Margaret and Dick   


July '10: Vignevieille

I swear, sometimes the stars align to lead me to a good restaurant.  And to think it happened so soon after a meal chez a new celebrity chef that can only be described as a four-hour train wreck:  service so inattentive that even the exquisite food and shockingly low price could not compensate.  How wonderful to have a new culinary treat to erase the memory of that unfortunate experience.

Saturday was my first attempt to ride with the Limoux cycling club this year.  Overweight and out of shape, I wasn’t optimistic about staying with the guys for their “climbing ride” into the Corbières mountains.  I packed a sandwich and headed out for the 7:30am departure.  In this summer’s heat wave, early is good.

I was able to hang with the club for about twelve miles until the road tipped up at the col de Taurize.  Keeping an eye out for Jean-Marc, I pedaled my way happily from village to village and eventually started working my way up the gorgeous gorge of the Orbieu.  At some point I realized that (a) even if I returned home directly this ride was going to be a long and hot challenge, and (b) I had eaten my sandwich long ago.

Food is to a cyclist what gas is to a car.  It’s what makes the motor go.  Only two days earlier I was explaining to you, faithful readers, that one doesn’t venture into the Corbières without a full tank of gas.  How in God’s name did I end up here without food? 

At the next village, I stopped to talk to a kid on the street.
“Is there a boulangerie (bread store) in the village?”
Non, we get bread from a truck that comes through in the morning.”
“An épicerie (little grocery store)?”
“Any food of any kind?”
I continued up the gorge.

Which brought me to the hilltop village of Vignevieille (old vine).  With only 95 residents, the village has no boulangerie or épicerie, but a little sign “Café Restaurant” held promise.  I walked my bike up the steep road into town and found a tiny café with a chalkboard menu and a sign that said “restaurant on second floor”.  The cafe was dark and empty, but the door was unlocked.  Calling “Allô? Allô?” and wondering whether I was entering a private residence, I walked up the little stairway inside the café.  The smell of onions frying indicated that somebody was at work upstairs.

I surprised the owner/chef, who was cooking shirtless in front of a fan in the hot kitchen. 
Excusez-moi, monsieur, but I miscalculated my food needs for my bike ride.  I need to get to Limoux, and I won’t make it over the mountain without some food.  I realize it’s early, but can you help me?”

He put on his chef’s jacket and was happy to provide bread and jam and water – perfect!  I sat at the family table near the kitchen to avoid sweating on the nicely set tables in the tiny dining area.  He seemed happy to have company as he continued cooking and I munched.  He talked about raising his seven-year-old daughter alone here in the village. 
“So heading into the mountains alone in this heat doesn’t seem like a very smart thing to do, do you think?”
I assured him that I would be just fine now that I had fuel in the tank.
“How much do I owe you?”
“I have no idea.  Maybe two euros?”
I paid and promised to come back with my husband to spend more.

It was no challenge to convince Dick to take a photo safari to the gorge de l’Orbieu with lunch at l’Auberge de Vignevielle.  Others have discovered this charming restaurant before me, and I found favorable reviews on a couple of websites.  I called to confirm that the restaurant would be open for lunch today.  I would not expect it to be crowded.

We were warmly greeted by the chef and his daughter, and we asked for their advice in choosing among the items on the fixed-price menu:  20€ ($25) for a starter, main dish, and dessert. 
“Are the rabbit and wild boar terrines made in-house?”
“Everything is made in-house, madame, using ingredients from local producers.”
“And organic whenever possible,” the daughter added.

And what a lunch it was!  The only clients in the restaurant during our two-hour lunch, we were surprised and delighted by each dish and by the excellent bottle of red Corbières wine that accompanied it.  The chef is unafraid of assertive and inventive seasoning – so unusual in this area and (dare I say it?) in France.  How is it possible that we didn’t know about this place?  Twenty miles distant but worlds away!  We started making plans for an outing with Limoux friends. 

So I thank the stars that aligned to teach me this lesson:  the best dining experiences may not be in a one-star shrine but rather in a remote restaurant that is the labor of love of a sole practitioner.

September 2012 update:  The Auberge de Vignevieille became our go-to country restaurant and has been the favorite of many visitors.  Chef Alain told us in July that running the restaurant was taking a toll, as he is already very busy with his day jobs as nurse and acupuncturist.  Alas, now the sign and menu have been removed from the entry way.  Thank you, chef, for all the good times that we enjoyed in your dining room! 

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