Languedoc et ses environs

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.  Read the rest