Florans Castle, open to the public for the occasion, and other local open air venues.
- L’Auberge du Castellas, 10 bis Rue de l’Eglise, 13640, La Roque d’Anthéron, France, is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. It is closed Monday and Tuesday, and from late January to early March.
- The restaurant can seat 18 guests in the dinning room, plus an additional 20 guests on the terrace during the summer months. Reservation are strongly recommended anytime and an absolute must during the International Piano Festival. Contact: email firstname.lastname@example.org . Tel.: +33 (0)4 42 50 50 58.
- In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Celine can also accommodate gluten-intolerant guests.