When it comes to madeleines, I must admit, I never really got France’s obsession with the humble, plainly inoffensive little cake. A walnut-sized golden sponge synonymous with writer Marcel Proust. Indeed, for Proust, the powers of the madeleine go far beyond satiating the sweet tooth. In his novel he recalls how, as a child, his aunt gave him small madeleines dipped in tea - decades later, this crumbly delight resurrecting long-forgotten memories. One bite, a sensory trigger, containing the most powerful of ingredients – nostalgia.
I will always feel nostalgia for my very own madeleine moment. The moment, breakfasting on the terrace of Le Prieuré, hands cupping my coffee, senses soothed by wisteria, jasmine and rose. It was here that I finally understood the glory of delving my teeth into a fresh-out-of-the-oven mouthful of madeleine. So light. So spongy. The perfect pixie trampoline. With each morsel I could almost feel my frown lines de-wrinkling.
Proust, I take it back. You had a point.
Now, whenever I see so much as a crumb of madeleine, my mind is whisked away to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon where basks its warm hug of a hotel, Le Prieuré. It’s a hotel dripping with history, like a sunshine-kissed ice-cream, its sugary drops spilling over cone-clasped fingers.
Once a 14th Century palatial residence, it was sold as public property during the French Revolution, gaining its hotel-status in the mid-1900s. With its abundant history and undisputed charm, the hotel is the perfect role for Le Prieuré – now the protagonist in so many honeymooner’s romances and weekend-escaper’s tales.
The garden, so beautiful that when I first arrived it took all my self-control not to kick off my polka-dot kitten heels and skip through it. It is Beatrix-Potter-perfect. An orchestra of saluting trumpet-vines, vegetable-patch strings, a percussion of shrubbery. The wisteria a wizard-old conductor, experience of centuries, directing in time, and in tune, with the seasons.
To breakfast and dine beneath the arches overlooking this priest’s garden is the definition of a pinch-yourself moment. The warmth and attentiveness of the staff carries you to your table – a beautifully-laid circle of candlelight, silver and promise. A Michelin-star promise of a very special evening.
The menu itself was poetry.
A playful, tastebud-popping amuse-bouche paved the way for foie gras de canard with raspberries and iced verbena broth seasoned with lemon peel.
John Dory, glazed with a lemon zabaione, adorned with zucchini flowers and Salicornia cream (we may have uttered the words, “This is the best fish we’ve ever tasted” to our waitress).
Candied shoulder of lamb with cumin partnered with lamb saddle rolled in black olive powder – a cake of nutmeg, sweet pepper and chickpeas lounging on its gravy throne.
Et les fromages… Oh là là! For a girl who finds it hard to be effusive about cheese (forgive my blasphemy, France), these were, quite simply, remarkable. Our waitress wheeled over a trolley of gooey cheese, hard cheese, blue cheese, ‘It’s-how-old?!’ cheese – all from Vaison-la-Romaine, where works Queen de Fromage, Josiane Déal. She has the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France for her vast cheese knowledge and skills, and rightly so. Her partnership with Prieuré has undoubtedly brought a post-main-course glow to many a visage.
Thus followed a plate of lemony loveliness served with koshi jam, pine nuts, praline and vanilla and lime sorbet. Indeed, this was a sparkling dinner – and when chef Marc Fontanne came to greet his array of approving guests, I didn’t hesitate to tell him so.
Each course was accompanied by ‘to-being-here’, ‘to-us’, ‘to-this-amazing-experience’ toasts as we clinked glasses, savouring each sip of the sommelier’s recommendations.
‘Would you like to take your petit fours to the sofa?’
Just when I thought it was all over, we were invited to absorb the rest of the night’s ambiance, with accompanying delicacies, in Le Prieuré’s little square – one of my favourite parts of the hotel. There we sat, full-to-the-brim with good food and love for Provence, beneath the turret-pierced night sky, the hush-hushing of the ivy the perfect digestif.
After such a divine evening, dawn had a challenge on her hands. But waking to the beckoning call of crunchy baguettes and lavender honey, slowly stirring in our cosy bed big enough for even the most ambitious star-fisher, stepping onto the cool, terracotta floor of the sunshine-flooded bedroom with its spacious balcony over-looking the pool and showering under powerful, rejuvenating droplets, she needn’t have worried.
A delightful addition to the impeccable service was a list of the day’s recommendations delivered to the room the night before. Its suggestions peppered many a petit déjeuner conversation. Will it be Gordes market (if you’re undecided, it’s an absolute must-do), or La Chartreuse? Coffees in squares, or La Colline des Morgues? Or maybe you plan to spend every ounce of your time at Le Prieuré – interspersing dozes and dining with tennis and a refreshing lap or two of the pool? I wouldn’t blame you one bit.
Treat yourself to a poolside lunch (I ate, book in hand, wrapped in fluffy, marshmallow towels); stroll over to the adjoining church an arms-reach away; find your very own spot in the garden and embrace the serenity. Enjoy not having to be anywhere but here.
Le Prieuré is a syrup-sweet delight of centuries past, infused with modern-day comforts. If you’d rather have a more contemporary room, L’Atrium with its pool views is for you, while the two separate dwellings, Le Chapitre and Le Prieuré, resonate with charm and history.
Oh to be back there snoozing by the pool, winning at tennis (yes, for a few glorious moments I was two games up) and delving into deliciousness on the terrace…
If there was ever an excuse to buy more madeleines, then this is it.
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