A friend and I had been shown to a sun-splashed table by the tinkling waters of the pool fountain. The maître d'hôtel, untroubled by layers of grime from our morning of castle-crawling, displayed exquisite courtesy.
We each looked at the menu. I saw duckling with lime and luscious red mullet a oat in basil-laced olive oil. My friend, an artist from Vermont, saw the chef-propriétaire's vivid paintings on the cover and his delicate calligraphy. I eyed the cheeses and pastries on trolleys in the corner. She noticed the spray of flowers on our table, lush purple irises tucked among yellow jonquils, every blossom bursting with life. Had the crisp linen not soon picked up ruby wine spots, we might have gone snow-blind.
It was genuinely, non-metaphorically perfect. Waiters guided patrons toward a symphonic meal with subtle lifts of the eyebrow or flickers at the corner of the mouth. Silver and crystal glinted in the sun. Each sprig of thyme at the edge of a plate had passed someone's rigorous inspection. So many elements had been put together by the bald, slightly bashful octogenarian at the heart of it all, Raymond Thuilier, that it almost seemed as if he was responsible for the overwhelming pièce de résistance that loomed high above us. And in a way, he was.
Perched on a limestone outcropping, the ruins of Les Baux castle sheltered as many ghosts and myths per square foot as any place in the Old World. This was where troubadours played the big time, and highborn ladies of surpassing beauty decreed in the Courts of Love that marriage should be no obstacle to amorous dalliance.
Medieval barons of Les Baux traced their nobility back to Balthazar, one of the gift-bearing Wise Men, and a Nativity star radiated on their armor to make the point. But a jealous King Louis XIII tore down the walls in 1632, and gave the fiefdom to Monaco. Two centuries later, someone discovered aluminum, giving the world the term bauxite, and gouging deep, ugly cuts in the dramatic landscape.
At the turn of the century, an English traveler found the village to be no more than a handful of squalid beggars, with a Hôtel de Monaco that offered no beds and nothing worth eating.
Thuilier, then an insurance salesman and son of a railway engineer, happened by in 1941. He loved to paint, and the light thrilled him. He couldn't sell enough insurance, or paintings, but he had spent a childhood watching his mother cook in the station cafe she ran. Like a lot of Frenchmen, he often fed his friends at home. So at age fifty-one, at the height of war, in the ruins of an olive oil mill, he created one of the nest restaurant-hotels that France, and therefore the world, had ever known.
By the time I got there in the seventies, the path was well-beaten to his door. The Shah of Iran had just flown in a crowd to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of his empire. Thuilier, however, was unaffected. He showed us around with the humble pride of someone who knew the underlying master plan. Not his, but His.
"God was clever," Thuilier liked to say, tapping himself first on the throat, then the forehead. "He placed the brain so near the gullet."
This was low-tech France, when it was still hard to get a phone line, but Thuilier's kitchen had what mattered. The marble pastry counters were cooled to exact temperatures. A salamandre grilled the top of a fish to a tasty crisp. The wine cellar was all musty charm. In the auberge rooms, each furnished with antiques, guest beds were made up in sheets designed by the chef.
The old man rose at dawn to energize the Baumanière and also his other less costly restaurant down the road. Late at night, when the last pots were dry, he slept. Mornings were spent at the Hôtel de Ville, since he was also the mayor of Les Baux. As a ruler in the realm of food, he wore the ancient mantle of a barony he had restored to life.
Copyright 2000 Mort Rosenblum. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Hyperion.
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