It has always struck me as curious that, while France’s splendid markets teem with top-notch vegetables, classic bistro menus feature very few of them. Protein invariably takes the lead role, with légumes reduced to mere bit parts: often blanched, smothered in béchamel sauce, showered with breadcrumbs and shoved under a grill.
I once had to stop a vegetarian – eager for a meat-free starter but with a shaky grasp of French – from ordering fromage de tête: brawn. He went for onion soup instead. I kept quiet about the beef stock.
There are exceptions, of course, especially at the top end of gastronomy: famously, Alain Passard’s menu at Arpège, which eschewed red meat back in 2001, exalting vegetables from its organic gardens instead, while Alain Ducasse’s menu at the Plaza Athénée now features the bounty of its Versailles potager. And, as I discovered recently, there is La Chassagnette, a glorious Michelin‑starred restaurant in the Camargue, a few miles south of Arles.
Chef Armand Arnal even has the temerity to list vegetables before meat or fish on his menu: a dish of lamb with green vegetables and roasting juices is described as “ragoût de légumes verts, agneau de Saint-Gilles, vrai jus”, for instance. This is not mere affectation: a preprandial tour of his kitchen garden vindicates his approach. The simple wooden tables on the vine-shaded terrace sit squarely between kitchen and garden: food miles don’t enter the equation.
Nor are Arnal’s meat and fish especially far-flung: Saint-Gilles, responsible for the splendidly pink, herb-scented lamb, is 20 miles away, while daurade (bream) is from the Mediterranean, cooked in fennel juice, with a soft, sweet bulb of fennel and an emerald-green emulsion of herbs.
“Gravlax” of taureau (bull) is even more local. The Camargue is famous for rearing bulls for the corridas in Arles, Nîmes and Spain, but also for bulls reared for their lean, firm, strong-flavoured meat, classically cooked as a hefty gardiane de taureau, a kind of daube made with red wine, and a local bistro staple. But at La Chassagnette, a lighter ethos prevails: tender strips of raw, marinated bull meat tangle with green beans and ginger to happy effect.
Flowers are much in evidence, from start to finish: nasturtium leaves and blossoms in a vibrant, palate-cleansing velouté of bitter herbs, dotted with broad beans, while sprigs of honeysuckle adorn a dessert of local strawberries with wafers of meringue and a coriander sorbet.
A few years ago, any chef with a straggly basil plant in a window box could claim the kudos of a kitchen garden; now, however, the game has changed, and chefs like Arnal are giving their diners the intense, vibrant flavours of truly fresh herbs and vegetables. That he does so with consummate skill in both cooking and presentation, in such a beautiful setting, makes La Chassagnette one of the most delightful places to eat in Provence.