I had a girlfriend once who had the miraculous ability to be in two or even three places at once. She had long lustrous dark hair and almond eyes which held a glance for a quavering, quivering, indecent second too long.
In the early stages of our relationship she kissed me goodnight at a teasingly early hour and but for her irresistible almond eyes we would have split up when I discovered that she was cramming two dates into the same evening.
As the relationship progressed I became more and more heartbroken. Stories of her being seen with other men when as far as I could remember she’d been with me abounded. I began to realise that she would never be mine. She was a mythical creature, who seemed to be able to inhabit several universes, occasionally ours would intersect but while I was falling in love, her memory would record a totally different evening with a totally different man. I was Icarus flying to close to the sun.
I mention this only because after meeting Eric Sapin the head chef of the La Petite Maison I was reminded of this girl. Thankfully it wasn’t final’s night at the Luberon drag queen contest, and even if it was the small chubby wonderfully “chefesque” Eric would never have held anyone’s glance for a quavering, quivering, indecent second too long. No, the occasion was a long weekday lunch in Cucuron and for some reason the more the meal progressed the more memories of my almond-eyed love flooded back to me.
For a week or so after the meal I was disturbed and agitated. What had triggered the thoughts? Walking around Cucuron, I was continually bumping into Eric. There he was in his chef’s whites having a coffee in the Café D’Etang, moments later in the middle of a busy lunchtime service on a bank holiday weekend I noticed him high in the village near the ruin of the old fort, but when I scrambled back down the hill, he was shaking hands with diners in his restaurant.
From the outside La Petite Maison is typical Provence – faded weather beaten crepy, with the painted “café restaurant” lettering only just visible. There’s a terrace with an iron trellis covered in leafy vines that invite long indulgent summer meals to take place in their shade.
Dining inside La Petite Maison though, is like stepping into a different world. The upstairs room appears to hover in a nether region between a London club and the south of France. The walls are panelled with wood, the chairs are a curious hybrid between upright dining and recumbent smoking – copious with heavy arms which encourage you to relax into them. Water is served in silver goblets and the red wine decanted into a giant wine glass with a barely noticeable spout from which to pour the liquid into the mortal sized glasses also provided.
On the €35 menu that weekday was an amuse bouche of steamed vegetables in an appetite-inducing vinaigrette, followed by a starter of fried frog’s legs, asparagus and garlic, an unlikely combination that inexplicably gelled. The main course, a cuisse de canard, served on a carrot and petit pois reduction was as exemplary as the first. The duck, was soft and meltingly meaty and the vegetable reduction cut through the fatty juices which often ruin duck dishes. Yet Eric somehow conjured this meal while simultaneously giving a cookery demonstration in the room below.
Adding to the feeling that the restaurant somehow existed just out of kilter with normal rules were the staff. It’s notoriously difficult to get well trained experience staff in the rural areas of Provence. The rich and famous arrive every summer but they stay for two short months, and retaining workers outside this period is often difficult. Yet in May in Cucuron we were served by waiters who wouldn’t have been out of place in London or New York, possessing the vital ability to be unobtrusively efficient. Glasses were never left empty, plates never sat un-cleared and proper pauses divided the courses.
The meal finished with a diplomat’s pudding made from Apt fruit confits, served with a nougat ice cream and a sauce Suzette. There was also a Catherine Wheel of multicoloured amuse bouche extras. Sated and content, but feeling slightly disturbed by the thoughts of my ex-girlfriend, I ordered a whisky. The waiter left the remains of the bottle, and the room emptied around-me, until I was left alone contemplating what an oak panelled dining room was doing in Provence.
Next to my table was an old-fashioned drink’s trolley brimming with spirits. With the whisky bottle now empty I reached across and fingered the cognac. It wouldn’t hurt to help myself to a glass I reasoned. No sooner had the thought entered my head then Eric materialised through an arch to my right. Thanking me for dining at La Petite Maison he ushered me into the Provencal sunshine.
It was only later that I questioned how he’d arrived at the table. The room he’d come from was a private dining room, with only one entrance, directly in my line of vision and the only plausible explanation for him appearing through that arch was that he’d been in the adjacent room throughout lunch. But then I’d seen him giving a cooking demonstration and somebody had had to cook my lunch.
A week later as I sat outside La Petite Maison, with a glass of pastis, looking at the reflection of the plane trees in the etang my mind finally became calm. Some people, like my ex-girlfriend, exist outside the norms. However it wasn’t after all the curious ability of Eric to apparently be in two places at the same time that reminded me of her, it was the teasing, quavering, quivering ability of his food to hold the palate’s attention for an indecent second too long.
+ 33 (0)4 90 68 21 99
La Petite Maison de Cucuron
Place de l’Etang