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Legends in the Making in a Little Known Part of Provence

"Tout le monde" may be talking about the restaurant Alain Ducasse, the three star Michelin restaurateur, has opened in the Essex House overlooking Central Park this summer. But in a small Provencal village, another Ducasse establishment in a very different mood is also enjoying its premier season. 

Abbaye de la Celle - the new Ducasse property in a small town in Provence.  Photo by Harvey Frommer.
Abbaye de la Celle - the new Ducasse property in a small town in Provence.  Photo by Harvey Frommer.

Abbaye de la Celle is a new country inn and restaurant with age-old roots that include an 11th century Benedictine convent with a scandalous past and an 18th century bourgeois house that become the hotel Charles de Gaulle regularly frequented during the post-war years. Ducasse happened upon the site while traveling through the Var, a province in southern France little known to tourists yet well situated in terms of its proximity to St. Tropez and Cannes to the east, Marseilles and Toulon to the south, and Aix en Provence to the west. 

Learning that the Regional Council was looking for professionals to restore the long defunct hotel, Ducasse and his associate Bruno Clement responded to the call. Their plan was to recreate the ambiance of a 19th-century Provencal resort, and to that end, they enlisted the services of local artisans, an architect from the nearby provincial capital Brignoles, and a landscape gardener chosen by the director of France's listed buildings services charged with preserving the two-hundred year old species scattered throughout the six acre estate. 

As the century and millennium ended last December, the Abbaye received its first guests. 
The resort lies behind a garden wall in the center of the village of La Celle. Across the way is a small café; a few yards down a medieval fountain overlooks a well-used boule court. The rest of the village is a myriad of narrow climbing streets that unexpectedly turn onto breathtaking mountain views and distant vistas of vineyards bathed in the purple and golden hues of the changing Provencal light. Here live the one thousand residents of La Celle, their hours still marked by the tolling of the abbey bells.

Although decidedly off the beaten tourist path, La Celle has enjoyed a kind of notoriety since the seventeenth century when the abbess of the convent decided to allow her charges some benefits of a normal family life by arranging for them to receive relatives in a separate building. A number of young sisters took advantage of the opportunity to entertain male guests with all too predictable consequences. The 500-year old convent was summarily closed, and so it remained for some three hundred years in a Sleeping Beauty kind of spell until Ducasse et al brought it back to life. Today visitors can stroll around its cloister garden shaded by the branches of silk wood trees, dine in a medieval refractory, and discover archaeological ruins dating back to the fifth century in and around the echo-filled Romanesque halls.

Street scene La Cille - Photo by: Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Street scene Village La Cille - Photo by: Harvey Frommer

The main building of the Abbaye de la Celle is a square and stolid house of yellow sandstone walls and green shuttered windows. In the 19th century, it was home to Joseph Lambot, the inventor of reinforced concrete. Sylvia Fournier, a wealthy matron, purchased it in the 1930's and in 1945 transformed it into a 26-room hotel. Ducasse has reduced the number to five, each one distinctive and overlooking either the village square or the dining patio which leads onto carefully tended gardens, Cyprus hedges and groves of chestnut and mulberry trees.

The room Charles de Gaulle occupied remains intact; his boots still stand at attention as if waiting for their tall, dignified occupant. But the third floor rooms nestled in the eaves are more appealing, decorated in Provencal shades of red, yellow, and pink with canopied beds fit for a princess, and French provincial furnishings. 

The Abbaye also has a row of five cottage-style rooms with private gardens. These lead to fields of model vineyards containing the eighty-eight varieties of vines whose wines bear the Coteaux Varois appellation. La Maison des Vins Coteaux Varois is just beyond. A kind of wine museum, it showcases and offers tastes of the various Var wines and displays wine-making tools and local crafts. 

Experimental vineyards of the Coteaux Varios appellation wines on the Abbaye de la Celle property.  Photo by Harvey Frommer 
Experimental vineyards of the Coteaux Varios appellation wines on the Abbaye de la Celle property.  Photo by Harvey Frommer

Ducasse enlisted the services of young and favorite employees from his other establishments to run the hotel and restaurant. Thierry Blanc, a designer of restaurants who has worked for Ducasse for the last ten years, relocated from Paris to manage the property. He was around last winter as the final interior touches were put into place. "Ducasse tours through France," Blanc says, "and wherever he goes, if he finds something he likes, he buys it. He'll call me: 'Jerry, I am in Paris. Take a van and come to the flea market on Sunday.' 

One of his goals is to recover 18th French furnishings which are being bought up by dealers and taken out of France. This hotel is filled with them."

Blanc responds to the energy generated by the impresario of haute cuisine. "Alain Ducasse is 43 years old," he says. "When he was 39, he was in a terrible airplane accident. Everyone but he was killed. His surviving made him feel he was given a second life, and since them he has devoted himself to his work. He is up at 6 A.M. and works till 2 A.M. His life is his job or vice versa.

"He has decorated every room in this hotel," Blanc notes, "selected every antique, every fabric. He taught me what he wanted me to do to make this hotel and restaurant a place of true French character. We are not hurried. It is important to have time. Our kitchen takes the time. Ducasse and Bruno tell us, 'You have to know each customer who comes to see you. I want you to receive them, spend time with them.' That is what we are doing here." 

Ducasse imported Jerome Di Marino from the Il Cortile restaurant in Paris to oversee the dining rooms of the Abbaye. The son of a famed Marseilles surgeon whose specialty is kidney transplants, Di Marino opted for a career in haute cuisine, a consequence - he believes -- of the influence of his two grandmothers, one French, the other Italian. The gregarious young man visits every table during mealtime, discussing the menu, shaving curls of truffles, assisting in the selection of appropriate wines. 

"Ducasse owns three star restaurants in Paris and Monaco, he runs two auberges and is also a consultant in many restaurants throughout France," Di Marino says. "But he wanted to find a place in a region where the local products would be available. That is what he has found here. In the Var, there is sunshine nine months of the year, fruits and vegetables that you can't find elsewhere, good local wines." 

 Estate grounds of Chateau Miraval.  Photo by Harvey Frommer. - Click to Enlarge
Estate grounds of Chateau Miraval.  Photo by Harvey Frommer.

Among the good local wines are those supplied by the nearby Chateau Miraval which produces and bottles white wine under the Coteaux Varois appellation and red, white and rose wine under the Cotes de Provence appellation. A short drive north of Brignoles, the 70-acre estate is a place of enchanting beauty, a wooded valley with an abundance of water from rivulets and streams that dates back to Roman times. Wine has been produced here since at least the twelfth century when it was the site of a village of about 150 people. Its current owner, however, is of more recent vintage. 
Tom Bove was born and grew up in Indiana. The summer of 1993, he and his wife were on a tour of France when they heard about a vineyard in the Var that was for sale. It was a case of love at first sight for the amiable American, not only for the property with its expanse of vineyards and manicured parks, but for its grand chateau, its solitary chapel, as well as its wine producing and storing structures interconnected by ivy covered arches. Bove purchased the place and produced his first label that same year. 

Tom Bove, the American from Indiana, who owns Chateau Miraval, and Fanny Crosy, head of Miraval's Commercial and Export Department.  Photo by Harvey Frommer
Tom Bove, the American from Indiana, who owns Chateau Miraval, and Fanny Crosy, head of Miraval's Commercial and Export Department.  Photo by Harvey Frommer

"Wine had been produced at Miraval before," he says, "but it was not of high quality. I wanted to enter the field on a high level and therefore knew I needed an expert wine maker whom I employed. Also, I discovered I have a certain taste for wine and got involved in blending." 

Like Ducasse, Bove believes in utilizing local talent and was pleased to discover Fanny Crosy, an engaging young woman from a nearby wine-producing family to run his commercial and export department. Fanny also takes visitors on tours of the estate explaining the meaning of words like "Domaine" and "Chateau" on wine labels and the governmental standards they imply. 
"Representatives from the government come to inspect us from time to time," she emphasizes. "They control the cellar, they control the vineyards. Now we are on the way to produce organic wine; the grapes will grow without any fertilizers. In two years we will be completely organic. The third year we will have the label. The taste will be no different. 

"Since Tom's arrival, everything on the estate has been in a state of renovation," Fanny adds. She points out a terraced hillside lined with stone walls, reminiscent of the sort one is apt to see in Mallorca. "These walls were built by convicts in the 19th century. Tom has planted olive trees there. He hopes to produce olive oil in the next few years." 

The immense wine cellar of Miraval was built in 1850 by Joseph Lombot, the inventor of reinforced concrete who owned the house in La Celle. Fanny walks through the wine cellar explaining the wine-making process, how the grapes are put in small cases to avoid their being scratched, how they are crushed in the press, how the juice is pumped into the vat. "Then we wait for the fermentation, watching the temperature and measuring the degree of sugar and alcohol. When it is finished, the wine goes to a laboratory to be analyzed. If it is refused, it must be sold under the name vin de pays, which is much cheaper. 

"We have low yield because we select," she adds. "We produce about 60-70,000 bottles for 28 hectares (about 70 acres) which is not a great deal. We could produce much more but we want to keep up the level of the quality." 

Bove's life in the Var has been a mixture of triumph and tragedy. The vineyard is a growing success. He had added the importation of Sole, an Italian mineral water, to his ventures. His son was recently married in the chapel on the property. He lives amidst unparalleled scenic splendor in the estate's beautiful chateau. But several years ago, his wife was killed in an airplane crash on a trip back to the United States. Among the interconnected buildings on the property is a medieval hall with long dining tables that Bove reserves for summertime banquets. The walls are not insulated. For warmth on chilly nights, he keeps a fire going in the vast fireplace. There is no electricity. For illumination, he lights dozens of candles. "My wife loved his hall," he says.

Already legends are in the making in this region of Provence so little known to the thousands who are drawn to the south of France each year. But if Thierry Blanc is correct, that situation may not last much longer. He foresees a brilliant future for the hilly province that has become home to him, his wife and little daughter. "In ten years, the area of the Var will be more important than Aix en Provence," he says. "There is no big city nearby. People are typical here -- they don't come from everywhere. When you cross the Rhone, it is a different region. It is still untouched, virgin." 

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team, the authors of four critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history/food/wine/ and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle 
Place du General de Gaulle 83170La Celle

Phone: 33(0)4 98 05 14 14

Chateau Miraval
83143 Le Va

Phone: 33 4 94 86 39 33

Photos by Harvey Frommer

#   #   #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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