We stayed at the Relais de Roquefure--and let me interrupt myself to say how much I love staying in small family-run hotels. There are probably thousands of them in France, in old town houses, châteaux, farmhouses, stables, a lot of them in old inns that have always been inns. The rooms, at least in the ones we can afford, tend to be small and the bathrooms smaller, but they are clean and comfortable and come with a sense of place and of individuality. The person who greets you when you arrive is not waiting for her shift to end; it's her hotel. She lives in the other wing. And these hotels are not precious, either, at least I've not come across one that is: that self-conscious homeyness of cheap antiques, pink wallpaper and dishes of potpourri that afflicts many small non-chain American hotels. These hotels are, I guess we would say, old-fashioned family hotels. In the best sense of the word.
And the Relais de Roquefure was a fine example of the genre. The building is a 200 year old bastide, a three-story main section bolstered by assorted connected former farm buildings, set on a few acres of land at the end of a country road that is part of one of the medieval Saint Jacques de Compostello pilgrimage routes. The innkeepers were a young couple expecting their first child. February is deep in the off season in the Lubéron, and so we were among the only guests.
As is often the case with hotels like this one, dinner was offered in the hotel's dining room. The husband in the couple was also the hotel chef. Our first two nights at the Relais we elected to eat elsewhere, partly because the chef offered only a menu. Which means, translated, not a menu in the American senses but rather a set dinner. To put it bluntly: no choices. First course, second course, cheese or dessert. Everyone got the same thing, and what they got was what the chef found at the market that day.
All very romantic and slow food and charming until the first time you sit down to dinner and find pieds et paquets on your plate. Pieds et paquets, for the uninitiated, is a popular Provençal stew composed of stuffed bits of sheep or cow stomach (the paquets, packets) simmered with blanched sheep's pieds, feet.
You know how much I love France. And French food. But that's my boundary.
I've never actually had the experience of pushing blanched pied du mouton around on my plate, and I hope not to. And that is why we put off dinner at the Relais until our final evening there. We wanted to have dinner in the large paneled dining room with windows overlooking the garden, we really did; we like nothing better than the idea of going down to dinner in the hotel. But what were we going to do if the main course turned out to be beyond our boundaries or, worse, beyond E and G's boundaries? They are adventurous eaters, but there are limits to any 13 year old palate, and we did not want to test them.
So Monday afternoon when we returned from our hike and bumped into the chef in the front hall, we reserved for dinner, feeling very brave indeed. Part of the experience, we said. We didn't mention our concern that dinner might be a long way from roast chicken to the girls. We didn't want to worry them or give them time to draw up a list of acceptable foods. We didn't want to give up the element of surprise.
Dinner was at 8. We took up our station in the dining room; the only other diner was the only other hotel guest, a Belgian woman who sat across the room from us with her book. The chef came out. Tonight's dinner: a salad with melted rounds of chèvre served on toasts; magret de canard with vegetables; a fruit gratin. The chef gave us a plate of thin baguette slices covered in homemade tapenade and went back to the kitchen. Our work began.
Magret de canard is duck breast. You know, ducks, those cute little birds that we were watching on the river this afternoon.
It tastes like dark meat chicken, and you like that, I said.
It's a lot like beef, C said.
Think how cool it would be to tell you friends in America about the time you ate duck breast at a country inn in Provence, I said.
The girls were unconvinced. Remember, cute little feathery creatures. Quack, quack.
We all enjoyed the salad with cheese. Then C and I went back on duty.
Just try it, is all. Just take a couple of bites, C said.
Don't think about what it is, I said. Just try it.
And then the plates arrived. A fan of sliced duck breast enclosing ratatouille and a roasted potato covered in a creamy mint and truffle sauce.
It tastes like beef, C said. Think of it as beef.
Just try it, I said.
The girls each took a bite. They chewed.
G was the first to swallow. It tastes like beef, she said with a twinkle, but better.
They both finished their portions. It was a success.
G had only one caveat. I still don't like foie gras, she said.