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(2012 - Fall Issue)


Delightful accommodation.Exquisite dining. Romantic vistas . . . he ultimate holiday!

There is something to be said about a guided vacation. Someone else does all the work and you follow. I know the Internet makes it easy to research destinations, but it can be time-consuming. Organizing a recent trip to Portugal required many hours on the computer.

On the other hand, my trip to Provence and Tuscany with Trafalgar Tours was totally decadent. “Travel like an insider”—one of Trafalgar’s slogans—was exactly what we did. We showed up and the rest was handled. The only surprises were the travel director’s “hidden treasures,” little unexpected treats that brought us to off-the-beaten-track places seldom visited by tourists.

A Taste of Provence

After being whisked away from Paris on board the TGV (fast-speed train), we arrived in Avignon just in time for our first of many amazing lunches and “Be My Guest” experiences.

One of the most important features of Provence is its cuisine and one of the darlings of the gastronomes in the area is local chef Daniel Hebet. His finely-executed food attracts people from all over the world to his well-loved restaurant—Le Jardin du Quai—located in the town of Isle sur la Sorgue. Here we dined on delicious chicken Provençal with almonds, pine nuts, eggplant and zucchini in a wine sauce accompanied by a cassoulet (cannellini beans in a casserole). La pièce de résistance was the dessert. A berry macaroon—the classic French confection made with egg whites, sugar, ground almonds and flavouring filled with mascarpone cream and fresh raspberries served with mango ice cream. Following lunch we were treated to a bonus cooking demonstration on how to make the macaroons.

Our trip to Provence was a version of Trafalgar’s innovative “At Leisure” program, consisting of leisurely-paced itineraries. During the “Paris to Provence” trips, we stayed a minimum of two to three nights in each place, giving us time to delve into a destination. It was great to have the opportunity to do a little exploring on our own.

“Be My Guest” experiences are exclusive to Trafalgar. These are dining adventures whereby guests are welcomed into locals’ homes or unique places to make them feel special. In Provence, we visited an organic vineyard—Château la Dorgonne in the Luberon region—for a tour and a heavenly home-cooked lunch complemented with a sampling of amazing wines. Owner, Bauduin Parmentier, converted the living room of his majestic villa to accommodate our group. We were made to feel “at home” as we savoured beef Bourguignon on pasta, courgette (zucchini) terrine with a herb aioli and artisan cheeses—a menu created just for us. We were able to gain a true insight into the lives of the residents of Provence for a truly memorable experience.

A trip to Provence would not be complete without a visit to the tourist sites in Avignon including Palais des Papes, Place de l’Horloge and Pont d’Avignon. In Aix-en-Provence, an elegant city, we delighted in checking out the local outdoor markets where such specialties as lavender, dried herbs and fragrant honey were sold.

Another unexpected treat from our travel director, Jonathan, was dinner at the Hostellerie le Château, a family-run restaurant overlooking Le Sorgue River, which opened just for our group that day. I can still taste the gratinée de Saint-Jacques and sauce crevettes et pastis (scallops with a shrimp and Pernod sauce). Incredible! Then came the truite fraîche du Vivier aux amandes (fresh trout caught in the river we were looking at, topped with almonds). I knew at this point holding back from eating on this trip would be futile. Thankfully, the gym would be there when I returned home.

Flavours of Tuscany

Our first taste of Tuscan cuisine, following a drive through the picturesque Italian countryside, was at the charming Villa il Poggiale, a 24-room, 15th-century villa not usually open to large groups. Trafalgar is the first with their “Flavours of Italy” tour.

We were greeted with Prosecco and fabulous appetizers prepared exclusively for us. Then we sat down to a feast of local dishes, which included roasted pork, a staple of the region. And this was just the beginning.

Being an avid foodie, my highlight of the trip was our day at the cooking school. We accompanied chef Libero to the fruit and vegetable market of Sant Ambrogio in central Florence, where I was absolutely amazed at the incredible display of colourful produce, wild mushrooms, meats, seafood and cheeses from local farmers. Tuscans practise the “0-kilometre” diet and shop daily—a lifestyle that makes me envious.

Our group was handed shopping lists—in Italian—and money to purchase the necessary items, just like “an insider.” Our interactions with the vendors were priceless. Then we were off to the chef’s restaurant—I Tre Pini—in the Chianti hills to make lunch. We prepared some of Tuscany’s well-loved recipes rarely found outside of the area itself that I will treasure and make at home. The restaurant was equipped with an indoor and outdoor kitchen for students. Just imagine the luxury of outdoor cooking in such a divine setting.

It was interesting to learn that bread was the base of many Tuscan recipes. Panzanella (bread salad), ribollita (bread and vegetable casserole) and pappa al pomodoro (bread with tomato and onion) are typical authentic dishes we prepared and thoroughly enjoyed. Tuscan bread is intentionally made without salt, which means the crust doesn’t brown and the structure is more delicate. Salt was heavily taxed in the middle ages, so bakers started baking without it. The tradition lingered. Schiacciata (the local flatbread) is the only bread that contains salt.

What would an Italian meal be without pasta? Our team was responsible for making homemade ravioli. We prepared the dough from scratch and rolled it by hand. It was definitely a workout to get it thin enough to ensure “melt-in-your-mouth” pasta.

Another treat that day was sampling fresh olive oil pressed that morning. It was a magical culinary experience! Everything was accompanied by chef Libero’s homemade wine for a memorable and enjoyable feast indeed.

Another “Be My Guest” engagement involved lunch at the home of Count Francesco Miari Fulcis, who welcomed us to his house, introduced us to his family and showed us the stunning property where his family has been making olive oil for generations. Situated in a panoramic setting on the green hills between Fiesole and Firenze, Fattoria di Maianodates back to the 15th century and is a completely organic agricultural estate. Being fall, we were able to watch the production of the extra-virgin olive oil. It was interesting to learn it takes 100 kilograms of olives to make 10 kilograms of oil and olives are pressed within six hours of picking to obtain the highest quality.

Lunch here comprised an array of Tuscan specialties including local cheeses, breads, meats, crostata and, of course, the virgin olive oil. The food seemed endless and once again we were made to feel very special.

What a fantastic and exotic trip this was—truly an exceptional culinary adventure! The natural beauty of Provence and Tuscany will inspire even the most reticent cooks.

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