Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Fermé (and Truffles)

We weren't sure our losing streak was over yet on the morning we prepared to leave Roussillon. Having come to terms with the fact that we had overpacked and were hauling around unnecessary kilos, we had sorted out the items we could part with and were taking them to the post office to send home (that's right, mom - nothing exciting in that box, don't even bother opening it, it's just sweaters). From la poste, our plan was to hike - with newly lightened packs - the fourteen kilometers to Gordes, the last of our semi-inaccessible Provençal destinations. But, after bidding a breakfastless adieu to our kind hotel proprietors and marching the uphill mile to town by five after twelve, la poste was, like everything else in town, fermé, closing its doors a purported five minutes earlier. Not a soul was in sight.

We deliberated what to do. All options were too expensive - the way to Gordes via several modes of transportation, another night at the hotel (a slightly more upscale splurge to celebrate surviving Parisian hostels and the Marseille ordeal), lunch at the one ouvert restaurant in Roussillon. But could we make it to Gordes on foot with such heavy packs? We decided that we would have to try.
It was an amazing seven-mile walk: a gentle sloping descent into the valley, a stroll through acres of vineyards, each vine trimmed into a gnarled winter fist. Gordes came into sight a long way off, white stone crests of chateau and cathedral against azure sky. The climb up was perilous and exhilarating; buildings hundreds of years old emerged out of the rock and sank back in again like unfinished sculpture. It took us a long time to ascend that last vertical mile into the city square, where little flotillas of ice drifted in the basin of an archaic fountain and dusk painted the white stones gold.

Every hotel in Gordes was fermé. We watched the sun set like a dissolving coin and felt the cold drift in under the moon, a day past full. We looked for caves to sleep in.

In the end, we were rescued by the only other tourists we ever saw in all of Provence - a Taiwanese family of five who were leaving scenic Gordes to go find sustenance in relatively nearby Cavaillon. They offered to take us to a cluster of hotels that was "just down the hill" and "very close by"; we accepted gratefully and piled into their small car with our large luggage. But we soon realized that they had meant "very close by" by driving standards, and that it would be an exhausting hours-long hike back up to Gordes in the morning. We exchanged a look of panic and requested exit at the first available lodging - a Best Western, radiating fluorescent welcome.
Abandoned in the parking lot, we weighed the eighty-euro fee, a full day's spending allotment and more, by our budget. We looked down the road after our benefactors' taillights; we looked up the mountain to Gordes; we saw only the cold dark of intermittent hotels and restaurants fermé for the off-season in both directions. Brave adventurers though we were, we had not packed for sub-freezing camping. Best Western it would be. And so a full 24 hours passed whence we ate naught but spoonfuls of marmalade from a jar in my pack, and two teabags from the reception stretched over several cups of tea.

The good fortune in all of this was that the Best Western turned out to be half a mile from a (miraclously operational) bus route to Gordes. Two buses daily - at 6:00AM and 6:00PM - and we were on both. We arrived back in Gordes before the sun, and followed our noses to the one un-fermé storefront at that hour: a patisserie, drawing the morning's first baguettes from the ovens. We sank our teeth into hot chocolate croissants and watched the sun rise over the chateau. What could be better?

I'll tell you what - A five-course Provençal truffle tasting menu and a bottle of local rosé with the person you love. We had discovered the Auberge Carcarille just outside Gordes on our way up the mountain, and went back for lunch the next day to indulge our truffle obsession. It began with an amuse bouche of truffled foie gras ravioli; the appetizer was a simple, exquisite plate of truffled scrambled eggs and butter-soaked toast. For my main course, I ordered a truffled fillet of Saint Jacques (a local French fish that I think is a bit like cod) with winter vegetables. The veggies were great, but I didn't care as much for the fish; the simplicity of the preparation (designed to flatter the truffles) left it bland and a bit dry. J, however, ordered lavander-honey-glazed pork loin with sautéed trumpet royal mushrooms, and it was truly spectacular. A large wedge of brie de meau followed, its core shot through with an aromatic vein of truffle. Dessert was a tower of chocolate cream with a ganache "truffle" center, drizzled with Grand Marinier syrup. We finished the wine and giggled a lot, driven by truffles into those conversational realms accessed only through potent fungi and long-aged cheeses (as well as a very few wines and the occasional risky slice of blowfish) - ponderances of the narrow way these delights tread between eroticism and death. We only accomplished a third of the walk home before collapsing in an olive grove and dozing for an hour in the afternoon sun. Such was the most indulgent afternoon of our trip - a tantric and philosophical exploration of the truffled palate.


Mom said...

Sounds harder than a 7 hours hike in the Corcovado Rain Forest...and I'm not sure I would like the death defying, erotic food, quite as well as the food at Luna Lodge! But boy, would I have loved seeing the streets of Gordes glow orange in the morning sun (I've read about that!). A heaven for the artist.

family said...

I think my sense of adventure these days is putting sweetner in my coffee. And today I'm enjoying it black. Praying for your safety my sweet sissy. I love you so much. bo

Grandad said...

Kate, you have a way of seeing the daunting as desireable and the threatening as tempting. Maybe you should think about advertising or at least some promotional form of media. I really enjoy your chronicling so much that I can almost forget my concern for your well-being. But not quite! Enjoy. Be alert and observant. God by with ye. Love, Dad.

Al said...

The truffle tasting certainly seems to have made up for the Best Western. I'm glad you didn't freeze to death though, because that would have been rather unfortunate.

I love living vicariuosly through your stories!

Love you!

abby j said...

how beautiful! thank you so much for continually blogging all of this--for those of us locked in a midwest blizzard, it's a marvelous escape!