Food & Drink

How a New Generation of Locavores Is Championing France’s Luberon Valley

United by a love of the region’s first-rate produce, this community of chefs, restaurateurs, and hoteliers is equally committed to supporting one another. 
Image may contain Tree Plant Fir Abies Housing Architecture Building Monastery Outdoors and Conifer
Jamie Beck

Paris was full of rain and mood when my partner, Laila, and I set off for the Luberon Valley, a storybook pocket of France's Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. Set astride the craggy Luberon massif, where three mountain ranges converge, the area is roughly the size of Chicago. The clouds thinned during our train ride, so that by the time we reached Avignon the sky was a flawless blue. Many sun-drenched vistas ensued as we drove our rental car past Gordes's rocky face and Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque's lavender fields, toward Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt. Since moving to the French capital in 2015, I've traveled throughout the country to write cookbooks, but it's this quiet nook of the storied region—its charming towns and villages far from the main train stations that connect France—that I return to most often.

Owners Lise Kvan and Éric Monteleon at Le Saint Hubert

Jamie Beck

A selection of berries for dessert at Le Saint Hubert

Jamie Beck

On this last trip, I came to eat at the tables of young, quality-obsessed couples who are arriving in—or returning to—the Luberon to renovate and run restaurants. Despite having talents that would allow them to excel in Paris, Milan, or London, this next generation is instead choosing to invest in the Luberon's local economy by creating food destinations that wouldn't be possible in the larger cities. It's here that they can champion the area's exemplary producers and ingredients; source local, often natural, wines; and offer food for reasonable prices. The result is an evolution of the Luberon Valley into one of the most exciting culinary regions in France.

The purple-shuttered restaurant Le Saint Hubert can feel like the set of an early-aughts movie about, well, Provence: The front terrace tumbles into the cobblestone street, a postcard spot for morning coffee and evening apéro; the smell of butter drifts from a nearby corner bakery. Owners Lise Kvan and Éric Monteleon bought the 19th-century building and opened their restaurant in 2019. When Laila and I had visited in July, the menu was heavy on tomatoes and Cavaillon melons; this time, in October, at a table à deux on a terrace overlooking the Luberon, we found a profusion of mushrooms and canard, noting gratefully that Banon, a goat's cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, remained in season.

Refreshingly, what is flourishing here isn't merely a sustainably minded scene, but a community—a group of gourmands who, rather than clawing ahead, are instead committed to supporting one another. The restaurateurs readily share suppliers, forage together, and dine at one another's spots. “You see everyone evolving, and it pushes you to do better,” said Monteleon. That ethos of generosity benefits guests too. “If we're fully booked, then I'll call to see if they have any free spots, and they do the same for us,” said Kvan.

Bounty from Apt’s market, like goat rillette and saucisson

Jamie Beck

Le Moulin hotel and restaurant in the town of Lourmarin

Jamie Beck

After reaching Le Bistrot de Lagarde, Lorenzo Ferro and Pénélope Verheyen's hilltop seasonal kitchen, you're rewarded with all manner of treats, like produce from France and Ferro's native Liguria, Italy; cheese from La Fromagerie d'Albion, up the road; and cochon from six miles away. Ferro and Verheyen, who comes from nearby Apt, found the space, a restaurant in a former life, early in the pandemic and reopened it last summer. The weathered-stone exterior makes for a cozy space in which to eat and imbibe, especially when the mistral blows briskly through; in warm weather, though, diners recline on the shaded terrace. The dishes are elevated but recognizable: pumpkin soup dotted with meaty mussels and christened with iodine foam.

Later, we drove south through harvest-season vineyards to Léa Malbec's Clos du Tilleul in Bonnieux. At her tiny tasting counter resting atop wooden barrels, we practiced our wine vocabulary, glasses in hand, before pushing on to Domaine des Passages, Marie Séité's small vineyard in La Tour d'Aigues. Set on the southern slope of the Luberon massif, Domaine pulls explicitly from this land, using indigenous yeasts to craft truly special wines. With our weekend bag six bottles heavier, we settled into Le Moulin de Lourmarin, a newly renovated 25-room inn located in an 18th-century oil mill.

Perhaps nothing introduces you to the bounty of France better than strolling through a weekend marché. We visited the one in Apt the next morning, navigating its maze of olives and breads and cheeses, before heading to nearby Caseneuve to meet with natural winemaker Hélène Bleuzen. En route, we marveled anew as roads lined with shears of limestone climbed to panoramas before plunging into vineyards. Bleuzen is young and energetic; her temperament can be found in her wines too. We departed with a bottle of Le Devens, her elegant, lively blend of Syrah and Grenache.

That night, at La Fontaine: Maison Méditerranéenne in Villars, owners Jean Bergougnoux and Roxane Gleizal shared their own Luberon origin story. “We were looking for a restaurant in a Provençal village because we had the desire to become fully integrated with their community,” said Gleizal. After buying the property last spring, they reached out to friends, including Kvan and Monteleon, and drove around talking to local farmers, winemakers, and cheesemongers. These newly forged connections show up across the menu: mushrooms from Roussillon, légumes from Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, lamb from nearby Rustrel.

Fresh produce at the Tuesday market, in the French town of Apt

Jamie Beck

Over a bottle from Domaine Alloïs, the same estate where Bleuzen produces her wines, they meditated on life as new owners of old spaces: stripping inherited furniture, repainting walls a clean white, renovating the upstairs living space. “It was like a restaurant-brocante,” Bergougnoux said. “The atmosphere was great, but it was not what we wanted, so we needed to make big changes.” At dinner, pumpkin soup made one final appearance, this time scattered with hazelnuts, cèpes, and lard paysan, a dish so good Laila and I used our fingers to wipe the bowl clean.

Our final lunch found us snacking on rillettes at Le Saint Hubert, delighting in the region we'd spent the last few days driving across. Luckily the restaurant and historical auberge plan to reopen its rooms in 2023, after renovations by the French architecture firm Kvan Berthier, partly owned by Lise's sister, are completed. An excuse to return.

This article appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.