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A flavour of France stirs the senses

By Features Reporter

Chef Alain Ducasse in his kitchen garden.Picture: Heikki/PA
Chef Alain Ducasse in his kitchen garden.Picture: Heikki/PA

The word ‘Provence’ effortlessly conjures up a sense of romance. Woodsmoke and the scent of garlic, huge regimented fields of purple lavender, bottles of throat-catching olive oil and bubbling pans of tomato-heavy chicken stew.

Chef Alain Ducasse – although born in Orthez in the south-west of France – knows the cuisine of the region better than most.

And what he loves about it, he says, is its “simplicity and spontaneity”.

The 63-year-old restaurateur explains: “Provencal cuisine genuinely expresses the soul of the country. The tastes of the local produce is more intense, the recipes are altogether humble and supremely elegant, the recipes, transmitted (through history, largely) by women, are fantastically diverse.”

Ducasse, who became the world’s first chef to own restaurants carrying three Michelin stars in three cities (New York, Paris, London), does somewhat elevate Provencal cooking, particularly at his restaurant and inn, Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

“It’s a love story,” says Ducasse of the l’Abbaye.

“When I discovered it, in 1999, I instantly fell in love with the garden and its century-old chestnut trees and the harmony of its 18th-century architecture. I immediately thought about creating a restaurant there with a few bedrooms.”

An hour’s drive from Marseille, l’Abbaye is pale yellow, fringed with olive-green shutters, and adjoins a 12th-century Benedictine Romanesque abbey.

Home to just 10 rooms, a Michelin-starred restaurant, as well as a conservation vineyard and a kitchen garden you could easily eat your way through if left to your own devices, it’s a pretty delicious place to spend a weekend.

At the core of its ethos and menu – as with Ducasse’s wider businesses – is an awareness of sustainability and seasonality.

“Proposing dishes with more vegetables and cereals and less meat is very important,” notes Ducasse.

Raised on a farm, Ducassebecame an apprentice chef aged 16 and is now an entire culinary enterprise, with restaurants, cookery schools and consulting positions in his name.

Of his career achievements though, he says his most significant is “the creation of naturalite (naturalness). This is a very radical and innovative approach we developed at my Hotel Plaza Athenee, in Paris. No meat – just vegetables, cereals and fish from sustainable sources.”

L’Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle offers superior double rooms from €239 per night based on two sharing. Contact (0)4 98 051 414/ contact@abbaye-celle.com. For more information, see abbaye-celle.com/en

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