Provencal family adventure

When Shannon Bennett wants to unplug himself from the rigours of running one of Australia's top restaurants (and overseeing more than 200 staff who work across the Vue de Monde stable), he doesn't hitch a caravan and head to the coast. Of course not.

He rents a 300-year-old French farmhouse near the village of Menerbes in Provence and spends a month reconnecting with his family and the culinary traditions that have shaped and inspired his cuisine.

Not that the famously energetic Bennett spent his holiday whiling away the hours, reading, eating out and following the well-trodden tourist trail. Instead, he set himself a mission to cook as locally as possible, to live by the seasons as a Provencal person would have done a century ago.

Bennett was determined that he, wife Madeleine and their three children, Phoenix, Hendrix and Xascha (they now have a fourth, Xanthe), would eat only non-processed food sourced from local producers. The family became expert at picking their way through the marches paysans (farmers' markets) surrounding the farmhouse, in Provence's mountainous Luberon region.

He has documented the experience in 28 Days in Provence. The recipes were drawn from research before the trip, a 50-year-old handmade recipe book discovered at a market during the first week of the holiday (''real farmhouse cooking'', Bennett says) and improvised based on what he could rustle up at weekly markets in surrounding towns.

Bennett and his troupe had some advantages over regular folk. The farmhouse (owned by Andy Rihs, the millionaire owner of cycling team BMC Racing) was equipped with a flash modern kitchen, and the family travelled in a seven-seat Audi.

Even so, Bennett fell victim to the disorientation any traveller experiences at first when trying to ''live local''. The better markets - those featuring genuine producers - were generally the least well advertised. They were a ritual for locals, not a show for tourists. Sometimes the family would travel to a town only to find ''the Wednesday market'' was one man standing next to a cart on the side of the road. Often, on market day, the roads in and out of the little towns were closed, requiring a substantial trek up steep mountain passes. Bennett carried the produce, Madeleine the baby.

''It was probably not until the second or third week that we got into a good rhythm and knew which stalls to target,'' Bennett says.

''By the fourth week you were suffering the knowledge you were soon leaving and you would not be back to this market for a long time.''

He says Provence sets the benchmark for produce. ''The red peppers there are so sweet you can eat them like fruit.'' Bennett had to add ketchup to the red bell pepper (capsicum) soup recipe in the book to sweeten it for Australian cooks. He rediscovered spaghetti squash, which he first began using while working for Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo in the late '90s. When baked, the flesh separates into fine strands and has a flavour similar to pumpkin. The squash are all but impossible to find in Australia, so Bennett ordered seeds over the internet on his return.

He still pines for the chooks on the farm next to Rihs' property, killed each morning and sold out by lunchtime. ''We've all forgotten what free-range chicken really looks like,'' Bennett says. ''The legs are actually really gamey … and so dark in colour [that] I would have to bake them longer, 45 minutes, until the meat fell off the bone.''

In the book, Bennett explains that the trip was inspired partly by a desire to save his children ''from the capitalist manipulation of food for profit''. He says he would become irritated by the year-round availability of produce in Melbourne. ''Even my parents were giving the kids strawberries from the Vic Market in July. Someone from Provence would never ever eat strawberries in winter. Why would you?''

Bennett says the holiday served its purpose. His parents, who joined them for part of the time, probably won't give the kids a Queensland-grown berry again. ''Our children came away much more conversational [and] there's a bit of a line in the sand now about what [food] we will allow in the house and what we won't,'' he said.

Shannon Bennett, 28 Days in Provence, Miegunyah Press, RRP $39.99. Out now.

On the market trail

1. Apt (Saturday) Bennett describes this as ''the complete market. It took about three or four hours to get around.'' The best part was that Apt, being a more industrial town, was not a tourist drawcard.

2. Coustellet (Sunday) Very authentic with fabulous produce, plus good food stores in town, including a great butcher.

3. Roussillon (Thursday) A small market, but busy. Worth visiting for the lovely scenery and for a fantastic mushroom stall.

4. Lourmarin (Friday) Many of the photos taken in Bennett's book were taken here but, in terms of produce, this market was not as complete as Apt's.

5. Gordes (Tuesday) Gordes' beautiful and historical setting made it the most commercialised of the markets they visited. It's ''very arts and crafty''.

Pan-fried brioche with the last of the season's figs

1 brioche loaf (about 20cm x 10cm)
500ml milk
2 eggs
1 cup castor sugar
1 lemon, zested
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 tbsp butter
8 figs, cut into quarters
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
4 scoops vanilla ice-cream

1. Trim crusts off the loaf of brioche, then cut lengthways into 4 even rectangles. Set aside.

2. In a saucepan over a low heat, bring the milk to simmer.

3. Combine the eggs, the castor sugar and lemon zest in a bowl. Whisk together.

4. Add one-third of the milk to the egg mixture and whisk together.

5. Add the egg mixture into the remaining milk on the stove, whisking rapidly.

6. When combined, stir slowly for 8 minutes or until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and soak the brioche pieces in it for 30 minutes.

7. Preheat a large, heavy-based fry pan over a medium heat.

8. Place the brown sugar on a plate. Remove the brioche pieces and pat down on some paper towels. Coat the outside of the brioche with the brown sugar.

9. Add 3 tablespoons of the butter to the pan and then add the brioche pieces. Turn the heat down to low. Cook on each side until golden and crunchy. Remove from the pan and keep warm on separate plates.

10. Keep the pan on the stove and turn back up to a medium heat. Add the figs and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Cook quickly for 1 minute, as though you were sauteing a vegetable.

11. Add the Grand Marnier and reduce for one minute.

12. Spoon figs and sauce over the toast and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

Serves 4

The story Provencal family adventure first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop