A visit to Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape during my recent trip to Provence was a major check off the wino bucket list. The boo and I toured the impressive estate, learned about the various Grenache-dominant blends of thirteen varietals, heard the spiel on the region’s history, traditions and terroir. I badgered our knowledgable guide with an endless list of questions on production and marketing; he answered them all and I left with a good understanding of how they do things. At the end of the visit we tried five different vintages, younger to older, in a tasting that allowed us to observe the development of mouthfeel and tannin structure. On our way home we stopped in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape to buy some bottles and to see the castle on top of the hill, built by Pope John XXII in the 14th century, back when the papal residence was in nearby Avignon.
A tad wobbly from the tasting and from the overwhelming August heat we also thought it best to have a bite to eat somewhere. I pushed for a bakery, which tends to be a good idea in this country, and we found one on Rue du Maréchal-Foch called Festival Boulangerie. “Mom-and-pop” doesn’t get more literal when it comes to this little place. Behind the counter an adorable older lady dashes about, taking care to get her guests exactly what they want and patiently explaining the particularities of her daily selection. We ask her about some of the smaller treats and she breaks off samples for us to try. When we offer to carry our food to the small table outside she shooes us out the door grandma-style, insisting that we sit, rest and let her bring it to us. Pop is seated next to the register, keeping her company and chatting with guests when she disappears into the kitchen.
One of the more substantial looking items in the pastry case is a focaccia type bread topped with a layer of eggy custard, some brightly colored veggies mixed in and crunchy pockets of caramelized cheese spotting the top. It looks like something between a flatbread and a quiche. “Today I made it with tuna and ratatouille,” she says in French to my boo. “I don’t know why, just kind of felt like it,” she adds. It’s a weird and wonderful thing to say, and when I get the translation I’m convinced to order it. She takes the two best and busiest slices to the back and throws them in a bread oven to reheat. When they’re ready she brings them to the table with much ado and after laying them carefully down in front of us she lingers for a moment, no doubt to see our reaction after the first bite. It’s creamy, fluffy and dense with a base of flaky dough that stays firm but is not chewy in the least. The underside is dusted with charcoal from the bread oven. Salty, cheesy custard is balanced nicely with the natural sweetness of the stewed veggies (tomatoes, peppers, onions and zucchini) and little flakes of tuna running through.
We get some bread, a fougasse made with rosemary and thyme and black olives that is typical of the region. It’s 7p.m. when we order it and the lady knows that it’s not the freshest thing behind her counter. Either for that reason or because she forgot we ordered it she doesn’t charge us. We insist and she still refuses. And it’s very nice. It’s yeasty and a bit dense like a bagel or focaccia with a pleasantly firm crust, a bit softer on the interior. The asymmetrical shape and large holes in the center make it easy to tear into pieces and share. Fresh and smeared with some butter for breakfast or toasted with cream cheese when it’s a day old… Some day maybe it’ll be part of my daily routine.
We ask for a few tuiles too, crunchy little almond cookies curved into the shape of roof tiles typical of buildings in Provence. I muse to my boo that they’re probably formed by shaping the dough around the curve of a wine bottle. (We are in Châteauneuf-du-Pape after all, so there are plenty of those lying around). I’m pretty proud when I later find out that this was, in fact, how they were originally made. Toasty, crispy, caramelized. The lady also throws in a few slices of toasted baguette that have been topped with a firm orange and orange peel flavored glaze. They are a bit stale, as they’ve been made much earlier in the day but we appreciate the sentiment.