Perestrello Geller ate at La Pitchoune – 21 Place de L’église Maussane Les Alpilles, Tel: 04 90 54 34 84. Menu €32
Star rating: **** Bullseye
In other circumstances we would have left within the first half hour.
A group of ten of us sat down to Sunday lunch at La Pitchoune restaurant. The setting was peaceful. A calm courtyard set back from the bustle of Maussane les Alpilles. The chairs were old and rickety in that appealing Provençal, Côte Sud way and branches from the olive tree draped themselves over my shoulder creating a pattern of dappled sunlight on the table.
It was 1 o’clock and the majority of the diners in the restaurant were already on to their mains, some as it turned out had made it all the way through the entire menu. We waited, and muttered the usual complaint about how high social charges meant restaurants could never get enough staff. After ten minutes the menus finally arrived but the waitress proved too busy to take our drinks order.
We were already having our doubts, twitchingly eyeing the exit, when in the corner of the courtyard a woman stood up and addressed the whole restaurant.
“The place is not correct,” she waggled her finger, “not correct at all.”
The head waiter, a bald man, whose sole contribution so far had been to sit in the corner flicking through receipts, came over to deal with the situation. His presence incensed the woman.
“This is not the way to treat your customers,” she jabbed her finger into his chest. Her husband joined in, and the complaint became a shouting match. All around the restaurant conversations stopped and people stared.
“This is the third time I’ve eaten here, and every time it’s the same. I have the menu, skip the dessert and order coffee instead. And when the bill comes you charge me €2 for the coffee.”
The staff managed to escort the lady to the exit and the argument carried on outside. Instead of restarting their meals all the diners, rather like a row of cypresses bending in the wind, leant towards the street, salivating over the juiciness of the scene, committing each insult to memory for exaggerated repetition in the post office the following day. The espresso-incensed diner seemed to have a point. She appeared the type of nice middle class woman who perhaps organised piano recitals in the long winter months. Necessarily thrifty with the family budget she’d doubtless earned the right to declare something “pas correct,” and perhaps we should have heeded her advice about La Pitchoune.
However there were was a problem. Outside in the streets of Maussane people were cavorting to disco music, downing litres of pastis and playing tag with bulls. We’d arrived in the middle of the fête votive and the terraces of all the cafes had been given over to the party. The Gardians – or bull herders – from the Camargue were driving young bulls through the streets trying to keep the animals sandwiched between the protective cordon formed by their white horses. Most of the residents were cowering behind bull repellent iron railings but not the young boys. They stood directly in the path of the horses, forcing the rider to veer out of the way and release the bulls, others attacked from behind and grabbed the bull’s tail allowing themselves to be swept along with the nonchalance of skateboarders hitching a lift on the passing fender of a bus. Amid this mayhem it was unlikely that the ten of us would find somewhere else to eat.
And so we stayed where we were and as far as we were concerned the most remarkable thing happened – we ended up having the most delightful meal. The cooking was inventive family fair – a grilled red snapper salad starter came with shavings of foie gras which melted into the dish and gave it an unctuous rich consistency, the lamb main course was encased in a pastry wrap which was imaginatively complimented by a sweet broad bean gravy and the filet de toro arrived still snarling from the grill. The waitresses, once they started serving us, were attentive and proud of every plate they presented and they didn’t even mind when the children in our party spurned the dauphinois potatoes and supplemented their meals with takeaway chips from the fête. The pauses between courses were perfectly judged, and the end of the afternoon slipped away in a convivial haze as our knives took a meander around a board of over twenty goats cheeses. As a dining experience it was hard to find fault: the dreamy courtyard, the dusty earth, the bitter crunchy home made coffee ice cream which the meal finished with, and the knowledge that while we ate the sun’s rage was slowly seeping from the heat-beaten streets.
I mentioned the filet de toro. At the seaside you eat fish and therefore at a bull run you eat the bull. The only difference being that munching away at the beach you would have to be exceptionally unlucky to be tapped on the shoulder by the tentacle of a giant squid whereas at a bull run the chances of meeting an enraged relative of your lunch are much higher. Just as I was mopping up the last of the juice, a stray youthful toro poked its head into the restaurant and gave an angry snort. For some reason I felt he was looking directly at me, still filet de toro is not for the squeamish who go all misty eyed at the sight of baby animals. Strong, meaty, gamey chargrilled on the outside, bloody on the inside a filet de toro makes a normal piece of beef taste as limpid as liver, it’s steak on steroids, rippling with aggression, feed it to an athlete before the Olympics and watch the world records fall. As I handed my empty plate to the waitress and felt the testosterone hit from the bulls blood surge through my body, I finally understood the earlier row – apparently filet de toro and respectable piano-recital-obsessed, needlework-resting-on-a-doily-by-the-sofa women just don’t mix. Therefore, to put the record straight, I would like to declare that La Pitchoune is more than correct. Then again I didn’t order a coffee.