“A good supper is a rare thing today. Gastronomy is like poetry: it has fallen into a complete decadence…
The causes of this decadence are well known: thoughtlessness, fatuity, overweening ambition are only small and ordinary sins; the most complete self-abandonment, the absence of convictions, greed, these are what have troubled the limpid sources from which gastronomic delights should flow with an enchanted murmur.” 
Courier de Paris 1858

My school in leafy west London was a hotbed of colonial denial.

I feel that Perfidious Albion would have been a more suitable school motto for this boy’s-only school than the extant Semper Sursum, literally translated as Always Upwards.

(Yes I know…the ancient board of governors must have been complete strangers to ‘Carry On’ films and the double entendre.).

We were taught the importance of the British constitution, the glorious history of Shakespeare’s “sceptred isles” and some dubious Christian tales based on our “green and pleasant land”. The remaining curricula was intermingled with impenetrable languages such as Latin and Greek, although ironically, foreigners were generally portrayed as suspicious. French grammar was experienced as a painful lesson, not the expression of a delightful European country.

We were exhorted to sing Rule Britannia, or Jerusalem, at any and every opportunity our daily assembly offered, whilst the staff had a battery of personalised weaponry with which to instill the more difficult Homeric declensions, algebraic formulae and periodic tables. The highlight of the school’s faith in corporal punishment was the headmaster’s cane, an instrument who’s air-rending swish I can recall to this day.

The prelude to the headmaster’s attentions was a seemingly interminable wait sitting nervously outside his panelled office on a re-purposed pew – a piece of furniture I was to become well acquainted with. The only relief from the ensuing punishment was a slightly faded print of Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, hung at a jaunty angle immediately across from the miscreant’s bench. Suffice to say, I got to know the painting in some detail. Given the circumstances of its impact on my early life, I am marginally surprised that it has remained one of the ‘desert island’ paintings I would consistently pick.

Years past, and a lengthy art school education left more joyous memories than grammar school. I got to know Cézanne’s work in greater depth, including a growing exposure to the thirty or so studies he made of his rocky muse. The local Montagne had clearly become as much of a stimulus to Cézanne as water-lilies and haystacks had to his friend Claude Monet. And by now I had tracked down the original work, back home, in my most favourite of London galleries, The Courtauld Institute.

Later still, on a working trip to Nice in the south of France, and hopelessly lost in an unfamiliar hire-car during the impetuous days before Sat-Nav, I pulled in to an isolated Bed and Breakfast (une chambre d’hôtes) with plans for an early start and a better map.

As the warm afternoon waned, a welcoming landlady showed me my modest room and suggested I take a seat out on the veranda where supper could shortly be taken. After some semantic experiments with my poorly absorbed French, I finally got the message.

Pushing the blue-shuttered window open to see what the veranda offered, I was met with the sort of breath-taking surprise provided only very rarely in one’s life – I was gifted an uninterrupted view of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

It appears I had become lost, not only in Provence but on the very edge of Aix, Cézanne’s former home. And here, suddenly, east of the town, only corn fields separated me from his most entrancing landmark.

On reflection, being happily immersed in an ancient region – originally a Province of the Roman Empire, with its name barely altered – may well have subdued my Latin teachers.

What came next also prompted some uninvited school-boy memories. With no menu provided, Madame began to ferry out simple dishes consisting of little more than raw vegetables; seasoned with salt and served with vinaigrette. Up until now I had not come across Crudités or Rémoulade or immersed myself in the Provençal habit of serving small salad and vegetable dishes by way of appetizers – a culinary influence reputedly bestowed by later Spanish Moors. To be served uncooked asparagus, artichoke and celery hearts along with fennel and cauliflower (all traditionally boiled to submission when presented as school dinners) was for me nothing short of apostacy. What rang few bells at the time but has later tolled more empirically is the Provençal emphasis on vegetables rather than meat, even though I did finish with a gamey bowl of hare casserole (Civet de Lièvre, another first, but who could say no?) This was followed, as an independent course, by raw céleri rémoulade, a stalwart of seasonal cuisine (a cuisine lived and spoken rather than recorded) accompanied by a pichet of unidentified Rosé, chilled in a nearby ceramic sink. The rosé, a welcome draft, arriving cooler to the table than the tropical breezes still circling the valley.

With peace disturbed only by the chirping of a few half-hearted cicadas, a constant supply of simple, local gastronomy, and my table set well apart from the only other solitary diner, the fading view of Mont Sainte-Victoire held me quietly spellbound at what must have been the best seat in town. Supper came in a very, very close second.

In Provence the most important language that day turned out to be local cuisine, and at my little chambre d’hôtes, it was spoken fluently.

Céleri rémoulade from Vegetables (2006) by Sophie Grigson

1 small celeriac

Juice of a lemon

2 tbsp single cream

3 tbsp home-made mayonnaise

2 tsp Dijon mustard

Salt and cayenne pepper

Peel the celeriac, removing all the knobbly twisty bits at the base

Now cut the celeriac in half, then cut each half into thin slices – you’re aiming at about 3-5mm thick, no more

Cut each slice into long thin strips

Toss the celeriac with the lemon juice as you cut, to prevent browning, then once all done, season with salt and cover with clingfilm

Set aside for half an hour to soften

Drain off any liquid, then toss the celeriac strips with cream, mayo, mustard, salt and cayenne

Taste and adjust seasoning, then serve

Wine thoughts

Well, what can I say, it’s Rosé all day long here. Fresh and lithe Rosés have always welcomed lighter, warm weather fare. Pomegranate tinged Tavel if you can find it, or Europe’s rising fashion for Vin Gris would also make an exciting partnership with its almost fleeting skin contact. This palest of pink rosés reveals more weight than the evanescent colour proclaims.