bon appetit!

Without hesitating, nearly a year in advance, I signed up for an ACE CAMPS learning vacation that promised a week in Provence, staying in Julia Child’s home, cooking recipes inspired by the famous cookbook author and potentially hitting up some of her well traveled haunts as we explored the region. As I’d never been to the South of France before and am a huge Julia Child fan, I was all in.

If you haven’t heard of ACE CAMPS travel, it is a company out of Canada that offers small group, mostly educational vacations to interesting spots all over the globe. Their offerings are highly fascinating, unusual, centered around one theme or activity and a great way to travel alone but not be alone, with a friend or even to book out the entire trip as a family affair  — as one family did for a second week at Julia’s house, and i thought what a great idea!

ACE trips are small group tours — we were five women and a chef/guide, the maximum that could fit in Julia’s house with shared accommodations. The itinerary was a good balance between far reaching tourist activities and cooking. After the first day of traveling around by car, it became clear that this trip had been planned by somebody back in Canada who wasn’t terribly familiar with the logistics of the local surroundings. The good news was, we discussed it over dinner that evening and after one phone call back to the main office, the group quickly agreed to change things up a bit picking out items from the original itinerary that seemed do-able, mixed with suggestions from our own research on the area. Everything we added to the itinerary was cost covered by the things we removed, the wine & food flowed throughout and all ‘n all, we had a great time — I think made easier by the fact these trips attract like-minded creative types. The head office just wanted us to be happy (this was a first time itinerary so learnings to be had) and our guide was endlessly amenable. She cooked amazing breakfasts each morning, cleaned up afterwards, planned and taught hands-on cooking classes every other day resulting in fabulous dinners, drove us around everywhere (not an easy feat if you’ve ever driven in the South of France) and handled all the details. Although on the costly side, I wouldn’t hesitate to take another of these vacations — indigo dying in Japan anyone?

So let’s talk Provence  — Round-abouts abound and people drive like maniacs. I don’t know how people found their way around before GPS (even with it, we got lost more often than I care to admit), not to mention everything is hidden and if you don’t know about something, you’re unlikely to just stumble across it. Made me glad, I was traveling in a group, actually, and that we had the internet and GPS to help us find some good stuff.

Julia Child’s Home — Known as La Pitchoune, Julia vacationed here with her husband Paul and amazing a-list of guests rolling in and out on a regular basis. The 1500 square foot, 3 bedroom, quintessentially French cottage was built on the property of their friend and fellow cookbook author, Simone Beck. The Child’s visited often over a 20 year period up until the time of Paul’s convalescence in the 80’s. A few years ago, the property was purchased by a Smith College alum (where Julia attended) who turned it into a vacation rental and even runs her own cooking school out of the house — not associated with ACE CAMP.

Julia’s kitchen remains exactly as it was with all the original cooking instruments lining the pegboard walls, while the rest of the place was lovingly updated at some point along the way. On the coffee table is a little black binder with Paul’s sketched house plans that show the slight differences from then ’til now, detailed instructions on how to work everything in the house, and lists of where to go in the area to purchase just about anything complete with Julia’s opinions and notes on each, circa 1970. Adorning the mantle is a photo of her and Paul who have to be the cutest couple in the history of love.

Best Home Decor Shop — With designers amongst us, we were constantly on the hunt for great shopping. And I think we found what may be my favorite shop of all time in the little town of Mougins. Called Envers Du Decor, it’s a mother daughter affair with the most beautiful country French style furnishings & accessories you have ever seen. We all purchased something and one interior designer even arranged to ship a host of objects back to her studio in Chicago. I would go back just to shop here, if nothing else.

Eat the Socca — a local street food found at markets throughout the region made from chickpea flour and water, cooked on a flat griddle and dusted with sea salt. It is supremely simple and delicious!  We found the best at the market in Valbonne (located just at the base of the stairs on the way up to the parking lot). It’s surprising that something as good as this hasn’t taken off in other parts of the world as a healthy treat — which just goes to show, you’ve got to travel to find the good stuff.

One Michelin Star — there are probably many Michelin starred restaurants in the area but one great original itinerary item I was thankful for, was dinner at Restaurant Lou Cigalon (an old-time restaurant recently taken over by a new chef). Just one year in and already star-adorned at the time we dined, the restaurant has just a handful of tables in a charming stone building along the main road in Valbonne. We dined in private and had a tour of the kitchen afterwards — up a narrow and winding staircase, clean as clean can be, no freezer, only a tiny refrigerator and a single chef for the evening. The food was amazing as were the local wines.

Art & Architecture — located just outside the fortified and uber-touristy village of Saint Paul de Vance is Foundation du Maeght. A visit here was our addition to the itinerary and the highlight of the trip from a culture perspective. A mid-century, architecture dream come true with a sculpture garden by Miro, modern artworks and views to die for stretching all the way to the sea. This is a true treasure not to be missed!

Wine Tasting — We had two completely different wine tasting experiences complements of ACE CAMP planning. One, a tiny little family run vineyard producing a few thousand bottles a year complete with hand drawn labels by one of the brothers. High up in the St. Jeannet hills, Vignoble Rasse is a chance to taste wines made from the ancient technique of sun aging. The six of us sat around the matriarch of this family run operation, trying one wine after another with healthy pours, while listening to stories about each vintage all while overlooking the hills of vines as far as the eye could see.

Our second experience was a large scale winery that by contrast produces millions of bottles a year, Chateau de Berne in Lorgues — a commercial winery with a Chalet & Relais hotel & spa, a restaurant, a mammoth gift shop and regular tours & festivals on the property to keep the tourists coming throughout the year. But to our surprise, we received a great tutorial on how to taste wines, what notes were what and the signature rosé wines weren’t half bad. Their bottles, a patented square design, are beautiful and I may have one that I now use as a water bottle with a little glass stopper, since polishing off the original contents.

Vacherin Mont d’Or — cheese glorious cheese! This buttery and oh so velvety cheese is only in season a few months of the year starting in November. Actually Swiss by origin, our guide made sure we were well stocked in the house at all times. I think we went through at least 4 of the small rounds in their little spruce boxes (and I may have polished off another on my own in London the following week). If you’re lucky, Murray’s cheese shop in NYC may have some available if in season but it will cost you.

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