Hotel Crillon le Brave, Provence – Hotel Review
Hotel Crillon le Brave – Hotel Review
Truffle Hunting in Provence
by Melissa De Carteret
Installed in understated and effortlessly chic Provençal style at the stunning 16th-century Relais & Château Hotel Crillon le Brave, a sleepy cluster of seven elegantly rustic stone buildings in a tiny Roman hill-top hamlet overlooking vineyards and olive groves in the heart of the Rhône valley. I am truffle-hunting for the earthy nuggets. The diamants noirs so highly prized by gourmands, with Provence’s truffier extraordinaire Eric Jaumard and his exuberant but expertly trained truffle-hound Mirette.
I can think of no better place to be a canine. They are a more obedient servant to their master than pigs. And as Eric explains, undoubtedly easier to handle when it comes to prising the truffles from the earth. They are fed truffles as puppies and trained by hunt-and-reward to sniff out the black treasure from the inoculated roots of his oak fields. It’s a task which Mirette clearly relishes. The bond between man and dog is key. Every flick of her tail, every twitch of her nose is vital in detecting just when to jump in.
“Collective sigh of wonder”
No sooner has Mirette started to scratch eagerly at the pebbly soil than the cry ‘Allez! Allez!’ goes up. Eric is on his knees gently chipping away at the earth with a small pick. Mirette’s reward is swift and generous. On this bright November day, warm but not hot, the countryside dressed in the flame oranges and reds of autumn, there is something strangely moving about this simple ritual. As Eric pulls the knobbly fungus – the size of a golf ball – from the earth, there is a collective sigh of wonder from youngest to oldest.
Truffles are a serious, if precarious, business. Once the food of the poor (like oysters, they only became fashionable in the nineteenth century), in today’s market black truffles command prices anywhere from £700 to £1,500 per kilo. The rarer white truffle commonly sells for around £5,000 a kilo. With luck, some can weigh as much as 1-kilo. But only 10-15 per cent of the trees produce truffles, and they are unlikely to grow on the roots until the trees are at least 10 years old.
Eric has farmed black truffles on his 45-acre estate in the shadow of Mount Ventoux for over 20 years and La Truffe du Ventoux supplies restaurants across France and the UK, including the Roux’s legendary Waterside Inn in Bray. Security at Eric’s beautifully restored farmhouse La Quinsonne is a reminder of the shadier side of the truffle business. Aside from the need to protect the truffles from poachers, well trained dogs are valuable and as such vulnerable to dog-napping.
“Leaves you weak at the knees”
After the thrill of the chase, we wend our way back. Man, woman, child, and of course, Mirette. We step through the fields of white and green oaks to the comfort of La Quinsonne. There we enjoy a rustic and decadently truffle-fuelled five-course lunch. A baronial-style wood fire dominates the high-ceiling dining room. It is set as if for a large family get together. The gingham-clad tables preside over vintage photographs and agricultural ephemera.
After delightful truffle-laden toasts, there’s a heart-warming amuse-bouche of pumpkin soup the colour of autumn. It’s followed by a rich, creamy dish of scrambled eggs, with generous slices of the black stuff served with thick-cut toast and jamon. Next there’s a divinely rich truffled brie. It is so gorgeously gooey and intoxicating it leaves you weak at the knees. Then the pièce de résistance – a fabulous truffle-laced crème brûlée. This has to the ultimate in truffle hedonism. Each course is washed down with generously filled glasses of robust local red.
“A small winery”
Back at Crillon, a laid-back cookery demonstration by one of the hotel chefs teaches us how to conjure up our own truffle creations. We’re given a taste test to compare the intense aroma and flavour of tuber melanosporum (also known as the Périgord truffle or black winter truffle), with its less intense cousin tuber uncinatum. Come evening, it’s time for a wine tasting at the hotel with the charming Philippe Danel and ex-fashion designer Marie Pirsch of Domaine du Tix. A small winery in the heart of the Rhône valley and Ventoux hills uses traditional methods of picking, sorting and stripping the leaves by hand.
It’s the perfect introduction to three decadent days of quaffing which take in everything from the simple ‘garagiste’ producers in the Ventoux, to the finest estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape where, at Domaine du Grand Tinel, I tour the vineyards and learn about the requirements needed for a bottle to earn the coveted label. A tour of Hotel Crillon le Brave’s own cellars is also a must. Among the fine southern Rhône vintages, fabulous Syrah-based wines from the north, and ‘vertical’ collections of Château la Nerthe, there are the so-called La La’s, the exceptional single vineyard wines of Côte-Rôtie, by the outstanding producer Guigal. These are wines to make oenophiles weep for joy.
“Busy local cafés and antiques market”
This heady truffle-and-wine fest culminates on the last night with a six-course extravaganza. Here, naturally, la belle truffe is the star of each course. And if that’s not enough for the grandest of gourmands, at the weekend the local farmers markets and food stalls in the nearby town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue are the perfect place to stock up on saucisson, artisan cheeses and the obligatory case of wine for the trip back home. All while soaking up the atmosphere at the busy local cafés and antiques market.
The recent arrival of Chef Jérôme Blanchet (ex two Michelin-starred Negresco in Nice) and the launch of fine-dining Restaurant Jérôme Blanchet alongside Bistrot 40K signals the beginning of an exciting new era for Hotel Crillon le Brave.
In the stone-walled Restaurant Jérôme Blanchet, with its impressive vaulted ceiling, you might start with a delicate dish of sea bass carpaccio marinated with kumbawa and avocado shavings. It might be flavoured with spices and soya caviar. Then you’ll savour a mouth-watering filet de boeuf, sautéed with spring onions and potato callisson. It is stuffed with pissala onion and black olives. Or perhaps trout freshly plucked from the Sorgue, in an almond crust with asparagus from Mazan. And to finish, a plate of local cheese from Carpentras. Or even an iniquitously rich chocolate soufflé with guanaja and bourbon vanilla ice cream.
Suitably rustic in style on the ground floor of the old Reboul house (or in the charming Cours du Puit in good weather), Bistrot 40K boasts local produce sourced within 40k of Crillon, hence its name. Guests are invited to visit the cellar to select their own bottle of regional wine to accompany their meal. This could be a hearty dish of Ventoux pork rib with lavender honey, flat parsley and green beans, or a risotto of spelt from Sault with garden vegetables and sage. On clear nights diners can enjoy Crillon’s hilltop views of the villages on whose wine and produce they are feasting.
“Breathtaking panoramic views”
Crillon’s unique beauty is that each of the restored houses are joined together by original cobbled alleyways and Romanesque arches. This makes it impossible to tell where the 32-bedroom hotel begins and the hamlet ends. Exposed beams, tile flooring, distressed wooden furniture and no shortage of quirky features. Our room boasts a perfectly preserved set of canine paw prints set into its bathroom tiles.
Rooms start from $184/€140 (per person, based on two sharing a room in low season). But the Suites and Master Suites are worth the additional Euros. The extra space and quite simply breathtaking panoramic views from their larger terraces. Families may like the privacy of the stunning two-bedroom house.
And if truffles become de trop? If you’re all truffled out, there’s certainly no shortage of places to see and things to do. Beyond the nearby vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône, not forgetting Mont Ventoux – a 40-minute drive to the summit, or adrenaline-pumping cycle ride if you’re feeling so inclined – the hotel is just 25 miles northeast of Avignon. Marseille and Aix-en-Provence are 75 minutes away to the south and southeast, and further afield Nice and the Côte d’Azur.
Alternatively, after feasting on the generous breakfast au terrace or in the La Grange Bar you may just decide to luxuriate by the pool. There you make the most of those sublime views, glass of perfectly chilled Provençal rosé in hand.
Hôtel Crillon le Brave
Place de l’Eglise 84410, Crillon le Brave, France +33 4 90 65 61 61
Hotel Crillon le Brave offers the 3-night Truffle Hunting package in November, December and March from $740 per person (€565). This is based on two people sharing a standard room, $903 (€690) for a deluxe. Prices for Suites and Master Suites available upon request. Prices include daily dinner and breakfast, truffle hunting with a rustic lunch, Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine tasting, cooking demonstration, and a visit to Isle-sur-la Sorgue for the weekly farmers’ market and antique shops.
Getting There & Getting Around: British Airways, Air France, Flybe, easyJet and Ryanair operate direct flights to Marseille (a 75-minute hotel transfer), and CityJet operate the London City-Avignon route (a 30-minute hotel transfer).
Rhino Car Hire rhinocarhire.com offers cheap car hire in Provence. Prices start from around $31/£20 per day ($215/£140 per week). Car hire provider will vary. Check terms and conditions on booking.
LuxeGuru was a very happy guest of Hotel Crillon le Brave. Thanks also to The Massey Partnership, La Truffe du Ventoux, Rhino Car Hire and Grifco.