Mollans sur Ouvèze is in the southernmost part of the Drôme département, but is also included in the enormous region of Provence. It is a very small village built on and around one of the many hills that form the “Baronnies”, the many hill villages in the area that sprang up along local river valleys in the Middle Ages to protect access to and from the Alps (and presumably extract money from passing traders for the privilege).
The pretty river Ouvèze flows through the village, and as you walk over the bridge from the south, towards the watch tower on the left and the miniscule chapel built on the right hand end of the bridge, the views up and down the river valley are infinitely photographable.
We have been coming to the Hotel Saint Marc here for 7 or 8 years, for 4 or 5 days each summer; we look forward to those days all year long.
It is a family-run Logis hotel from the old days when the Logis brand meant chef-patron cooking really good local food and Madame doing everything else. And although we love most of what this hotel has to offer (with one MAJOR dislike, rant to follow in the next blog entry….. it doesn’t stop us returning year after year, however), it is the food that is consistently good, and consistently good value. Originally it was Bernard, the father, who cooked, and now it is his daughter Sandrine.
M. Bernard is a wonderful cook, with respect for local flavours and the skill to bring these out; indeed, he still supports Sandrine occasionally. Sandrine has proved to be a truly effective ‘chip off the old block’, a real example of success breeding success, and now her brother Christophe is helping her in the kitchen. She has a lightness of touch, transforming the many superb local products of this fertile region into inventive and beautiful dishes that burst with flavour. The salmon and mango tartare we had on our last evening here this year is a good example of her simple combination of flavours:
Now there is the trusty Renan who runs ‘front of house’ in the restaurant, and also does a superb job. He is efficient, charming, has a very dry sense of humour, and notices when things need doing and discreetly directs the delightful local waitresses that they employ each summer. And to complete the picture, Bernard’s wife Christiane is the calm and smiling face at Reception, the quiet organiser behind the scenes and the person who makes sure the whole enterprise hangs together.
If you look up this hotel on Trip Advisor, although it merits nearly full marks, you will find some comments about “old fashioned décor”, and to an extent this is true IF you want to stay in an ultra modern, minimalist Swedish furniture showroom with an infinity pool and uniformed flunkys bringing you gin and tonic all day long. As those who have read my blog know, I wouldn’t be comfortable in such places even if I could afford them; I travel because I enjoy meeting people, I love hearing the stories behind the bricks and mortar and Servibars, and when I go to a region I want to immerse myself in it, drinking in the scents and flavours and local colour. It is for these reasons that I return year after year to this lovely hotel, to bask in the warmth of the sun and of the welcome, to partake of the food and wine as well as of the conversation and the Provençal tranquillity.
This, rather like Molino del Santo near Ronda in Spain, is a hotel that I have hesitated about mentioning in my blog, although I have mentioned it in passing before; I love it so much, I don’t really want the world and his wife invading it. However since it’s not that easy to get to unless you have a car, perhaps it will be safe, and anyway as a blogger I need “points of reference”, yardsticks for past and future experiences. [Actually, you could fly to Avignon, hire a car and be here within 40 minutes for a cheeky weekend escape to Provence, but I don’t want to encourage that….]
The Saint Marc has a 15m swimming pool, down in the landscaped garden below the hotel and next to the little river. It is NOT an infinity pool, but you can lie beside the gently whispering poplar trees (there is always a slight breeze, very welcome in the typical summer temperatures of 30-35 degrees centigrade), contemplating the azure blue of the sky and the cornflower blue of the tiny butterflies that waft past, refreshing yourself in the pool from time to time, catching up on that novel you’ve told everyone you’ve already read, and, well, dozing from time to time when no-one’s looking. And no-one ever is.
And the food. Oh yes, the food. I have religiously taken photos of every meal the four of us have had this time, but I can’t post all of them. Here are some highlights, chosen from meals that have all been highlights, all eaten in the glorious garden restaurant as night falls in Provence, the only music that of the cicadas and the endlessly singing birds, alongside the murmur of appreciative conversation among the diners, with Renan or Bernard circulating and chatting to everyone, making everyone feel like their special guest.
Here is the delicious pannacotta de tomates with asparagus, a starter:
And this was the “brick de chevre au miel”. I’ve never understood how the word “brick” came to be used in French as the word for filo pastry, and it must be alarming to see on a menu if you don’t know this. However, it is utterly gorgeous – somehow the goat’s cheese and honey just work together:
Now, this was probably our favourite dish of all the excellent ones we tried this time. I’d never had steak tartare before, but I trusted the Hotel Saint Marc to do it well and my goodness I was right. Julia who’s had it many times says it was the best she has ever had. Thank you, Sandrine!
Then on another night some of us had guinea fowl stuffed with sausage meat and apricot:
Then, the pièce de résistsance in the pudding department, at least as far as Sabrina and I were concerned, the “tarte aux pommes sauce Carambar”, subtitled “souvenir d’enfance”. ! For those who don’t know, a Caramnbar is a chewy toffee sweet beloved of all French children. They now come in many chewy flavours, but the caramel/toffee one in a yellow and red wrapper is the orginal and, many will tell you, the best.
Finally, I must mention the very good wine list here. Again, they have chosen local wines, most from producers within 5 miles or so (don’t forget, we are in Côtes du Rhone country, and therefore also a stone’s throw from Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Sablet and so on into blissful and slightly sozzled infinity). Our favourite producer, because his wine is consistently very good and also because he’s a thoroughly nice person, is Jean-Michel Tyrand, but there is so much to say about his wine I’m putting him in a separate post. Suffice it so say that we have explored the short but very drinkable wine list at the hotel Saint Marc from top to tail over the years, and not found it wanting. Hic.