Market towns of Provence – the drive to Sault – hat buying at the market – I have the best goat cheese of my life – disaster strikes! – Sault at a glance
Having arrived in Provence (in Saint-Pierre-de-Vassols, to be exact) on Tuesday evening, I woke up bright and early on Wednesday morning, with the light streaming through my airy double windows, the thin white curtains rustling slightly in a refreshingly cool breeze. As I would do every morning, I hung over my tiny balcony, breathing in the air and delighting in the beautiful landscape, still hushed with sleep. I couldn’t wait to start exploring, and after tea in the garden we all piled into the car and headed to Sault (pronounced ‘so’ to rhyme with ‘go’), an old fortified village nestled high on a rocky promontory.
We’d decided that much of our discovery of Provence would revolve around visiting its many different market towns. With a little research, it’s possible to go to a different (and fabulous) market everyday (our most trusted resource was a little book called Markets of Provence by Marjorie R. Williams – fantastic!), and it’s a marvellous way to explore the countryside. Each market has a unique quality to it, reflecting its respective village or town, and the markets offer a wonderful glimpse into the customs and culture of Provence. Of course, the basketfuls of local produce and speciality foods that may be enjoyed back at the gîte every night are a major plus too!
The drive to Sault is almost as interesting as the destination. Steeply curving roads wind upwards, and peering out the window you can see Mount Ventoux rising high on the horizon, with a patchwork of gold and purple fields of wheat and lavender beneath. We couldn’t resist pulling over and jumping out the car to stand amongst the grapevines, snapping away with our cameras at the beautiful view.
Parking in Sault is most definitely not an easy task (it’s wise to get there as early as possible so as to nab a good place). After negotiating our way through the tiny streets with no luck, we managed to secure a spot along the main road that bends sharply into the town and then made our way on foot towards the town centre. Unlike my usual London pace, I found it impossible to walk briskly in Provence – there’s simply too much to take in and enjoy! I peered down every delightful side alley as we wound our way up through the streets, enjoying the pretty sand-coloured buildings with their brightly painted shutters and the sprightly hollyhocks clustered at doorways.
The market at Sault has been going since 1515, and the Count of Sault decreed in 1546 that it should always be held on a Wednesday. Hundreds of years on, it is easy to see why the market is still so popular with locals and tourists alike. On turning into the crowd of market stalls jostling each other for space in the pretty town square, I was first distracted by the scent of lavender wafting across the air from a particularly eye-catching stand. Bunches of the drying herb were tied upside down from its awning, more were laid in baskets on the floor and lavender soaps, sachets and shampoos were arranged artistically across the tablecloths. I couldn’t resist a couple of bunches of lavender (which made our living room smell wonderful when we arranged them in a vase back at the gîte), as well as a lavender sachet to bring back with me to London. Sault is in the heart of lavender country (a lavender festival is held each year on August 15th), so I felt it very appropriate to pick up a few lavender-related goods at its market.
Other local specialities are also proudly represented: enormous blocks of nougat made with roasted nuts and lavender honey tower over another table, and the goat cheese stall of Perig Belloin offers an exceedingly tempting mix of fresh and aged goat cheeses. We couldn’t resist the bulging, purple-tinged garlic bulbs, ruby-red cherries, rounded aubergines and plump tomatoes to bring home, as well as a selection of tapenade, olives, bread, lavender honey and cheese. Squares of fruit pastes beckoned at us from another stand, and we bought a slice of quince paste to go with our Comte. It was absolutely incredible – the best I’ve ever tasted! Markets are truly a feast for the senses: every way I turned there were fresh sounds, sights and smells to delight.
Diving into a narrow street where market stalls continued uphill, I was entranced by a collection of straw hats, trimmed in cream and dark brown. I’d left my hat back in London and was regretting it already, but after some umming and ahhing over which style and shape I wanted, I settled on a pretty hat with a wide brim and bow at the back. Perfect protection against the glaring sun!
Feeling in the need of refreshment after our shopping, we began to search for a nice spot for lunch. The cafes and restaurants immediately surrounding the market were incredibly busy and noisy, but we’d remembered a pleasant looking restaurant from our walk up from the car and thought we’d try our luck there. Le Petit Jardin is aptly named: the restaurant does indeed have a little (and very charming) garden at its side, which offers a perfect haven from the bustling market crowds.
We were able to get a lovely table outside, and I’d noticed the plat du jour sounded particularly good: salade de chevre chaud au miel de lavande. Along with a bottle of (exceptionally good) rose, we ordered a starter to share between us, which featured another local specialty: petit-epautre. This ancient, spelt-like grain has been grown around Sault for centuries, and we couldn’t wait to try it. It was delicious served as a cold salad, mixed with a yoghurt-based dressing, finely chopped red pepper, plenty of fresh dill and sultanas. I later bought a box of petit-epautre at a local corner shop so I could have a go at recreating the dish back in London.
Next, my goat cheese salad arrived, and I couldn’t believe my eyes at the amount of cheese! A whole round of perfectly warmed, fresh goat cheese was served on a slice of toast, honey dribbled over the top. There was definitely a lot more cheese than salad, and I was in a fromage-lovers’ paradise! Apparently there is a fantastic goat farm in the hamlet Saint-Jean-de-Sault, owned by Perig and Cathy Belloin, hence the abundance of exceedingly good goat cheese in the area.
Even though feeling rather full after my cheese, I decided I could still enjoy a salted caramel fondant for dessert, and I’m so glad I did! Just look at that caramel oozing from the centre:
It was absolutely delicious, and I polished off every bite!
Feeling exceedingly satisfied after our meal, our happy state was alas rather short-lived. On returning to our car, we’d discovered the back window smashed in, and bags (containing passport, laptop and other valuables) taken. The same had happened to the car next to us; a horrified American couple turned up just after we’d called the police, exclaiming over the loss of their own passports and laptops. The rest of our afternoon was primarily spent in the police station, or on the phone dealing with the consequences of the theft. It was definitely a sad end to the day, but we determined not to let it spoil the rest of the holiday, and I tell the tale now to serve as a warning: never leave valuables in the car, no matter how public and safe somewhere seems!
Sault At A Glance
WHAT: ancient hillside town in the heart of lavender country.
MARKET: held on Wednesday mornings. Get there early to get a parking space!
BUY: lavender, nougat, goat cheese and the ancient grain petit-epautre are local specialities.
IN THE AREA: Aroma Plantes, a lavender farm and distillery open to the public. The Belloin goat farm in Saint-Jean-de-Sault.