If Provence is a floral, lavender-scented feast for the senses in summer, wintertime there is, for me, no less charming. It’s calm, quiet and atmospheric, not to mention abundant in Christmas markets and culinary delights. I found the latter in spades last month at Château de Montcaud, a 19th-century château in the Cèze Valley. Built from the riches of the region’s silk trade, it has recently reopened as a stately hotel. I was heading for lunch in the green-shuttered former stable building, which houses a restaurant and a bistro, both in the talented hands of Matthieu Hervé, the Normandy-born chef who cut his teeth working with the likes of Daniel Boulud in New York and Peter Knogl at Cheval Blanc in Basel.
This is Hervé’s first position as head chef, but his dishes already show real poise and perfect clarity in terms of flavours. Take the scallops (€28) I tried from the bistro’s menu, which offers the best of the season’s bounty. Served on a bed of celery purée (the first time I have ever liked celery) with glossy Brussel sprout leaves and generous slices of black truffle scattered on top, they were exquisite, with the addition of a splash of chicken jus lending the dish the meaty punch it deserved.
On the basis of my delicious lunch, looking out onto the Château grounds, I decided to book into the restaurant that evening for dinner (from €58 for a three-course menu; six-course degustation menu, €115). It did not disappoint. In the decidedly elegant surroundings that spill out onto a rose-clad terrace on sunny days, I began with an amuse-bouche of smoked haddock with potato, pickle and a dollop of French caviar. I feared that starting the dinner at such a high point could only lead one way, but I was wrong. Both the pigeon stuffed with duck foie gras, pear and truffle and then a delicate dish of my favourite fish, John Dory, in a light seaweed butter sauce with caviar and trout eggs were delicious. Lamb, done three different ways, was accompanied by carrots, a touch of curry and braised endives and paired with a delicious red wine from Cahors, Le Sid from 2004 – a match made in heaven. Hervé’s cooking is seriously good and the inviting Château de Montcaud vaut absolument le voyage.