Our expert guide to the best restaurants, cafes and bars in the beautiful town of Uzes in southern France. In this authentically French town you will find picholine olives, local asparagus and focaccia-style bread filled with anchovies and olives.
Slow travel doesn’t get more quintessentially French than puttering down a dirt track fringed with fields of apricots and vines in a Citroën 2CV, the roof down, a Panama-wearing guide at the wheel. I had followed my nose to the Gard, in the Occitane region, on the western edge of Provence, but now that I was here my nose was twitching with sensory overload.
Pungent truffles and gummy bears? Just two of the more unusual ingredients on the menu in Uzès, one of those achingly pretty French towns whose Chocolat-style looks make it seem like a Hollywood film set. Indeed, its plane-tree-pricked Place aux Herbes once starred in the Gérard Depardieu movie Cyrano de Bergerac.
Uzès is surrounded by truffle plantations and hosts a truffle festival every January, while confectionary giant Haribo opened Le Musée du Bonbon here in 1996. The company is synonymous with the gummy bears invented by German founder Hans Riegel in 1920, but it’s liquorice that is Uzès’ traditional industry.
Liquorice has been produced here since the 18th century. Today, spindly liquorice plants line the entrance to the museum and even the air outside is laced with a sugary sweetness.
Your ticket comes with a bag of sweets to suck as you wander from room to room learning about the history of sugar and the candy-making process before ‘nosing’ some of the ingredients. Pressing a button releases a puff of vanilla, cacao or liquorice into the air. At the end of the Willy Wonka-style experience there’s a shop where you can stock up on your favourite sweets.
This less well-known corner of France is just 40 minutes from Avignon, where you can jump off the Eurostar as it hurtles on to Marseilles. Once here the pace is far more leisurely. The Gard department rolls down to the Mediterranean from the mountains of the Cévennes.
Between the two is the garrigue, a landscape of dry, stony soil the colour of peaches pricked with scrubby vegetation and herbs that scent the air with rosemary, thyme and wild mint.
The Gard’s larder is well stocked from the honey and chestnuts of the Cévennes to the asparagus and strawberries of the garrigue and tellines, the tiny shellfish found along the coast.
The area has no fewer than a dozen AOP/AOC and five PGI products that have gained protection, including beef and rice from the Camargue, olives, olive oil and strawberries from Nîmes, sweet onions from the Cévennes and Pélardon goat’s cheese.
Today, Uzès is a honeypot, but until about 50 years ago it was a rundown little town – with potential. The French government designated it a ville d’art et d’histoire and helped to restore the ruined buildings, putting in place strict building regulations and a Farrow & Ball-style colour palette.
Parisian restaurateurs and hoteliers soon began to trickle down opening chic b&bs such as boutique hideawayL’Albiousse in an elegant 16th-century townhouse and L’Artemise an old mas (farmhouse) a short walk out of town, its rooms splashed with contemporary art. Tourists are now drawn to the town’s maze of honey-hued alleys lined with art galleries, brocantes and interiors shops.
The Gard’s most famous tourist attraction is the Pont du Gard, a World Heritage site and part of the Roman aqueduct that took water from a spring near Uzès to Nîmes and whose three tiers soar over the Gardon river and its dramatic gorge.
Uzès itself, however, has its share of sites to tick off including the cathedral of Saint Théodorit with its ornate Romanesque bell tower, the Fenestrelle, the Duke’s palace and the Medieval Garden in the grounds of a ruined château which has around 450 plants, many medicinal, and is a lovely spot to unwind with a liquorice tisane after clambering up the tower’s 100 steps for a sweeping panorama.
Uzès also attracts a foodie crowd to its legendary food market held on Saturdays and Wednesdays, specialist shops such as Le 8ème Péché hidden away through an artisan pottery and an underground cellar stocked with local vintages, cookery schools such as Le Pistou and a smattering of picturesque pavement cafés and restaurants.
I was spending my first night at La Maison d’Uzès a luxurious Relais & Châteaux hotel in one of the town’s historic buildings. Fittingly, my room, up a winding stone staircase, was named Le Boudoir with its sumptuous red velvet daybed and Rapunzel-like views down onto a tangle of tiny streets. The restaurant, all parquet floors and vibrant velvet chairs, has a Michelin star and its chef, Christophe Ducros, celebrates the Gard’s local produce.
Before dinner, however, I wandered down to the Place aux Herbes to sip a glass of rosé outside Terroirs on the square as toddlers chased pigeons under the plane trees. Inside it’s part restaurant part posh grocery, the shelves crammed with artisanal olive oils, terrines and wines.
Back at the hotel’s restaurant, La Table d’Uzès, I was seduced by the eight-course tasting menu’s tantalising blank page and took a leap of culinary faith. A dish of local asparagus with slithers of kumquat and salty caviar with an orange vinaigrette was light and zesty.
As the lid of the slow-cooked ‘egg onsen with truffles’ was lifted a pungent hit of truffle filled the air while the intense nuttiness and crunch of courgette and chives gave texture to the softly poached egg. Surf ‘n’ soil rather than surf ‘n’ turf seemed to be the ethos of the fish dish, Mediterranean sea bass with wild asparagus and wild morels. The earthy mushrooms added depth without overpowering the delicate fish.
The next morning I woke to church bells. It was Saturday and market day. That night I was staying at La Maison d’Ulysse in the little village of Baron, 15 minutes outside Uzès.
Owners Guy Toullelan and Gauthier Vandendriesseche restored the 16th-century farmhouse and converted it into a gourmet hotel. They have just launched a series of gastronomic itineraries with guide Florian Stoll in his 2CV incorporating a tour of the market as well as hands-on culinary workshops with New Zealand food writer and chef Peta Mathias featuring seasonal specialities such as pissaladière – an onion, anchovy and black olive tart.
The Place aux Herbes was now crowded with stalls piled high with local asparagus and strawberries. I wandered through the aisles with Florian grazing on local Picholine olives and Pélardon goat’s cheese, sampling artisanal olive oils and stocking up on pungent tapenades and garlic confit, a tub of addictively fragrant white spheres.
Joining the queue at boulangerie Fougasse d’Uzès we bought fougasse, the local speciality, a hot flaky focaccia-style bread, filled with anchovies and olives. Armed with everything we needed we clambered into the car and set off for a picnic among the grape vines.
I spent the rest of the afternoon working off lunch, cycling through the vineyards and climbing up a rocky path to the village’s ruined castle. Afterwards I flopped by the pool in the hotel garden, planted with fig, olive, almond and apricot trees, raspberry, strawberry and redcurrant bushes. There’s also a kitchen garden brimming with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers courgettes, chillies and fresh herbs.
Before dinner Guy and Gauthier suggested a visit to their neighbour Claude Gendrot’s organic winery Cressance for a tasting. Claude has 16 hectares of vines, a shed, rusty tractor and a passion for soil.
“The soil is more important than the grape.” Picking up a handful of dirt he thrust it under my nose to smell. When he had the choice between buying a shiny new tractor or drafting in two soil experts, he picked the scientists.
As the sun began to set, he lined up a handful of bottles on a makeshift table. Burying our noses in the 2015 Rocailles, a white made from vermentino grapes aged in oak, we picked out floral notes and a hint of pepper. His signature red is simply Le Rouge, a single varietal, made using the chenanson grape. “Le Rouge is for pleasure,” he smiled.
Clutching a couple of re-corked bottles we headed back for dinner where the hotel’s two young chefs Valérie Lucas from Réunion and Daniel Jarrin Molin from Ecuador dished up a moreish starter of artichokes, egg and turmeric-roasted hazelnuts followed by an unctuous slow-cooked lamb marinated for hours in marsala wine.
The next morning was another feast. I tucked into a breakfast of fresh pear and pineapple with a black dusting of vanilla, crêpes smeared with Gauthier’s homemade fig jam and scrambled eggs with chives from the garden. Then a toot of the horn signalled it was time to hit the road again with Florian.
You can visit some of the local truffle plantations and in the summer they put on demonstrations. Les Truffières d’Uzèsis a 15-hectare plantation owned by Michel Tournayre who walked me through the avenues of oaks talking dogs, demos and his experimentation with Turkish hazelnut trees.
There are two seasons: January to March for black truffles and May to July for white truffles. Now was not truffle season, however. He shrugged. Not a whiff of a tuber.
At theParadis olive oil mill my nose was needed again. The Paradis family has been producing cold-pressed olive oil for four generations. The olives grown here are picholine, négrette and bouteillan. First a spoonful of picholine, a smooth golden oil with a hint of green apple.
Négrette had notes of hazelnut and artichoke, and a pepperiness. Finally bouteillan, fruity and dense. Bending over the spoon I inhaled deeply: freshly cut grass. One of the scents of summer – although not as intoxicating as sun-baked soil mingling with Mediterranean herbs as you drive down the back roads of southern France in an open-top 2CV.