Thirty kilometres north of Béziers, in the heart of Hérault, the little hamlet of Vailhan (population 160) has suddenly become one of the most talked about gastronomic destinations in France. This is because of the remarkably laudatory word-of-mouth that young chef Amélie Darvas has been gaining ever since she left Paris and boldly took over this auberge next to a beautiful 17th-century church with her sommelière Gaby Benicio in July.
“We were in the region visiting winemakers, and we heard that this restaurant might be available, so we stopped by for lunch and were overwhelmed by the beauty of the setting,” says Darvas, who trained with Michelin three-star chef Éric Fréchon at Épicure in Paris before opening her first restaurant, Haï Kaï, near the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement.
“We already knew that we were ready to leave the city, but this all happened so quickly – it was sort of like a dream. And now that I live so close to nature and have a big vegetable garden, my cooking style has completely changed – it’s fresher and more spontaneous and intuitive,” adds Darvas, who recently won the 2019 Best Restaurant of the Year Award from Le Fooding, the cheeky food guide that has been an irreverent challenger to the gastronomic status quo represented by the Michelin Guide (but which is now 40 per cent owned by Michelin).
Persuaded by friends from Béziers that it would be more than worth the two-hour drive from the village between Uzès and Nîmes where we were on holiday this past summer, my partner and I agreed to meet them for lunch at Äponem. (In case you were wondering, the word means ‘happiness’ in Pataxo, an Amazonian dialect.)
One way or another, I knew the drive would be beautiful, and it was. And so was Vailhan, which is sort of a Gallic Shangri-La overlooking green hills densely covered with garrigue, a dense quilt of odiferous wild herbs and shrubs. The meal that followed was as lyrical and bucolic as the view from our table.
Our lunch began with a luscious tisane of tomato juice and thyme flowers – the essence of a southern French summer in a bowl – and continued with tuna smoked with lavender. Next up, grilled mackerel with onion ashes, Lautrec garlic and maple syrup – a brilliant preparation, because the iodine-rich fish was perfectly tempered by the smoky, bosky flavour of the syrup and ash, with the allium adding the perfect notes of umami. Stunningly succulent Iberian pig cheeks were cooked with cherry and raw cocoa, and an elderflower sorbet with acacia beignets was a light and charmingly rustic dessert with which to conclude.
We also very much enjoyed chatting with Gaby Benicio, who has put together a superb list of locally-made organic and unsulphured wines, including the mineral-rich white Muscat sec de Sauta Roc from Vailhan, with which we began our meal, and then the lush red Faugères Le Presbytère du Mas d’Alezon with which we continued.
Äponem is an enchanting restaurant – and for anyone who prefers dinner to lunch, or who is travelling from a distance like we did, the nearby Couvent d’Hérépian is the ideal place to spend the night.
Restaurant Äponem, 1 rue de l’Église, 34320 Vailhan. Tel. +33 (0)4 67 24 76 49. Lunch menu €38; dinner menus €55, €75. www.aponem-aubergedupresbytere.fr
From France Today magazine