I was in a bad mood at the Sénanque Abbey when we visited with friends during our week in Provence. I was hot, hungry and hungover from a tad too much rosé the night before. Dizzied by both the heat and blinding glare of the August sun, piqued by quarrels with the beau (that were no doubt also aggravated by the same heat, hunger and hangover) I sat staring apathetically through the window at the hilly landscape around us and concentrating hard on not getting carsick. Neatly groomed fields of lavender, usually bright violet in their spring bloom, were reduced to “lavender deserts” in the dry heat of summer and I did not hesitate to voice this inauspicious observation to our group. “So, ruins…” I continued sardonically as we walked through the revered 12th century convent.
Luckily the ‘tude lasted only until we rolled into Gordes nearby, though I don’t think any degree of sulk could survive in such a picturesque little town. It’s touristy, yeah, but that’s to be expected of one of the official Plus Beaux Villages de France. As socks-and-sandals sporting tourists aim and fire fully loaded Canons and Nikons, local Gordiens hide behind the centuries-old walls of their homes, dashing out only later in the afternoon, when rays of sun are less harsh. It’s a great place for souvenirs: artisanal jams or gourmet oils from the quaint épiceries that line the streets, cloister-made lavender soap for grandma, a bottle of famous Provençal rosé. While searching for a place to eat we passed quite a few pizza joints and too many ice cream parlours; this did not bode well. There’s also a bakery with damn good French pastries (though French pastries tend to be damn good everywhere in France). Eventually we stumbled upon a little spot near the post office at the base of a staircase that led to one of the exterior walls of the fortified town. It had a pleasant, airy little terrace overlooking a rocky side street, a serendipitous table for four and a sign that read Le Gordes-Manger.
Le Gordes-Manger is run by a man and his wife. Man manages the kitchen while wife (along with a waiter) tends to restaurant patrons. The menu changes daily based on what’s seasonal. In August it’s tomatoes, so these appeared with notable prevalence. There was even a salad that consisted solely of tomatoes, sprinkled lightly with vinaigrette, to showcase the glory of this product in its prime.
We ordered a Belgian blonde and a salad each. I chose one with burrata and eggplant, two of my favorite ingredients combined in a dish light enough to stomach in the merciless heat. In the middle of the plate rested a tight little bundle of bright white burrata, and around it a playfully arranged ring of crispy cool local produce. Crinkle-cut cukes lain over juicy slices of beefsteak tomato, crisp halves of cherry tomato over rounds of baked aubergine, moistened with a basil and garlic pesto that was clearly made not long before. A few leaves of fresh basil peaked out from under the veg. Some balsamic was drizzled over, but no oil to finish. The tomatoes were as flavorful and satisfying as I had expected; the beef perfectly ripe, round and saturated with flavor while the cherries remained tart and offered a delightful snap of crisp, tightly wrapped skin when bitten into. The aubergine was okay, though a bit dehydrated and rubbery. Brushing these with oil before baking might have resulted in more sumptuous morsels, though this was perhaps the healthier alternative. The cheese itself lacked nothing in texture. I slit into the thing to check for the liquid interior that sets burrata apart from mozz and was delighted to behold a torrent of lumpy white cream gush forth from the elastic belly of cheese. This milky magma of dairy had a very feint grassy funk to it too, almost as if it had been made with goat or sheep milk rather than cow. It was a fantastic alternative to the “clean tasting” (read: flavorless) balls of rubbery mozzarella I’ve grown used to buying at Spanish supermarkets. The cheese case was still quite tender, not too chewy, a ball of burrata clearly made with care.
On a hot summer day a salad is enough, though the various pastas heading to tables outside didn’t look bad in the least. And the hearty, thick slices of homemade clafoutis (a creamy, custard-based pie, this one made with apricots) were positively mesmerising as well.
As we got up to leave we noticed at the other table a man with smudged chef blacks leaning back in his chair and cradling a mid-afternoon espresso. “The great chef,” our waiter observed as he gestured in his direction. “He creates the menu.” Having become aware of our glances, Chef said some stuff in a tired voice (my French isn’t quite good enough to have understood what). Something about an Italian influence, no doubt referring to the gnocchi and truffled tagliatelle that constituted two thirds of the very Mediterranean entree list. It’s hot and time for a little break after a busy afternoon of service. The wife is still in there, finishing plates, taking care of business. Then it’ll be time to close until dinner. A peek into a lifestyle we all agree is not too bad at all. A shady break from the scorching summer sun and a chance to refuel for an afternoon of sightseeing.