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Travel: southern France, land of (goat’s) milk and honey

by
27 January 2023

Caroline Mills heads to southern France for a gastronomic tour

Caroline Mills

A confectioner at Arnaud Soubeyran, in Montélimar, creates Guimauve a l’Ancienne: an artisan marshmallow

A confectioner at Arnaud Soubeyran, in Montélimar, creates Guimauve a l’Ancienne: an artisan marshmallow

THE confectioner at Arnaud Soubeyran, in Montélimar, south-eastern France, scoops a huge spatula of fluffy pink mix from a giant steel cauldron, and spreads layers of velvety Guimauve à l’Ancienne marshmallow on to a slab of marble, ready to set.

Minutes later, Quentin Honnoré, the third generation of his family to run the famous nougat shop Arnaud Soubeyran, presents me with a delectably soft and delicately pink-tinged square of raspberry to taste. It’s unlike any marshmallow I’ve tried before: not spongy and artificial tasting but a heavenly morsel of loveliness. “It’s like a cloud,” Monsieur Honnoré says. And if I only knew what clouds tasted like, I would agree.

Arnaud Soubeyran is the oldest manufacturer in France of the famous Montélimar nougat. The company was established in 1837; Monsieur Honnoré’s family has owned the confectioners since the 1970s, and latterly created the Musée du Nougat (The Nougat Museum) alongside.

A visit to the museum allows sweet-toothed visitors to see nougat, marshmallows, and other delicacies of southern France — such as almond-based calisson candy — made, using traditional artisan methods, as well as the opportunity to find out about the history of nougat, and why Montélimar became the capital of the sweet treat.

Visitors also discover the importance of honey for nougat manufacture (and the world’s ecosystem) with an exhibition and live apiary. Monsieur Honnoré’s brother, Thomas, runs an almond farm with beehives nearby, producing almonds and honey for the company.

 

MY VISIT to Arnaud Soubeyran is one of several stops that I make along the “Vallée de la Gastronomie” tourist route, launched at the end of 2021. The route, from Marseille to Dijon, uses the A6 and A7 for easy access, and all but follows the rivers Rhône and Saône.

The route is not signposted, but brings together an ever-growing host of unique gastronomic experiences along the 620km (385-mile) way. The collection includes museums, organic markets, fruit growers and farms, vineyards, wine-tastings, breweries, and artisan food producers, alongside selected restaurants with something special to offer, be it traditional dishes of the region or Michelin stars.

The valley is so vast that I focus my efforts on learning about the produce of one départment along the route: the Drôme, named after a pretty tributary of the Rhône.

After my visit to Montélimar, I drive east, swapping fields of sunflowers for the scent of lavender as I climb the hills around La Bégude-de-Mazenc. The Drôme produces more lavender than any other départment, and my next stop is at L’Essentiel de Lavande: a lavender farm with superlative views of wooded hills beneath craggy limestone outcrops and, below, lavender fields.

The precious purple flowers have already been cut for the season, but that doesn’t stop the heady scent emanating from the bushy stripes in the fields, as I rest on a bench and devour a picnic pre-booked from the farm; another of the gastronomic experiences available along the Vallée de la Gastronomie.

The experience rates as one of the highlights of my tour. It may be the warmth of the Provençal sun, the view of the hills, or the scent of the lavender, but every bite tastes sublime. I tuck into charcuterie and bread from the village butcher and boulangerie; tapenade made with local olives; fresh salad leaves and tomatoes from the Drôme; the regional speciality, Caillette (a type of meatball); Picodon, a local goats’ cheese, and, to follow, a sorbet made exclusively for L’Essentiel de Lavande, using its own lavender and herbs.

I end my visit with the purchase of lavender honey, a Provençal speciality, produced here by bees that have used the farm’s lavender plants as their nectar source.

Later in the day, I visit Huilerie Richard, in the town of Montoison, an artisan oil producer that makes some of France’s highest quality olive and nut oils with AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) status. The mill at Montoison, set up by Patrick Richard (the fourth generation of his family to run Huilerie Richard), is exclusively for pressing walnut and hazelnut oils, and, at the Oil Bar, I taste the subtleties between the varying oils and learn about their culinary uses.

Travelling east, away from the River Rhône, I climb into the mountains of the Vercors, to the Ferme de Saint Pancrace, a farm near Suze that uses the milk from its goats to create Picodon, a soft cheese that’s a speciality of the Drôme départment.

There’s a very “goaty” smell as I arrive. The herd is trotting down the farm track to a field of pasture behind a shepherdess. The goats munch away at the lush vegetation while I select a little roundel of cheese from the farm shop at the end of the milking parlour. Food of the gods? As I’m perched high up on a mountainside, the celestial sky appears almost close enough to touch as I sample the freshly made fromage.

 

AFTER a wander around the market at nearby Crest the next day, where dozens of stalls serve up organic produce from the surrounding fields and farms, I continue my gastronomic tour at Beaufort-sur-Gervanne. This medieval perched village of tiny alleyways separating ancient stone dwellings sits overlooking the bubbling River Gervanne and its valley of oak trees.

It takes me a while simply to soak up the extraordinary views of the surrounding countryside from the village, set within the Vercors Regional Natural Park — a hilltop here and a jagged mountain there. Consequently, at La Frigoulette, a chocolaterie on the outskirts of the village, with similarly extraordinary panoramas from its windows, I savour my chocolate-tasting experience for longer than I’d expected.

It’s not the only chocolate I taste on my tour. While La Frigoulette is a tiny, independent chocolaterie making organic, vegan chocolates using cacao beans only from the Central African island country of São Tomé and Príncipe, further north on my tour I visit La Cité du Chocolat, an excellent visitor experience in the town of Tain L’Hermitage, created by Valrhona — regarded by top chefs as one of the finest chocolate brands.

The visitor experience begins by learning how to taste chocolate, followed by where chocolate comes from, and how chefs and confectioners use chocolate to make world-class desserts and pâtisserie. Ending with a trip to the chocolate shop is inevitable.

Chocolate is known to pair well with wine, and, straight afterwards, I visit the Cave de Tain, also in Tain L’Hermitage. It’s the co-operative winery for hundreds of the surrounding vineyards, and its location is impressive: directly at the foot of Colline de L’Ermitage — the hill that gives its name to the famous and exclusive Côtes du Rhône (hillsides of the Rhone) Crozes-Hermitage appellation.

There are many wine-tourism experiences available from the Cave de Tain, among them food and wine pairings, guided Segway tours of the vineyards, and wine-tasting boat trips on the River Rhône. But I opt to take a simple self-guided walk (with a map collected from the Cave) through the vineyards for outstanding hillside views of the River Rhône. Bar-coded information-points along the way offer details about the terroir, the grape varieties, and the wines.

Grape bunches hang heavy under the late afternoon sun, and I leave just as the first of the annual harvest arrives at the winery, ready for pressing. Some 140 miles along the route from Marseille, I have tasted only a fraction of what this valley has to offer. I’m as keen as mustard to devour some of the other gastronomic experiences remaining along the route to Dijon.

 

Travel details

To find out more about the Vallée de la Gastronomie, and to select/book your food-and-drink experiences, visit valleedelagastronomie.com. All tourist experiences are within a 45-minute drive of the A6/A7 motorway exits. Other gastronomic tours in France include the Normandy Cheese Route, visiting villages and discovering where famous cheese, such as Camembert, is made. For more details, visit en.normandie-tourisme.fr. In the east of the country is the Alsace Wine Route, with cycle trails and itineraries to explore this beautiful area of villages brimming with colourful houses amid vineyards at the foot of the Vosges mountains. For more details, visit wineroute.alsace.

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