Languedoc et ses Environs
© Cyril Belshaw
NOTE in 2004 : This was intended to be a chapter in a travel-food book. Details will have changed enormously since 1990, but the general principles, the distinctions between foods, will be much the same. HOWEVER I would be most interested if you can send me information about those changes and what you find. Do so by email here — appropriate comments will be incorporated into the text. I Will add images when I find them !!!! You can submit images too…………..
The Languedoc I am writing about is centred around the towns of Montpellier, Bèziers, Sète, and the one we stayed in, Agde. With the hills behind, and lands to the east and west, this is the political-cultural centre of Languedoc, which local people firmly distinguish from other southern areas. Carcassonne and Toulouse are usually included, as Nimes and Arles, although the latter already show marked Provençale influences. It is necessary to say this. The linguistic term Langued’oc simply distinguishes all those people whose original dialects were in contrast to the Parisian language of the north, the langue d’oie. (“Oc” and “oie” are dialectical terms for “oui”). It thus includes, roughly speaking, all French who live south of Lyons — and thus Provençale and Catalan. It is not easy to distinguish Provençale — sometimes thought of as being only those communities east of the Rhone, but sometimes going to the western side of the Rhone valley and delta. After all, Tartarin de Tarascon is thought of as Provençale, but he lived west of the main Rhone. And most people include Nimes and Arles and the Camargue as Provençale.
Most definitely, Catalan is different. It is closer to the Spanish Catalan than it is to central Languedoc or Provençale, both in language and in cooking.
The confusions are reflected in treatments of cuisine. The French writers of course get it right. But the English…..? Only in the Freson book (see my references) does the brief essay on Languedoc refer to the confusion and express the situation with accuracy. Elizabeth David doesn’t talk about Languedoc at all (though she has a recipe for langouste àà la Sètoise). And Patricia Wells gets it thoroughly confused, writing in her brief Languedoc chapter almost entirely about Catalan food, or the marginal — though fascinating — areas like Nimes.
My view of Languedoc is centred in the centre, on the township of Agde, though that doesn’t make it all-emcompassing. And even I, to round out my discoveries, include some things about Nimes and the Camargue, since alas we did not have time to eat in Montpellier.
Agde seemed small and dark. Not at all like the white-washed, orange-tiled villas of Provence, with their almost tropical blossoms. There were none of the vivid skies of the south the day we arrived, straight out of Kenya and the warmth of Rome.
It was cold. The skies were grey. The agent found our apartment through little streets, leading in a maze of directions. We stepped carefully over dog shit. We learned to tie our garbage bags to any possible protuberance to avoid their being scattered by cats. The keys were forbiddingly double and heavy. Inside, the Scandinavian style floors and furniture, the white walls, endeavoured to make up for the lack of windows.
Agde is built of a black local stone. The narrow streets are there, as in Kenyan Lamu or a Moroccan souk, to keep out the intense summer heat. So the houses reject the exterior and face inward, maximizing shade. They have been built higgledy-piggledy over the centuries, no walls exactly square because property lines would not allow it, the roofs meeting in a pastiche of angles and varied planes.
Once or twice every three or four years the heavens open and water descends as if the flood has arrived. The river swells so that even low p‚niches cannot get under the bridges. We experienced two such downpours, an unusual privilege. The tiny streets became ankle deep rivers. In two minutes raincoats soaked you to the skin. The ceiling of the apartment opened to drip drip leaks, fortunately avoiding the beds. Insurance companies must have a nightmarish task determining the source of the leaks, in whose property it all starts. Or maybe they just ignore that problem and accept responsibility.
Yes, indeed, it was a grey cold October and November, compensating perhaps for the record heat wave that had struck in August. The Spanish lady who did my laundry, with her husband a refugee from Franco’s days, told me, with dramatic gestures, how impossible it had been to do any ironing in that kind of weather. She was but one of so many immigrants who by now possibly outnumber the Languedociens — from North Africa, French West Africa, pieds noirs and their descendants, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Greek. Agde often feels like an African city, with the women in their long black robes and head scarves, children of all skin colours and hair styles playing together in the lanes, symphonies or belly-dance music coming from the windows.
Agde is still a fisherman’s port. About five kilometres up from the sheltered mouth of the Hérault, the banks of the river are lined with fishing boats, large and small, little launches, p‚niche barges which take tourists for trips along the Canal du Midi or to visit the shellfish farms of the salt water lake, the great Bassin du Thau, which stretches from Agde to the rival port of Sète, now commercially outstripping it.
The harbours of Sète are esplanades, some lined with restaurants. In Agde, by contrast, the mediaeval houses come almost to the water’s edge, the ground floors, it is true, mostly occupied by eating places. The quay is dominated by a unique fortified cathedral of hard squared lines. You can walk along the quayside, stepping carefully over huge nets which fishermen, friendly eyed for attractive female passers-by, are busy repairing.
The most Midi-like part of Agde is the square, more accurately a rectangle, shaded by the typical platane trees, smooth- boled large leaved. Alas the square is given over to parking, except on Thursday morning market day when it is jammed with stalls touting cut price clothing. Nevertheless there are groups of elderly men standing around, in vigorous discussion. The bars there and down by the river are always full of men, young and old, fishermen, workers, though now one sees young ladies breaching the code to insist on a place. One or two zincs specialize in the early morning coffee as workers catch up on their stand-up breakfast on the way to office or factory, but most are shut at that time. If the residents want to play boules the only place they can do it is in a very small square by the riverside. They don’t do it very often. Times change, even in Agde.
Many of these men, with dark stumpy bodies, thick caps, accents more difficult to follow than those of Québecois, must be quite well off. Real estate is the name of the game. House prices around here are much less expensive that in the more easterly south, as foreigners are finding out. Our friends Jacqueline and Gilles, returned from Canada, are busy re-building, rediscovering, old houses in the region and making them newly habitable, retaining their original styles. To the former owners, as to the contractors, this must be money in the bank.
As with so many traditional communities in Europe, tourism has added enormous value to real estate. The citizens of Agde were sitting on a gold mine, not in Agde itself so much (though many houses there have been foreign bought for summer use), but where their lands meet the Mediterranean.
The whole littoral between Marseille and the Spanish border has become the scene, in the past twenty years, of an enormous tourist development. Total communities have been planned from scratch, some with advice from the staff of the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires, ethnologists and sociologists who studied the needs and desires of potential tourists from France itself and all those sun-worshipping northern countries of Europe. Some of the communities are models of contemporary urban architecture, some build around incredibly crowded lagoon marinas, some retaining the old towns intact, some a mess of banality as bad as anything in Spain. Their very popularity and seasonal pressures drive many of those foreigners, especially British and German, who romanticize about lavender, cigales, the mistral winds, olive oil, truffles, hard local wines, the herbs of the garrigue (shrubby stone ground), to turn their backs on the coast and seek isolated inland farms, in a decent state of disrepair, to which they devote unpredictable years of dealing with local tradesmen to put in order, bit by bit. I’ve done that too much in my own home to want to take it on at an advanced age.
The people of Agde were well into the act. A few kilometres away their pristine uninterrupted beachline, their water inlets, were ripe for development. Of course it happened. In an off season such as ours, there are few people, maybe 10,000 or so, in Cap d’Agde, except for special occasions like the international young people’s tennis tournament. In the high season that number swells, we were told, to around 300,000. The accommodation is there, condos, villas, garden houses, on the beach, beside marinas, inland; Europe’s largest naturist community complete with condos (no pun intended), restaurants, discos; esplanades with cafes and supermarkets. In the off season you can sit, as I did, at sunset, sipping a sweet glass of cold local muscat, watching the water and the lights change, waiting for Claudia to finish her French lesson at the Institut des Langues.
Or, when the sun did in fact break through the clouds, walk the miles of beaches, almost unpopulated at that time, and find a sheltered nook in which to strip down and allow the heat to penetrate the skin the way it should, passing men nonchalantly lying in the buff along the way.
On the way to Agde from Montpellier, that cool grey Saturday morning, we stopped off in picturesque Sète, choosing a quayside restaurant out of Michelin for a local variant of bouillabaisse. Sète has given its name to several dishes, a local bourride or fish stew, and particularly a redolent rouille, a sauce preparation that can be mixed into a stew or used as a garnish or dip. A popular way of doing this is with encornets, the beaks, and other pieces, of octopus. We were straight out of Italy, so I had not changed money into francs as yet, and proffered my credit card. The ebullient owner was apologetic — no credit cards, I’m desolated.
Off we went searching the streets of Sète for banking machines, trying out all our credit cards. None of them worked. Huge embarrassment. As elsewhere in France we discovered that Canadian Visa and Mastercard could only be used in one or two banking machines, and sometimes not all, though they worked in supermarkets and if you could go into the banks to tellers to do your business. And the Crèdit Lyonnais, whose machines technically accepted American Express, did not accept the card inside at their tellers — and usually the electronic lines for credit card machine verification were not working. Double the embarrassment.
Don’t worry. The proprietor was cheerful and trusting. When you get your money on Monday, come back and pay then. I came back the half-hour drive on Monday. Of course, it was jour de repos. It was Wednesday before he got his money.
There must be thirty or forty restaurants in Agde itself and nearly as many in Cap d’Agde, mostly small and unmentioned except in local commercial listings. The Michelin quality are in Cap d’Agde (only one) or other neighbouring towns. All through Agde itself, on side streets, the little places were surviving the relative absence of tourists (tourist buses were, however, still passing through all autumn). Fast food outlets offered the universal pizza — we expectantly tried one supposedly full of fruits de mer but couldn’t summon enthusiasm for the tough crust and uninteresting filling.
Supermarkets, sometimes butchers, and stands that sold seafood in the square, often sold the Siètois delicacy tielle. This was essentially a squid pie, made in individual portions, which you could eat straight off the counter or take home to warm up. The squid was always enclosed is a rich brown rouille sauce, and a crisp pastry, though sometimes there was a great deal more pastry than filling. Claudia was at that time leading the way on a determined weight-crash course and her eyes told her that this was weighty stuff. But on my errands I would sometimes give in to temptation and seldom found them disappointing. Had the Languedociens adopted the custom of tapas from their Catalan neighbours I am sure the mainstay would have been these pies.
We expected great local cooking, especially of seafood. We were cruelly disappointed. We did not have a single really top flight meal in French or regional restaurants in Agde, and it was nearly impossible to find local style cooking. But of that, more later.
So mostly we turned to our own resources.
We start with the bakeries. Incredibly every small street seems to have one or more tiny bakeries. Each morning, in the autumnal dark of 7.15, I ventured forth and found a croissant, or a loaf of warm fresh-baked bread or half a baguette. At first it was disconcerting. I would aim for the bakery of my choice, only to find it closed — there was a sequence of days off. Fortunately there were at least ten to choose from within two minutes of the front door. Gradually I whittled them down to two favourites.
Although there were minor variations, the styles of bread were almost identical, and extremely limited — loaves of white or whole wheat, nut loaves, baguettes, croissants with varying degrees of butter and texture depending on the bakery, and a small range of little luxury tartelets, pizza squares, and the like. They might have a local delicacy, like fougasse, bread fried in pork fat, a bit like the English bread in dripping which I was fed as a child, though seemingly more tasty. There were no dark German breads with which to please Claudia. One or two also went in for chocolate and cakes, but even there the range was tiny. How on earth, with the small range and turnover, did they survive? A last cottage industry? Sometimes, though, I would see crude metal trolleys of baguettes going off to nearby hotels or cafes, the lower layers scraping the not too clean ground. And there was one place that offered North African baked goods.
The butchers too were mostly small, with a limited range of pork, lamb, chicken, one or two sausage products, and almost no prepared delicatessen foods. Claudia, after much discussion, was however able to get the thin strips of beef necessary for her favourite rouladen. The large supermarkets on the perimeter of town had a wider range of prepared meats and cheeses. In town itself there were a several good greengrocers with magnificent vegetables and fruits, local apples and, for a while, grapes.
It was to the fish shops and the morning Thursday market one had to turn. What a difference they were.
But here I must make a comment of professional despair. Jacqueline had lent us her magnificent Robert dictionary and I had food reference books galore, including one that dealt with Mediterranean fish, and a couple of dictionaries of French food. But do you think any one of these has a complete listing of the foods, the cheeses, the sausages, the menu words — either in a French encyclopaedic way, or, even worse, in English translation? Do you think the words would be given their Latin scientific names, where appropriate, to enable cross-national comparison? The best you could get would be something like “a flat fish” or “a sort of dog fish” or “a spiny fish” or, for the ones you really wanted identified, nothing at all. By far the best source by far, for French terms, is Robyn Wilson’s magnificent little pocket book, The French Food and Drink Dictionary, which I have used extensively — but alas didn’t find until I had left France. I found the same problem, only worse, for Spanish, because no decent Spanish dictionary, after having indicated that it was open to Latin American variations, could possibly bring itself to say that a tortilla is anything but an omelet. Which of course it is in Spain. But in Latin America……??
The four fish shops were huddled together by a little street close to the covered market. There is these days much talk of the pollution of the Mediterranean and its effects on the nature of the fish. We didn’t stop to think about that, we couldn’t afford to. We took the fish as it came, trying to make our own version of local dishes. And what a range there was to choose from. And they didn’t care at all that I didn’t know for the most part, what I was looking at.
The fish was fresh, out of the water that morning, laid out, carefully sorted by size on beds of ice, or crustaceans in their tanks. One casual walk past three outlets showed me the following. rousettes (reddish eels), tourteaux (crab), limande dorée (lemon sole), seiche (squid), poulpe (octopus), rouget (red mullet), capelan (a bony cod), gason (gasson), maquereaux (mackerel), encornet, thon (tuna), sépion (bite sized sea creatures), turbot, huîîtres, crevettes, loup (bar) (sea bass), violet, truite rosée, merlan (whiting), moules, sole, cabotte, bonito, raie (ray), sardine, lotte (baudroie) (Sea devil, angler or monk fish), rascasse (scorpion fish, the classic fish of Mediterranean anglers, and for stews), St.-Pierre (John Dory) blanc frais, saumon, cabilo (cabillaud) or morue (cod), colin (merlu) (hake), langoustines (prawns). You can see that there are quite a few alternative names, and I’m sure there are many more I have not recorded. You will notice the absence of north Atlantic fish on the whole, except for salmon. There was quite enough to play with without going that far, whereas in Alsace the absence of a local product stimulated importation.
For our own cooking we took what we could find, played a bit with local recipes, and had fun. Usually I would buy a sampling of the smaller fish or little fillets, to try out their variabilities. Rouget (mullet), dorades (sea bream) or sole you could get in carefully sorted sizes for example. Those I chose this way seemed equally happy pan fried with a brushing to harden the skin, or baked in foil with lemon, wine, herbs and vegetables in the juices. Or we tried moules, boiling them in a broth until they just started to open, then covering them with a herbed tomato and sausage sauce. This was a variant of a recipe for stuffed mussels (farcies) that are popular, the cook painstakingly placing the stuffing inside the shell with the mussels, or inside the encornets, or whatever, then tying them together during the cooking. Quite a lot of careful work involved here.
Encornets (sometimes spelled encornés) and seiches (sometimes spelled sèches) à la Sètoise, among other products, are sold in bottles from grocery and supermarket shelves, together with tins of rouille. Rouille in one form or another is common along the coast, figuring prominently in the adornment of Marseillaise bouillabaisse, but that of Sète is renowned. It is a sauce that can be served over a product, or mixed into a stew. A typical rouille of Sète contains saffron (which distinguishes it from some of the rouille of the east) added to the very much reduced stock that comes from the fish itself, possibly red sweet pepper (though this is more common to the east or when the sauce is mixed in rather than served on the side), lots and lots of garlic, and olive oil. When on the side, the sauce tends to be a reddish yellow, when mixed in it takes on colours from the stock and becomes redder.
Bouillabaisse is the great stew of Marseille, which I have not tasted there for years and years. There is a special character to it and many forms, which give rise to ineffectual debates as to what really constitutes the true as distinct from the pretend bouillabaisse. While that debate can be sterile, unfortunately it is rendered necessary by the tendency for fancy restaurateurs outside of France to call any old fish stew bouillabaisse, just as at one time (and still in some places such as Philistine Canada) any old bubbly white wine was called champagne. In my Canadian restaurant reviews I steadily protest against this practice.
In doing so I held to three principles, to which I still adhere. A real bouillabaisse must have the following qualities. It must be composed of a combination of bottom fish and top fish, of light fish and oily fish each cooked to its characteristic time. It does not have to have shellfish or crustaceans; in fact it is better without, or if they are used very modestly as little tid bits. It must have genuine European saffron, and a touch of anis flavour (not too strong or it is ruined) provided by something like fennel or pastis, and is preferably served with rouille on the side. It is essential that it be served as two courses: one being the liquid provided as a soup, the other the fish removed from the liquid and placed decoratively on a separate plate. Apart from these principles, the cook’s imagination may run wild, as it often does, and respond to the demands of the market place.
But if the dish is not served in two parts you are not getting a bouillabaisse, but some other kind of perhaps totally wonderful fish stew, which deserves recognition for what it is, rather than what it is not, and also deserves its own name. Check
Such as bourride (sometimes spelled with one ‘r’). This is one of the fish stews of the Languedoc and elsewhere. It is simpler, but follows its own rules. It is always made with one fish only, baudroie being preferred, though loup or merlan will do. A Provençale recipe calls for the fish to be directly cooked as an immediate court bouillon with only onion and thyme, laurel, garlic and fennel. Another adds a zest of orange. A homely Languedoc recipe provided by a fishmonger leaves out the orange (a pity) but makes the court bouillon first with the head of the fish and many more vegetables, including carrot, leek, lettuce (often used in French cooking), celery, olive oil for moisture, and the same herbs without the fennel. Twenty minutes are advised for the formation of the court bouillon. The rest of the fish is cooked apart for fifteen. Take out the innards at this point and add the fish itself to the sauce. Serve the fish on slices of grilled bread, smothered with aïoli (garlic) sauce.
Once again, rather different from your conventional fish stew. And with as much claim to fame as the bouillabaisse. So, in North America, why don’t we have a Pacific Coast bourride? Marketing, that’s why.
We did try out several fish dishes in restaurants, though you will find that most of our successes were outside of Agde or even Cap d’Agde. Of the Michelin recommended places in Cap d’Agde and its neighbour La Taramassière, locals recommended the latter for Languedocien food, but its prices were so steep, around $40 a plate and over, that we simply did not play their game. The other, Les Trois Sergents had a standard national menu. One day we called after Claudia’s French lesson, maybe around seven o’clock, were told to come back in an hour, and observed the stuffy white tabled ambience, and said to ourselves, a low priority, that. Especially since the menu looked stuffy too.
In Agde itself, conversations with local food people (bakers, butchers and so on, many of them non-Agathois alas) yielded only two firm recommendations for Languedocien food. One was on the quay but closed for the season. The other, too, was closed, but briefly, and opened again to give us a chance to try.
It went by the unlikely name of Casa Pepe. The owner seemed happiest in the adjoining street bar where he was always playing mine host, a large ebullient man, until recently a fisherman. The cook was his wife, a sharp woman, undoubtedly dedicated to her food and her standards. Despite the proprietor’s macho image, there is little doubt that he deferred to her completely when it came to food presentation.
There are two menus, one for when you drop in, and another, by far the most important, for when you order in advance. A minimum of 24 hours advance notice is required. So we dropped in first for the drop in menu, intending to order the specials for another day. All this sounded like careful cooking, and promising results.
Off the main menu just about the only thing, though, were straight grills, dollied up, of course, with herbs. The proprietor, talking fast in his thick Languedoc accent, was totally proud of his reputation, but in a boastful way, showing us his admittedly very full and euphoric visitors’ book. I asked how he, a Languedocien fisherman specializing in local seafood, could operate a place with a name like Casa Pepe. “I bought it with that name”, he said “and it would be very bad luck to change the name.” It was difficult to get accurate interpretation of what he said, though Claudia, whom he addressed most, was better at it than I. We were the only diners that night, though the bar was busy.
He knew we were out to try, and why, so his wife prepared grilled seiche, sépions (like tiny little bugs, to be detached from their cartilage) and baby calamari (he showed us how to grab hold of them and pull out the tail). In their rouille sauce, parsley and garlic, they were all tasty, with quite different textures, and an education. We were grateful for that. We had a choice of fried jols (unknown to me, before or since), sarques (sea bream), dorades, pageots (Pandora bream), marbrs (striped bream), each fresh off the boat that morning. I chose a simple dorade. Claudia went further with turbot in Roquefort. O.K. (Question. The food is fresh off the boat. We were the only diners. What happens to all that is left over???)
Then we got down to business. We would like to order for our next meal dishes from your special menu. By now it was known we were more than casually interested; we wanted to try things out and even incorporate the results in a book.
The advance order menu was great stuff. Bouillabaisse, turbot or loup farcis with gambas, coquilles St. Jacques, with champignons etc., poulpes en bourride, paella, courbillon = court bouillon de lotte, cassoulet de seiche farcie, palourdes farcies, civet de lotte, plat royal de coquillages. All, I may say, at pretty substantial prices, but maybe worth it. Innocently we each chose something that seemed demanding and interesting — it doesn’t matter what. Two items.
How many in the party? Two. Through his thick accent we gathered we had made a bad mistake. You can’t order like that, he said, you can decide on one of those dishes and it will be made for two. But we want to sample different foods. I know you do, but you can’t. We only make the dishes for two people for each dish, it is too much hard work and preparation to make a dish just for one person.
I tried a different tack, getting enthusiastic, passionate and demanding, which Claudia found rather funny, and sweeping my arms in the French manner to keep up with his own passion. We will order four dishes then, for two people, and pay for four, but we will only be able to eat two, different ones. NO, no, no, no, you can’t do that, my wife would never allow it. Through his manhood, fear and anxiety emerged.
We had finished out dinner and paid for it. So, “Let’s ask her,” I said. We went out to the kitchen, he put our demands. Quietly, “Oh no I couldn’t do that. Think of the work.” “But it would be for four people, only two would be ghosts.” “No no no.” She would not budge. The reality was two people. “You do not cook for four people when there are only two. It’s not logical. And for two people I cook only one dish.” There was no compromise. My ingenuity ran out.
On our side we were not going to pay the outrageous prices if we only got half an experiment.
Maybe I should have left the negotiation to Claudia.
We didn’t go back (it was near the date of departure anyway). Maybe our friends Jacqueline and Gilles will go there one day, without inhibition, perhaps with friends, pay the prices, and tell us.
An exploratory drive eastward along the coast one day brought us to the new marina town of Port Camargue, where condominium buildings, of which there are many, are delicately created in the form of ocean liners around artificial lagoons packed with luxury yachts and motor craft. We relaxed for a slow afternoon’s lunch in the sun at the elegant restaurant Le Spinaker, with windows overlooking the quiet waters.
Here we had modern food. La montgolfière de poissons de chalut panachés en crème de saffron — a balloon (in the event, a small casserole covered with deliciously light puffed up pastry) with the catch of the fish boat in a saffron cream. Inside, as well as the promised land, tiny morsels of beans, corn and carrot, just enough to add flavour. Claudia’s gâteau de thon rouge du Méditerranéeen tartare aux herbettes peau et jus de citron vert — a delectable mousse of raw tuna with green peppercorns and a topping of crème fraîche. La petite salade fraîche aux huîtres pochés, queues de crevettes et son petit gazpacho glacé — a little fresh salad of poached oysters, prawn tails, and, on the side, cold gazpacho. Le filet de rougets de roche à l’huile d’olive de Maussane les Alpilles, ail, et fleur de sel, petite brunoire de peau de courgettes — I remember Claudia’s chopped garlic and the little pile of chopped zucchini, a painting in itself. Roll the words off your tongue, flavour them, you don’t have to know the meaning. French menus are pure poetry.
What a way to spend a sunny afternoon, with half a bottle (abstemious? — one doesn’t need a full bottle in good company) of Picpoul de Pinet, a soft Languedocien white wine. Beware though, many are brash.
In the other direction, we went to Collioure, a charming seaport town, not in Languedoc but in Roussillon near the Spanish border, still only a couple of hours’ drive away. The country here is already being influenced by the Pyrenees, changing from the flat long beaches to steep hillside with winding roads and little coves of traditional seaports, unspoiled by massive tourist building, with gentle waterfronts, and shaded inland streets.
As you go out of Collioure, up the hill to the south, you suddenly come across a restaurant with inchy parking between cliff and road called La Balette, attached to a small hotel whose every room looks out, some over patios, to the immediacy of cliff, and to the vista of the tiny port and its old castle. Although off season and we were almost alone, the chef provided another memorable lunch. Take note.
Petits encornets â la planxa (note the Catalan influence), àâ la crème d’ail doux et beurre safran‚ — grilled octopus with a cream of soft garlic and saffron butter, mild and tender, none of that hard unchewable stuff you sometimes get in North American Italian restaurants. Millefeuille de homard aux artichauts à l’émulsion de tomates — slices of lobster and artichoke hearts built into little towers with bits of tomato, enclosed in an emulsion with tomato and red pepper, the colour of rouille. And suprême de Saint-Pierre sur son lit de violets de la Sanalque et crustacés almondine — grilled peppery fish on a bid of violet artichokes, in a golden buttery sauce, with a nest of brittle onion on top, accompanied by crab and potato balls, coated with almond outside. Filets de galinette en “bouillianada” — admirably peppery grilled fish on a bed of sliced potato, in one of those light mouth-watering golden sauces that French bread is made for mopping up, that you can’t get enough of.
The manager gave us an escorted tour of each of the individual rooms, alluringly furnished to pay respects to a painter. With the sun, the sea below, the outline of the port, the desks in front of the windows, I could see myself writing here for months. As such places go, it was not expensive, especially in the off season and with discount for extended stay. But still beyond my means. Which shows you can have a lot, but not everything.
After such an excursion, back to Agde and the Languedoc. One of the restaurants at Cap d’Agde, La Jetée, is on the point of a marina, where you can look out to lighthouses, the moving water, and the slowly sinking sun. There we had the fish baudroie in a bourride, a fresh shellfish salade du pêcheur, a bouquet of grilled crevettes, and moules farcies à la Sètoise. Alas, as is typical of the esplanade restaurants, I was not stimulated to record notable memories of the food itself.
Shellfish especially, and crustaceans, are among the great products of the area. The pollution of the coastal waters has pretty well put paid (with some exceptions) to commercial gathering, except from the farms that occupy almost the total western coastline of the Bassin du Thau, between Agde and Sète. Occasionally, when we had time, we avoided the autoroute between Bèziers and Montpellier, which is the rapid way out of Agde, and either drove along the coastline, which is one long flat wild and open beach, or through the villages beside the Bassin.
As you approach each village you pass stand after stand selling the products of the shellfish farms. One such stand, by the town of Mèze, for example, had oursins, sea urchins, escargots de mer, sea snails, oysters in several forms, flat or full, most bearing the famous name of Bouzigues (one of the villages), which are much sought after by afficionados of the north, including some “de mer” and some “fines”, palourdes, clams, violet de roche, sometimes called sea figs, clovisses, small clams, moules including some “plein mer” and even some gathered grande large, that is, in the open sea.
Some of the stands here and to the east of Sète also sell the famed fortified regional muscat, to be drunk straight and cool, rather like a white port but not with ice. Almost equally popular in the cafes of the area is Banyuls, so named after the Roussillon town of its production area, in this case more heavily sugared, and red.
From time to time we sampled moules farcies, stuffed with a sauce that includes sausage. One of the most successful dishes I had was in a pizza restaurant in Agde, a neat popular two-storied place away from the main drags, which also presented grills. Their moules à la broche, shish kebab’d mussels, were large, juicy, tender, but better still coated with a sauce of herbs de garrigue (that is, wildly growing in the garrigue, the stony heated hillsides) in an extraordinarily gentle manner.
Other products of Languedoc that are worth mentioning include the local asparagus, grown on salty lands, which was out of season at our time, and the lamb and game of the inland hills. There was a specialist frozen food supermarket in Agde where you could buy wild boar, venison, hare and rabbit and other such delicacies, but of course you could never be sure (and did it matter?) either here or in restaurants whether it was truly local or imported from Poland or Hungary, whether hunted or farmed.
Our autumnal residence did however coincide with the opening of the bird shooting season, rendered so famous in Provence by the exploits of Tartarin de Tarascon and in the autobiographical stories and movies of Paul .
One day we were wandering around the Camargue, the place where cowboys were invented long before they populated North America, where the sensual grey stallions and fighting bulls are reared, and turned into the mediaeval walled city of Aigues Mortes, once a crusader port, but now inland and mainly a tourist attraction. We had not checked our touristic calendars, and were surprised to find a thriving fair outside the gates, with many Gypsies. (The nearby town of Saintes Maries de la Mer contains the shrine of the patron saint of the Gypsies, and is the scene of the annual Gypsy gathering or “parliament”.)
When we walked through to the southern ramparts we found a whole area of caravans (modern these days) and a small bullring. Local bloods teased brave red-eyed snorting charging bulls with shielded horns, jumping gaily out of the way over the fence or into a pile of hay-bales.
It was late in the day, and the sun was setting red in the sky. We sat in the square, nursing aperitifs prior to the 90 minute drive home. In the square amicales were setting up tables above which hung duck and pheasant, newly shot that morning, for charity raffles.
On another visit, when our objective was Saintes Maries itself, we stopped at a famous Camargue restaurant-hotel, the Mas de la Fouque, one of many strung out together, in great luxury, for the horse riders of Europe. Softly peaceful, it was “exceptionally closed” that day, so we went almost next door, to Le Pont des Bannes. The countryside is a mixture of salty plains, interspersed with great areas of reed and marsh. The dining area was open air that lovely day, around a pool, looking toward grass and reeds. As we walked around we came across a beast busily nibbling on the lawn — a beaver, one of the protected animals now being used to re-stock the countryside after its near total disappearance from Europe. At least not now does it appear on menus.
But at lunch that day, after mussels, fresh salad, and soft sweet olives without any of the harsh taste I so dislike, we shared carefully sliced wild duck with its cabbage and tomato, so tender, and a coeur de gigot, heart of a lamb leg, with its ratatouille. For aperitif, the yellow sweet Baume de Venise. For wine a Mas de la Dome from the region of Les Baux, a Coteaux de Provence.
Unfortunately by the time the season hit Agde we were noticing our weight and Claudia went into a semi-starvation regime, which I followed in a more modest way. It meant not too much letting loose on the game. But at the unpretentious Agde restaurant with the pretentious name L’Amiral, we had a lunch where I let myself go on a good civet de sanglier, stewed and marinated wild boar. On the game menu there was also civet de lièvre (hare), chevreuil sauce veneur (venison with a gravy sauce), perdreau (partridge).
Perhaps the best Languedocien meal we had within the Agde area was with Jacqueline and Gilles at the well-reported Lèonce in the little town of Florensac, a bit out of the way, one would have thought, to attract serious diners from the region. But they were there in force, including parties of men seriously discussing business. In fact in the whole dining room I believe there were only the two women of our party and perhaps two others.
Here we supped on a warm liver, a dish of sépions, salmon tartare, a salad of cèpes mushrooms, sole, venison medallions. Fortunately our guests seemed happy enough and willing to return since they live nearby. But I found the venison biche incredibly tough and the sauce tasteless, and the salmon tartare without character. But the payoff was wonderful bottles of local chardonnay aged in oak.
Our quick visits to the large vibrant town of Bèziers, with its almost Catalan style promenade and panoramic view from the cathedral cliff, where the Pope and his French henchmen once massacred praying Cathares, men women and children massed in the cathedral, were simply not long enough. (Nor were our visits to Montpellier, always taken up with exploring and shopping so that we did not eat there, though we loved the place.) Once though we did stay for lunch, at a small restaurant called Le Gourmandin, below the cliff. There we had a delicious chicken liver salad on the soft European spinach, medallions of lotte in a mouth-watering saffron sauce, soft tender chicken with estragon, very passable smoked salmon, washed down with a white Fadèze Hérault wine. Not innovative enough to get raves from Michelin, but welcomely honest and more than competent.
We had of course to spend time in Arles and Nîmes. On one overnight visit we took the time to drive a short way out of Arles to Fontvieille to sample the wares of La Regalido, tucked as it was on a one-way street. The salad of smoked fish was salmon alone on a vinaigrette lettuce, a bit disappointing, but counterbalanced by coquilles St-Jacques à la Provençale, large, squishily tender in their sauce of oil and garlic. It was garlic night, with the classic gigot d’agneau des Alpilles en casserole et aux gousses d’ail en chemise. Who can resist a tender leg of lamb, certified from the romantic lavender and thyme covered hills of the Alpilles, absorbed into the flesh so that, as with good Greek lamb, you hardly need any seasoning? With butter, beans and classic tomato, the garlic grilled and sautéed. Claudia had a classic medallion of veal fillet in a white curried sauce, with rice and a soufflé of spinach. Again, conservative, beautifully executed.
We did not sample the famous cassoulet of Toulouse, which was somewhat outside our bailiwick, except once in pre-prepared canned form. Maître Gourmeton prepares it with haricots lingot 200 g, a sauce of jus cuisinée purée de tomates, farine, graisse d’oie, sel, épices, plantes aromatiques, and saucisse de Toulouse et saucisson pur porc of 60 g, then confit de porc cuit 30 g, and of course because it is in a can, conservateur sel nitrifié. Robert Freson puts lamb, onions, garlic, tomatoes, garlic sausage, Toulouse sausage, preserved duck or goose into the sauce itself, and prepares the beans separately, soaked overnight in pork and pork rind, with tomatoes, garlic, carrots, onion, clove……. read about
You will remark that I was not totally enchanted with the restaurants within Agde itself, except for the exotic Vietnamese and Réunionais (Le Candela, sometimes up, sometimes down), and even one Greek (Aga Té, a pun on the name of Agde natives, Agathois) which always smelled so good as we passed it by. Although it was next door and we often thought of picking up tid bits for eating at home, it was closed Mondays when we were prompted to do so, thus we never sampled. The solution, I would think, for the Agathois themselves, except for the hungry tourists, was to cook at home — and, furthermore, those who were immigrants, perhaps the majority, from North Africa, Spain, and other parts of Europe, could make up their own couscous and paella and tzatziki. (In tourist season there was excellent paella in Cap d’Agde butcheries, available by the kilo to take home.)
The best shopping for raw materials was undoubtedly Thursday morning, in the area around the covered market, which then became animated with its stalls. (The covered market was open every day but, except for one laiterie and an Italian stall, was hardly worth the visit.) Furthermore, whatever the weather, by walking a few blocks down by the river, you could exploit the flower market, a vividly colourful display of tropical and autumnal cheerfulness, including pot plants. Thursday mornings were the best time in Agde.
And here I must give you more and more lists to whet your appetite with far off sounding names, and to make you wonder what has happened? Why oh why is this richness not available in consumer oriented North America? Claudia, who is as passionate about cheese as she is about sushi, always sampled cheese plates when she could, and only her unjustified fears about her waistline held her back from, as she put it, going wild. There was brebis and reblochon, languiole, bleu allégé, salers grand cru d’Auvergne, cantal entre deux au lait cru affiné à l’air libre, tomme de montagne au lait cru fermière, tomme d’Auvergne “crise fermière”, fourme d’Ambert au lait cru, bleu d’Au, Roquefort artisanal, tomme fraîche pour aligot, tomme de mont pur brebis, crottin de chevignot pur chèvre, b–che de chèvre, St Albray, St-Nectaire, bleu de Cayrol, roquevieille, Pyrenées. How many of those do you see in your local cheese purveyor? Not many. And don’t ask me to translate. Yet this cheese market was less well known than those of Béziers and Pézenas. The merchants happily pared off slices for your tasting.
One day I got the recipe for aligot from a vendor and took home some tomme fraîche. Boil potatoes until they are near done, then place them, sliced or chopped, in a pan with the soft tomme and herbs and garlic, mixed together, and finish them off. Yummeee!
And then the sausages, which, with the meats, were more to my own taste than the range of cheeses. Prepared rolled breast of beef, dried sausage à la perche, hanging in lengths of metres, roset file, bougnette made of turkey, eggs and milk, poitrine smoked or salted, pied en gelée, museau (nose) of pork, fricandeaux meatballs alas for me full of liver, chipolatas, boudin, tripes, some jellied, some prepared with tomato, soubressade, a local sausage, saucisses de campagne of a dozen different recipes, linganis with pepper, saucisse fraîche pur porc, ditto extra maigre, ditto de montagne au vin, saucisse sechée à l’air libre, fromage de tête au jambon. Not quite Alsace perhaps. But it will rather do. And since I couldn’t take it all home I satisfied myself with tiny little sausages filled with nuts.
I won’t even talk of the rabbit, soft chicken, duck, pheasant, hare, lamb, cuts of pork and beef, dried herbs sold by tiny old ladies, one of whom we watched on market day as, bent double, she loaded her little trolley at her door two houses down, and sat huddled in the market place.
But I have to talk, just a bit mind you, about the stands of what I would call antipasti. (Strangely, I don’t know the French collective name for what I am about to list.) I am not a great olive fan because the manner of curing often puts me off with its harshness. Here they were local and from up and down the coast and from North Africa and from Spain and from Greece, and wherever they were from they were cured in a dozen ways. There they were for the gathering.
Olives noires niçoises, noires façon grecque, whose soft sweetness I loved and always tried to seek out, served as they most often were in restaurants, tailladées méthode calamatas, vertes àà l’eau très douces, vertes façon grecque, lucques du pays récolte 90, cassées sauce escabèche, cassées à l’ail, noires aux herbes et à l’ail, cassées fenouil (with fennel), vertes farçies poivron d’Espagne, noires piquantes, Niçoises Riviera petit format, noires façon provençale, calamatas vinaigre et épices, violettes à l’échalote, cassées citron et fenouil, farcies anchois, farcies poivron. The land of olives? And in the same stalls, of course, marinated peppers, Moroccan capucin capers, grilled salted pistachios, almonds, piquant lupins, a sharply preserved citron belois, local cornichons, and huge local capers. It was just too easy to pick up a couple of hundred grams of this and a couple of hundred grams of that.
Languedoc wines are going through a revolution. Once they were simply and frankly plonk, for alcohol content and industrial use. The land grows the grape profusely, in too great quantities for, it was thought, the discriminating market. Not so now, when the lake of European and North African wines of that kind is so bottomless, the competition for plonk too sharp, but the market for good stuff steadily growing.
So now new vines are being planted, and vintners are giving attention not only to their own varietals but to the fashionable ones like chardonnay and sauvignon. They are now doing very well, and, with experiment, you can find bottles of varietal wines that can hold up their fruit and nose to any outside perhaps Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace. It is best, however, to take the advice of sommeliers and specialist wine merchants. From supermarket shelves you might be lucky, or you might get the harshest of the harsh.
With these kinds of resources, who needs second rate restaurants? Better off with second rate home nibbling, cooking and wining, it’s more fun when the vibes are right.
But there are always the romantic hide-aways, which are so thoughtfully plentiful in the region. The Mas de la Fouque, gently peaceful at the end of its private Camargue road, the Relais des Trois Mas in Collioure, whose restaurant La Balette I have described, with its soft view of sea and port, the cabanas of Le Spinaker hotel and one-star retaurant at the marina in Port Camargue, the gardens of the Cabro d’Or underneath Les Baux de Provence, the almost unknown hotel Le Môle overlooking the moonlight and wild cliffs on the furthermost point of Cap d’Agde. So many more. So many lives one needs to find them.