EN VOYAGE – Femmes en Méditerraneé

21 Aug 2003

The singing of the cicalas is so loud, it smothers every other noise. The sky is exceptionally clear and the dry wind takes the sting out of the sun, now at its zenith. I’m in Lourmarin, a village of great charm in the Luberon nature park in the heart of Provence, a region beloved of tourists and travelers from all over the world.

Situated in an area of thick woods and hills covered with olive and cherry trees, this little hamlet of pink stone descends gradually into the Val de Durance, a river that descends from the Alps, crosses low Provence and runs into the Rhone.
Vineyards, orchards, kitchen gardens and olive groves alternate along its banks, amid ancient villages built over Roman settlements, Romanesque abbeys and priories.

Lourmarin is one such. Inhabited since the Neolithic Age, it was a Roman oppidum before becoming the seat of hermitages and monasteries, and, later still, a place of shelter for the Waldensian refugees from Piedmont. It is now the haunt of well-heeled Brits and North Europeans who, in the wake of Peter Mayle’s bestseller, A Year in Provence, have elected it as their seasonal and, in many cases, permanent residence.

Strolling through the village’s narrow paved streets, I bump into tourists with straw baskets under their arms in true marché provençal, style, lingering between the open-air cafés and expensive souvenir shops for mindless tourists.

Despite being frequented by the sort of people looking for a high-class buen retiro and its slightly artificial patina as ‘un des plus beaux villages de France’, Lourmarin is a great place for a quiet break in an enviable climate.

Here beauty goes hand in hand with goodness. Lourmarin boasts restaurants that vie for the top ratings in the most distinguished French restaurant guides. One of these is La Fenière, showcase for the culinary flair of a minuscule lady with a big smile—Reine Sammut.

I could speak about her unmatchable menus, but I suggest you consult the guides that celebrate to get a better, fuller idea. What I will say, though, is that at La Fenière gastronomy is not seen as an object of cult, something to be displayed in a showcase. No, here the idea is that excellent food, Mediterranean culture, art, film and music can work together in perfect fusion. Hence the Femmes en Méditerraneé festival.

This year’s event focused on ‘women and their knowledge’ and was held in July on Saturday 5 and Sunday 6 in the meadows and orchards round the restaurant and hotel of Reine and her husband Guy, untiring organizer during the two days.

On Saturday morning, the hill of La Fenière was turned into a stage for meetings and events. There were: Berber tents in which the designers showed off their creations; inviting white canvas chaises longues to lie down for a oriental massage under a huge walnut tree; taste workshops on Mediterranean wines, oils and vegetables in the shade of a great fig tree; dancing and music among the apricot trees; under the portico of a old hayshed, a souk in miniature with artists at work (calligraphers, ceramicists, photographers) and artisans offering their produce for tasting (from French plain chocolate to Tuscan oil, from Spanish wines to absinthe); mountains of perfumed, multicolored spices; and, last but not least, Reine and her open-air kitchen, la Cour de la Ferme, with her team of young cooks, men and women, working with an abundance of raw materials, mostly form the farm’s large orchard.

Under her white beret, Reine never skimped on smiles, quips, and chat with the guests, visitors and onlookers, who crowded the venue for the two-day duration. In the meantime, her husband Guy, a concentrate of energy and Sicilian/ Maltese/Tunisian/Marseillaise spirit, coordinated and supervised everything: ever available wines and iced drinks, impeccable buffets, the right music at the right moment.

Under the fig tree, three women from three different Mediterranean countries—Ouahiba Hamouda, from Algeria, a lecturer at the Université de Provence, Geneviève Stahl-Rousseau, the French sociologist and psychoanalyst, Zoubida Charrouf, chemistry lecturer at the Mohammed V University in Rabat and coordinator of “Union des coopératives de femmes Targanine”, from Morocco—related moving stories of women according to their own personal points of view.

Prof. Hamouda talked about the women of Algeria, victims of a backward family code that has relegated them to a status as perennial minors, then of the violence of the last dark and bloody decade of terror. The sociologist Stahl-Rousseau analyzed the similarities that unite the countries of the Mediterranean in terms of the woman’s role. She began by speaking about the structure of dwellings with a kitchen as the center in which a woman always busy at the stove. This is a place where, in contrast with fast food culture, knowledge is conveyed, but also a place of where things are done slowly and experiences shared. Finally, Prof. Charrouf recounted the history of a project of great social and economic importance: the women’s cooperatives that produce argan oil in southern Morocco (among other things they received the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity in 2001: for more information, see the biography in the Slow Food Award section of this site).

Saturday, towards sunset, as the light softened the contours of all and everything, dozens of large round tables appeared, decorated with flowers and vegetables for a dinner of simple refined dishes by atop Mediterranean women’s team: Reine, Anna Bini from Italy, and Rose Fassi Fihri from Morocco. The evening was accompanied by the Middle Eastern melodies of an ensemble of musicians and singers.

On the Sunday, a colorful buffet brought together all the finest specialties of mare nostrum, from Spain to Lebanon: pastis, raki, jamon serrano, houmous, mechouia, bricks à l’œuf, moussaka, mint tea, cannoli from Sicily, navettes from Marseilles, Provencal cheeses and much, much more. Back in the souk, it was possible to meet Berber women presenting their oil for tasting, jolly local dairywomen with their goat’s cheeses, and young female producers of Maury, a sweet wine from the South of France.

The event was a ‘crossroads’ of taste—of good taste—and a place where differences met harmoniously. It deserves to be repeated and—why not?—taken as an example.

Femmes en Méditerranée was attended by:

Artists: Armand Ventilo (fashion designer), Monica Meschke (sculptress), Christelle and Theresa Schedi (designers), Fabienne Sitri (photographer), Roger Burgi (painter), Ob de Laidet (painter), Noureddine Bouder (painter and calligrapher), Sabine Bardon (fashion designer), Toutine Duran, atelier ‘Zen A’ (fashion designer), Agnès Brenac (Arts de la Table), Martine Zaugg (photographer), Nacéra and Kheira Berrahma, atelier ‘Mekness’ (fashion designer), Claire Thomas (photographer), Compagnie de danse Desmaris (dance), Jeannine Anziani (storyteller), Léandre ‘La table del Margaux’, Nathalie Bochard (ceramic and mosaic artist), Mady Mantelin Chouraqui (actress), Bedria Bouder (henna tattoo artist), Christine Lacombe (flautist), Louisa Bacha (ceramicist), Oumani Hani Chkounda (singer), Marie Christine Genre (bio-beautician), Virginie Sellem (florist), Jean e Simone Laffite, Les Arcenaulx Bookshop.

Anna Bini (Italy), Rose Fassi Fihri (Morocco), Reine Sammut (France), Letizia Castagnini (Italy), Fati Lahri (Oriental confectionery)

Wine Producers:
Nathalie Margan ‘Château La Canorgue’, Les vigneronnes de l’AOC Corbières, Agnès De Volontat Bachelet ‘Domaine de la Coume du Roy’, Francine Godard ‘Domaine de Valdition’, Françoise Mélia ‘Domaine de Val d’argan’ (Morocco), Anne Sutra ‘Domaine Monplézy ‘, Le mas d’en Gil.

Rachida Krim (director), Ouahiba Hamouda, Université de Provence (Algeria-France), Geneviève Stahl-Rousseau, sociologist and psychoanalyst (France), Zoubida Charrouf, Mohammed V Universitty, Rabat, and ‘Union des coopératives de femmes Targanine’ (Morocco)

Christophe Tassan (olive oil tasting), Olivier Nasles (olive oil and wine tasting), Jean ClaudeCrespi, sommelier, Daniel Vuillon ‘Le jardin des olivades’, Gérard Vives ‘Le comptoir des poivres’,
Patrick Fournier ‘Félibre & Co’, Spanish wine tasting.

Les délices du Luberon, La maison des savons, La compagnie des piments rouges, Grand Mas du Roy huile d’olive, Jus de pomme du Grand Mas, Sociéte Promedia distributor of Targanine argan oil, Avon fruits et légumes, Biscuiterie Sainte Victoire, Le comptoir des poivres, Podere Acqua Rinfusa olive oil (Florence – Italy), Ferme de Gerbaud, Chocolaterie Castellain, Le Mas Allègre goat’s cheeses, El Moli dels Teigells olive oil (Cambrils – Spain), Distilleries et Domaines de Provence, La Boella olive oil (Tarragona – Spain), Liquoristerie de Provence, La Maison de l’Espagne.

For a stay in Lourmarin:

Where to eat:
La Fenière – Route de Cadenet tel. 04 90681179 – Country restaurant-hotel run by Reine Sammut
Le Moulin de Lourmarin – Rue du Temple tel. 04 90680669 – Refined hotel restaurante in Lourmarin old town, run by Edouard Loubet

Where to stay:
The area is packed with accommodation facilities. As an alternative to the traditional hotel, it’s worth trying the chambre d’hôte (French bed & breakfast) formula, available at all levels for every pocket. To find out more visit the official site of the association, and go to the ‘Hébergement’ category in the section dedicated to Provence, under

Alessandra Abbona, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office

Adapted by John Irving

Photo: Lourmarin (www.michel-martini.com/section01/ repor000023.htm)

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