France's Rhone Valley offers three-Michelin starred dining and a wine that topped the list in the court of Louis XIII. Rebecca Lo loosens her belt to indulge.
'You know that Anne-Sophie Pic is super famous and trendy currently in France?" says my Paris-born friend Caroline. Being the back bacon-loving Canadian that I am, of course I was clueless. But I do know that Pic is warm, friendly and unlike any other French chef I have ever met. It just so happens that she runs Maison Pic, one of the best three-Michelin starred restaurants in the world, and hails from four generations of restaurant owners.
Pic, her grandfather Andre and father Jacques all acquired and retained three-Michelin stars in their lifetimes. Perhaps the only reason her great-grandmother Sophie Pic wasn't starred was because the guide wasn't invented yet when she ran the show.
The point is driven home in subtle ways. At Maison Pic in Valence, there is a long glass ensconced display table that, upon closer inspection, contains all of the Michelin guides ever published in France.
That would be exactly 112 volumes. Pic's family restaurant is featured in more of them than not.
The many intimate portraits and handwritten recipes scattered throughout the establishment illustrate how a successful restaurant is maintained: through hard work by people who care about craftsmanship.
We enjoy an epicurean menu with a few surprises that Pic threw in just to keep things interesting, drinking water out of Baccarat crystal goblets. Wines by Paul Jaboulet Aine match every dish carefully, with Jaboulet's winemaker Caroline Frey joining us for the main course.
She urges us to try two different vintages of La Chapelle, the best of the best from Jaboulet's repertoire.
Even for a wine dummy like myself, I could taste the difference, with the more mature 2004 complementing our venison better than the 2009.
The 1961 La Chapelle has the distinction of being one of Wine Spectator's top 10 Wines of the Century, and retails for 10,000 euro ($12,680) - if you are lucky enough to find a bottle.
Jaboulet's fame is legendary. In the 13th century, during the end of the Albigensian Crusade, a knight returned home and lived out the rest of his days in the hills of Tain l'Hermitage.
Chevalier Gaspard de Sterimberg erected a chapel dedicated to Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travel, to honor him for offering protection during the Crusades.
For his remaining days, De Sterimberg lived as a hermit, tending daily to the transplanted Syrah vine he brought back from his travels.
The perfect storm of solar exposure, rocky granite terroir and careful cultivation soon yielded one of the best wine regions in the world, with the knight's lifestyle choice immortalized in the name of the region: Hermitage. By 1642, Louis XIII made wine from Hermitage a regular item served at court.
De Sterimberg's chapel was acquired by the house of Paul Jaboulet Aine in 1919, though many of the vineyards surrounding it have been parceled up over the years.
After the passing of Gerard Jaboulet, who propelled his family's winery to international acclaim, his heirs couldn't decide on Jaboulet's future direction.
In 2006, Lausanne-based financier Jean-Jacques Frey bought Jaboulet. He installed his eldest daughter, Caroline, as head of a 20 to 30 something-year-old team of horticulturalists and winemakers eager to establish their mark on the next generation of Jaboulet wines.
The mother of toddler Elise, Caroline Frey shuttles back and forth weekly between her winery Chateau La Lagune in Bordeaux, her home in Valence close to Jaboulet's winemaking facilities and Lausanne, where her businessman husband resides.
She usually drives between the three cities across two countries' vastly different terrain, her baby calmly sleeping and her smart phone within easy reach.
The former equestrian champion hails from a family of winery owners; born in Champagne, she was exposed to the management of winemaking from an early age.
She apprenticed under Denis Dubourdieu, one of the most sought-after winemakers by budding Chinese wineries. Frey is known for her remarkable sense of timing, judging by taste when grapes have reached the optimal time for harvesting - almost down to the exact hour.
"Winemaking is like working with horses: I have to be humble and modest," says Frey. "I have to work a lot to manage and understand them, to get the best out of them. Vineyards are the same. I have to be sensitive to small details."
The depth and scope of Jaboulet's wines are apparent throughout its collection of reds and whites.
With acres spanning the entire extent of the Rhone, from Condrieu south of Lyon to Chateauneuf du Pape near Avignon, Jaboulet's central territories in the terraced Hermitage yield Syrah. Meanwhile, nearby pastures in Crozes Hermitage yield predominantly Marsanne and Rousanne.
The 40- to 60-year-old vines that produce the very low-yield grapes for La Chapelle give it complexity and an intense ruby-red color. Its exceptionally long finish lingers with me as we drove away from the restaurant.
By this time, we have acquired a sweet tooth and head to the retail outlet of Valrhona chocolates, made just down the street from our Hotel les 2 Coteaux.
There is also a nearby chocolate school operated by Valrhona that teaches pastry chefs how to work with the product precisely and elegantly.
Considered one of the best chocolate makers in the world, the shop is bustling with pilgrims who kneel at the altar of Valrhona's liquid gold - its hot chocolate bar fills up mugs of the rich, steamy nectar non-stop.
All manner of chocolate and chocolate-related paraphernalia abound. Baking chocolate, gift-wrapped chocolate, coffee beans covered in chocolate, chocolate sticks to dip into espresso, nutty chocolate, fruity chocolate, whisks for incorporating chocolate into batter - you name it, you'll find it.
I was stymied: I really wanted to take home the entire store. After pacing back and forth staring at all the potential calories I could consume, I finally settle upon a kilogram of assorted gift wrapped chocolates to share with family and friends back home, plus a few chocolate covered orange sticks to enjoy at tea time.
Cashing out, the Valrhona clerk fills up the extra space in my bag with chocolate samples - welcome treats as I can then try many of the other products I grudgingly had to pass up.
I decide to end my Rhone Valley experience by exploring the pretty hamlets of Tain l'Hermitage and Touron for the remainder of my time in France - so that I can at least try to fit into my clothes again before boarding my flight home. Well, one can hope.