La Drôme

The most enticing area, however, is La Drôme: the land of Montélimar nougat, of France’s best olives, of Rhône Valley wines and of miles and miles of orchards growing cherries, apricots and peaches. The départment will play a key role in the new Vallée de la Gastronomie, a foodie trail that will run all the way from Dijon in Burgundy to Marseilles on the coast. When it launches in the spring, it is hoped the mouthwatering itinerary of gourmet pitstops, from restaurants to food producers and vineyards, will attract gourmands to discover new areas of France.

This land of bounty speaks for itself. As I approach the village of Grignan, the road divides vineyards and cherry orchards, the trees’ leaves shimmering in the breeze under a clear blue sky.

When I swing round the corner and catch my first sight of Grignan itself, I nearly crash the car; the village’s Renaissance château sits atop steep golden-stone walls, surrounded by its village, and in turn the neat rows of lavender fields that bloom bright in summer. All those I meet before this point have asked: “Are you going to Grignan?” and when I’ve replied yes, they’ve given a knowing nod.

The chef at the helm of the hotel-restaurant Le Clair de la Plume is Julian Allano. His Michelin-starred menus feature the produce of the moment; he seems to make up his mind about what to serve when he welcomes me to the restaurant and asks if I have any dislikes. The highlight of the four-course meal is the cheese course, which comes in the form of a tiny honey-infused disc of frozen Saint-Marcellin, which explodes with flavour as it hits my taste-buds.

The next morning, I wander around the village, all winding alleys and sensational views, and stand on the towering walls beneath the château to gaze out over the golden-green landscape. I resolve to return for lunch, but that’s before I drive to Nyons. The town is famous for its olives; the mountains here cradle the landscape in such a way that the warm climate from the Mediterranean breezes up to create the perfect growing conditions.

Nyons’ buildings are painted terracotta, ochre and pink; when I arrive there’s a pétanque tournament in the square. I snap up bottles of gourmet olive oil at the local co-operative-cum-museum, where 1,100 farmers combine their efforts to produce exceptional oil.

Elsewhere, I buy raspberry vinegar at La Vinaigrerie la Para, where the owner, Raphael, tells me how he gave up a hotshot job in international wine sales to brew his own gourmet vinegar. And then I have lunch in the narrow main street, buzzing with pavement cafés and restaurants, with all the conviviality and passion of that revered French meal-time.

Sunday Times, November 2019