A Week in Provence

provence1.jpgI’m not a foodie.  I seldom watch the Food Channel.  The one cookbook I own came with my microwave.  I only go to Williams-Sonoma to get a gift for someone else.  So I’m surprised that some of the best memories of my bicycle trip in France last summer are of food.
I was the only American in our group of 14, the rest were Irish or British.  Every day we biked 20 to 35 miles through the beautiful Provençal countryside and every evening we had dinner at one of the many restaurants in the village where we stayed.  Even the smallest towns had dozens to choose from.  Sometimes we were the only ones in the place. 
Dinner was our evening’s entertainment.  The group would meet in the hotel lobby, then wander the narrow streets checking out menus in restaurant windows until we reached a consensus.  Usually, the only dissenter was a snooty vegan, a London financial planner studying to be a yoga instructor.  She would frown as she studied a menu. “Can’t eat that.  Won’t eat that.  Ugh, no way.”  Then she would drag her poor husband off for a salad somewhere.  Once, I offered her some of my sunscreen.  “I don’t put chemicals on my body,” she told me.  She came back at the end of the day with a spectacular sunburn.        
provence2.jpgOne day, after pedaling five miles uphill to the village of Gordes, we settled in Carpentras, a town of 26,000.  That night we chose a small restaurant that was connected to a butcher shop.  My French is limited, to say the least, so I followed some of the others and ordered the lamb.  When the dish was placed in front of me I thought it was so beautiful I took a picture of it before digging in.  Maybe it was the wine.  The lamb had a mushroom stuffing and was wrapped in eggplant slices.  Another thin, crisp slice of eggplant garnished the top.  The owner/waiter told us he cooked it for four hours.  It was tender and juicy and unlike anything I’d ever tasted.  The Brits thought it was over-cooked.  (Oh, the irony.)  I thought it was sublime.  I fought my natural inclination to inhale it and savored every bite.
A couple of days later we rolled into Arles.  The town’s main attraction is a Roman amphitheater built around AD 90, but for me the highlight was a chocolate pear tart I picked up at a patisserie on the corner of the town square.  I was just looking for a treat to hold me over until dinner, but I got so much more.  The chocolate was dark and dense and semisweet.  The slices of pear on top were so thin you could see through them.  I moaned with pleasure after every bite, prompting raised eyebrows from my British biking buddies.  The next day I returned to the patisserie for an encore, only to find out they didn’t make the chocolate pear tart on Fridays.  I settled for a brownie with pistachio filling.  It was good, but it didn’t make me moan. 
I’ve had excellent meals and delicious pastries before, but none that ever moved me to write about them.  Maybe I’m a foodie after all.     

Doug Cox was a member of The Groundlings and a writer for “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”  He lives in Burbank, California.