Äponem, a restaurant in the sleepy village of Vailhan, received its first Michelin star only six months after opening in July 2018. Since then, it has been high on my wishlist. Gaby Benicio and Amélie Darvas came from Paris to create new culinary adventures in Vailhan. They have moved from the dynamic French capital to cooking in an 18th-century rectory. Whilst overlooking the lake at the Barrage des Olivettes, it is quite a change of scenery for them!
When Chéri and I arrived after a charming ride through the rural countryside, the sun had already set. Therefore we missed the breathtaking view from the newly created windows. However, we didn’t need the view to let Äponem’s team of young enthusiasts surprise us. Once Gaby Benicio herself had warmly welcomed us into the tastefully decorated room, we opened the menu. It simply said that they serve only one menu for 85 euros, which ‘walks you through the seasons, reflected in several dishes’. That was all it said. No details about the dishes whatsoever, so after ordering the wine menu (55 euros) for Chéri (it was my turn to drive), we waited for the surprises to come.
Pieces of art
Our feast started with the most original maki, made with the beautiful flavour combinations of apple and smoked haddock wrapped in lemon fruit paste and red fruit leather placed on a bed of beetroot and ginger. These pretty little pieces of art tasted divine and woke up our taste buds instantly. The next course was an interesting looking cube made out of purple corn and served with a cream of smoked herring. To be followed by a tartlet filled with a creamy pumpkin filling and decorated with chestnut shavings from nearby Clermont l’Hérault. By this time, Chéri had already enjoyed some wines from the pairing menu, mostly local ones, which tasted so different from the wines that we are used to drinking and went perfectly with the authentic dishes we were savouring.
Next, we moved onto a velvety corn soup with a parsley oil and a perfectly poached egg that came with a lovely carrot cream. After that, the waiters brought in pumpkin ravioli with a lemon-coconut foam. This dish entered with a big WOW factor, as a glass dome filled with smoke covered the plates. Quite spectacular! So far, we hadn’t had any pieces of meat or fish and we didn’t miss them one bit. Chef Amélie Darvas follows the seasons and cooks with produce from the restaurant’s own vegetable garden or local ingredients. We feel so lucky that we live in a region that provides so many beautiful crops to cook with! The next two dishes in our meal were the only ones that included some fish and meat. First, there was mackerel with a pear and apple lasagna with sheets made out of mushrooms. And then savoury pigeon with a piece of foie gras on a bed of lentils in an original coffee sauce. An entremet of mushroom and shiitake stock was served with little flowers that were picked at Lake Salagou that very morning. How local can you get?!
By this time, we had lost count of the dishes. But there was more to come! The first of the three dessert courses was fluffy cotton candy that had nothing to do with the sticky sugar bombs that you get at the funfair. They had a delicate taste of lime that married wonderfully with the yuzu tartlet and verbena pastille that came with it. The following course was a cottage cheese kind of substance, together with a scoop of honey ice cream. And finally, course number 12 was another masterpiece. This time an inventive meringue came on our table, filled with a diplomat cream and decorated with hints of plant-based ash. When our coffee and tea came, four spoons of tasty creams accompaniedthey were served with to spoil us even more. It was undeniably an evening to remember. Äponem means ‘happiness’ in the Brazilian indigenous language of the Pataxó. And what we tasted there was definitely pure happiness!