The département of the Drôme is bounded on the west by the Rhône; across the river, the Ardèche is another department and another world, rugged and austere. To the east is the natural boundary of the Alps. To the south lies Provence, and the northern limit of France’s olive-growing region. Within the Drôme, widely differing landscapes and climates form five distinct areas, unequal in size, each with its own specific character, each worth a detour for its geographic and cultural interest, and its gastronomic delights.
While lavender, olives, wine, honey, peaches, apricots and goat cheese—including the famous Picodon, enjoyed by the NASA team aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1996—are found almost everywhere in the Drôme, other delectable specialties are confined to smaller domains. Here, then, is a zigzagging gourmet’s itinerary that starts in Valence, climbs north and swerves to the east before heading back to the south.
The Valence TGV station is little more than two hours from Paris. Here the Drôme is a flat plain, and Valence its landmark city. The area is known for two gastronomic specialties. First is the Suisse, a buttery cookie flavored with candied orange peel and rum, in the shape of a soldier in the Swiss Guards—created, it’s said, by a pastry chef inspired by the colorful uniforms of the Swiss Guards who accompanied Pope Pius VI to Valence, where he had been exiled by Napoleon. Try a Suisse at the pâtisserie Nivon, along with two other delicious specialties that contribute to the shop’s renown: the Pogne, a crown-shaped, orange-flower-flavored brioche; and the Saint-Genix, made of the same brioche dough with added pink pralines (candy-coated almonds). Maison Nivon, 17 ave Pierre Sémard, www.nivon.com
The other specialty of Valence is the caillette,a small pâté made of pork and pork liver mixed with lots of herbs and either spinach or Swiss chard, then wrapped in a crépine (caul) and baked. There’s a lively controversy about whether to use spinach or Swiss chard; each side has its partisans. But it doesn’t matter which—you must taste these little pâtés, almost impossible to find elsewhere. All local butchers and charcutiers make them.
Another absolute must, although it’s a real splurge, is the restaurant of chef Anne-Sophie Pic, the only woman with three stars in the Guide Michelin. Daughter and granddaughter of three-star chefs, Pic is a sweet, discreet young woman who reigns uncontested over her kitchen brigade; her cuisine is refined and precise, not at all show-off, but genuinely astonishing. The welcome and the decor are worthy of the food, but a word of warning about the wine list. All the great labels from local appellations are there, but at stratospheric prices. It makes you think twice about ordering a second bottle—a shame, since Maison Pic is also a hotel, so there’s no need to drive after dinner. For simpler fare, there’s also a chic bistrot, Le 7. Maison Pic, 285 ave Victor Hugo, www.pic-valence.fr
La Drôme des Collines
North of Valence, La Drôme des Collines produces two prestigious AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) wines whose sloping vineyards face the meanders of the Rhône: Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. The reds, made from 100% syrah, the only authorized varietal, are powerful, spicy and meant for long aging; the whites, made from roussanne and marsanne, also age well, with aromas of white flowers. Two good places to buy them in Tain-l’Hermitage are La Cave de Tain and M. Chapoutier, whose limited-production biodynamic wines are snapped up at high-rolling connoisseur prices. La Cave, 22 route de Lamage, www.cavedetain.fr; Chapoutier, 18 ave Dr Paul Durand, www.chapoutier.com
Tain-l’Hermitage is also home to the famed chocolate maker Valrhona. The company supplies the finest pâtissiers and launched the concept of single-origin cocoa and chocolates. The idea seems obvious now, but at the time it was revolutionary. 16 ave du Président Roosevelt, www.valrhona.com
Imperative: the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval at Hauterives. It took the mailman Ferdinand Cheval 33 years, from 1879 to 1912 ,to build this unique jewel of folk art, an immense fantasy temple dedicated to nature and tolerance.
Among the local specialties in Royans Vercors are the little-known Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage, an AOC cheese made in both the Drôme and the adjacent Isère department—a cow’s milk blue cheese with a mild aroma and hints of fresh hazelnut. Produced on the Vercors plateau since the 14th century, it was once used as payment for the tax owed to the local seigneur.
This area is also famous for walnuts—eaten fresh in the autumn, dried all year long, and pressed for oil. One mill, the Cave Noisel, sells its products in Saint-Jean-en-Royans, a village that grew up around a monastery founded around the year 1000. Saint-Jean also produces ravioles du Royans, tiny raviolis filled with Comté cheese, fromage blanc and parsley. At one time ravioleuses, women who made them, used to go from farm to farm to prepare them just before holidays. They were cooked by plunging them for a minute in fresh chicken bouillon; today we simply use a bouillon cube in simmering water.
The Vercors is popular for rock climbing, and in winter ski lifts punctuate the snowy landscape. It was a stronghold of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation, and in Vassieux-en-Vercors a memorial, museum and necropolis are dedicated to its members. Col de la Chau, www.memorial-vercors.fr
Vallée de la Drôme-Diois
The Drôme River Valley occupies the center of the department. To the east, the hilly slopes are planted with vines that produce Clairette de Die, an unpretentious, sparkling white wine that’s best chilled, as an aperitif. The winery of Die Jaillance offers a very interesting and informative tour for visitors. Another AOC here, Châtillon-en-Diois, boasts the highest elevation in France; its light wines, in all three colors, are meant to be drunk young. Die Jaillance, Avenue de la Clairette, Die, www.jaillance.com
Legend says that the culinary specialty of Crest, the pintade, or guinea fowl, dates to the days of Hannibal, whose army traveled with live poultry for food; they stopped at Crest, and some guinea fowl escaped, becoming the ancestors of today’s pintades. Crest also claims the highest donjon in France. The 360-degree view from the top is worth the hefty climb—from the top you can admire the Vercors foothills, the Pré-Alpes de Diois, the Rhône Valley and the mountains of the Ardèche. Some climbing enthusiasts even rappel down the tower’s facade. www.crest-tourisme.com
The village of Saoû is known for its Mozart festival, its splendid forest and its artisanal brewery, the Brasserie du Val de Drôme. The brewery’s excellent Markus beer comes in blanche, blonde, ambrée and brune, and you can taste it at the brewery’s bar or in the enclosed garden. If you’re in luck the manager will give you a tour of the premises. www.markusbiere.com
Another surprise in this decidedly dynamic village: Carole Pervier, a modiste who creates hats for all occasions. She loves to design custom hats and, thanks to her camera-equipped website, clients who also have a webcam can have festive chapeaux made to order. But it’s even more fun to stop by her shop, brimming with hats of all kinds. www.laforetdeschapeaux.com
Montélimar, in the southern Drôme, is the gateway to Provence. The sky seems bigger and bluer, the sun brighter and the temperature several degrees warmer. The Mistral wind, on the other hand, arrives at will, hurtling down the Rhône Valley, always blowing, they say, for three days in a row, or six, or nine. Montélimar is a nougat capital, and the honey-almond-and-egg-white specialty seems to be sold on every street. One good address is Suprem’ Nougat, a top-quality artisanal confiseur. 3 ave Saint Martin, www.suprem-nougat.fr
Not to be missed: the Château des Adhémar, a 12th/14th-century fortress castle built by the powerful Adhémar family (the city’s name is a deformation of Mont-Adhémar); a lovely example of Romanesque architecture, today it houses an exhibit center for contemporary art.
Near the Drôme’s border with Provence, Buis-les-Baronnies is a village famous since the Middle Ages for its tilleul (lime, or linden) trees, whose dried blossoms are used for herbal teas. In the 19th century the surrounding plantations were enlarged and producers brought in their harvest wrapped in large cloth bundles. Now the July harvest is the occasion for a festival celebrating the tilleul and other aromatic plants produced in abundance in the area. There’s much to learn about the history and culture of these plants at the Maison des Plantes Aromatiques. 14 blvd Michel Eysséric, www.maisondesplantes.com
The town of Nyons has given its name to a little black, wrinkled table olive, the tanche, now a famous AOC. The harvest begins around the end of November and continues until late January. The largest olives are for eating, the rest are pressed for Nyons olive oil, or puréed with herbs and capers for tapenade. The Saturday before Christmas you can attend the piquage (piercing) des olives, an operation that helps to remove some of the fruit’s bitterness. www.nyons-aoc.com
La Scourtinerie, the last remaining firm that makes scourtins, the coconut-fiber mats long used as filters in the extraction of olive oil (and today replaced by plastic or other materials), now also manufactures doormats, rugs and placemats. 36 La Maladrerie, www.scourtinerie.com
On the way back toward Montélimar, the village of Grignan is dominated by its Renaissance château, originally a medieval fortress. From its huge terrace you can admire the lavender fields—undulating streaks of purply blue in summer and black stripes, like the teeth of an immense comb, in winter. Clinging to the foot of the château, Grignan is one of the most beautiful villages in France, especially in spring, when antique roses spill over the walls of the ancient stone houses. In summer it hosts the Fêtes Nocturnes, outdoor theatrical events with the château as a backdrop, and the Festival de la Correspondance, in homage to the legendary letters of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter, whose husband the Comte de Grignan—the last of the Adhémar family—was the château’s owner. Madame de Sévigné spent months at a time visiting her daughter at the château, and died there in 1696. www.grignan-festivalcorrespondance.com
Grignan and Adhémar are linked in the new appellation of a small AOC winegrowing area formerly known as Coteaux du Tricastin. (Growers disliked the association with the Tricastin nuclear power station.) The newly named Grignan-les-Adhémar is a high-quality wine whose vines are planted among lavender fields, olive orchards and truffle oaks. The reds, when young, have aromas of flowers and fruit; after aging, spicier aromas dominate. The white wines develop notes of fruit, lime blossom, acacia and honey as they age.
Two traditional wineries worth visiting are the Domaine de Grangeneuve at Roussas (www.domainedegrangeneuve.com) and Domaine de Montine in Grignan (www.domainede-montine.com). For organic wines, try Domaine Bonetto Fabrol, near La Garde-Adhémar and Domaine Serre des Vignes, near La Roche-Saint-Secret (www.serredesvignes.com). The Maison de Pays in Grignan represents all the appellation’s producers, and sells their wines at the same price as the wineries. Place du Jeu-de-Ballon, www.grignan-adhemar-vin.fr
To learn everything there is to know about Drôme wines—and wine in general—sign up for an introductory session at the splendid Château de Suze-la-Rousse and its Université du Vin, which accepts students of all ages from all over the world. With classes from several hours to several weeks long, aimed at students from beginners to recognized experts, there’s something for everyone, including introductory classes in English. www.universite-du-vin.com
To top things off, truffles flourish in the Drôme Provençale. Many farmers have planted trees that have been mycorisés, or seeded, to try generating the precious mushroom, but it’s not an exact science. The best place to buy one without being cheated (some truffle hunters are liable to palm off inferior goods) is the truffle market, open to the public, in Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux from early December to mid-March. All the truffles are inspected and graded, and the names and phone numbers of the association that runs the market and the individual truffle seller are listed on the bill. The excellent hotel Villa Augusta here has a remarkably good restaurant, and in season chef David Mollicone has a devilishly deft hand with the Drôme’s black diamonds. 14 rue du Serre Blanc, www.villaaugusta.fr; www.truffes-en-tricastin.fr; www.maisondelatruffe.com; www.truffle-and-truffe.com
For more information on the Drôme: www.ladrometourisme.com
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of France Today