December 07 2009
Some years ago, the late, great Keith Floyd picked me up (in bow tie and Bentley) from Nîmes Airport. “Knotty,” he growled, “I’ve just bought a new house: you’ll like it, it’s got a huge great wine cellar. Trouble is, there’s no wine in it.”
He went on to suggest that, over the next week, we travel around the southern Rhône wine villages of Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, tasting a few vintages (“You can tell me they smell of bloody apricots, or whatever”), and stocking his cellar with a few cases of the best.
This we did, although the vignerons of Châteauneuf-du-Pape turned out to be rather too snooty; instead, we ended up talking rugby with the locals and drinking pastis in a scruffy little bar. We also adjourned for lunch at a few of Floyd’s favourite haunts. First among these was the lovely walled garden at the Hôtel d’Europe in Avignon, a hotel that Floyd used as an office, to the extent of having his mail redirected there. Bruno d’Angelis’s stunning, Mediterranean-tinged food is some of the finest in the area – Floyd, who had a particularly sweet tooth, loved Bruno’s puddings – and the walled garden makes a fine haven from the predations of le mistral.
I once dragged Floyd halfway up Mont Ventoux to the fabulous Hôtel Crillon le Brave (pictured) – he stopped grizzling after a large Johnnie Walker Black Label – where the combination of Philippe Monti’s elegant, simple food and stunning views across olive groves and vineyards from the 16th-century terrace make for the perfect dinner. Expect local gigot d’agneau, cooked over wood in the outdoor fireplace, fillets of red mullet with red peppers and black olives, and – naturally – superb Rhône wines. The hotel itself – one of Relais & Châteaux’s finest in France – comprises 32 rooms in a series of local houses, and is a perfect base for exploring the area – well, having lunch in a sun-dappled bistro near the wine coopérative in Vacqueyras, anyway.
Sunday often meant a trip to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a few miles east of Avignon, where sanctuary from the antiques market was often sought in a little fromagier and wine bar, Le Caveau de la Tour de l’Isle. The bread, cheese, pâté and jambon cru are impeccable, but the real attractions are the pretty belle époque décor and the formidable list of local wines. Floyd, with typical chutzpah, actually owned a restaurant in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in the late 1970s, serving his idea of proper French food to slightly bemused locals.
Like most of Floyd’s restaurant ventures, it was not – financially – a huge success, but one has to admire him for trying. It was the ultimate expression of his passion for the French and their food, a passion that never left him, and was always a joy to share.