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

Santa Fe – History in Food

Santa Fe – History in Food

©  Cyril Belshaw

NOTE in 2002 :  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…………..

Spanish expeditions reached New Mexico, after months of travel, in 1540. The territory was “conquered”, from 1607 to 1692, in the search for lost golden cities and a passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was definitively lost to the United States by treaty in 1848 after a disastrous war and years of military skirmishes, along with Texas (already de facto occupied by the Americans) and New California.

Santa Fe itself is not the oldest Spanish settlement in New Mexico, but its founding as an administrative capital in 1610 makes it the oldest capital city in the United States, and it has been continuously such ever since. Despite a rumbunctious history, though not nearly as macho as that of Texas, and waves of immigrants of several varieties, it has managed to retain styles of life and an aesthetic flavour that makes it, to me, the only city in the whole of the U.S. of A. to which I could think of devoting my years. Taos. nearby, has its undoubted charm, but seems dilapidated and uncared-for by contrast. Bustling Albuquerque has no character, even though it does have the airport.

The town is 7,000 feet above sea level on the rise of a plateau, in the lee of a hill where skiing is possible in winter. The quite small central core of the town maintains the layout and many of the buildings of the original Spanish occupiers, churches, mansions, haciendas, old government buildings, the plaza.

The Spaniards of course were not the original occupiers of New Mexico. Their settlements were surrounded and in competition with those of the Indian pueblos, corn growing communities sheltered by soft coloured clay-adobe houses, some terraced upward to several stories, that to this day draw thousands of tourists, and have captured the senses of artists and writers, including D.H.Lawrence.

Spanish officials did not understand much of their Indian cousins. They had known such people in Mexico itself, especially in the north and west; but they had also crossed arms with Toltecs and Mayans who had worked their great stone pyramids and temples, their astronomical observatories, and expressed themselves in writing. The New Mexican pueblos did not command the same respect. From time to time they revolted, fought back, often with a background of U.S. intrigue.

Even New Mexico has its regions. Santa Fe is regarded as the beginning of Northern New Mexico, as distinct from the hotter, closer to Mexico, south. I have to bear this in mind, because the food I write about begins with Northern New Mexico, and resists being blended into something wider, like U.S. Southwest. Thank goodness for that. Tex Mex, with some stuff like chile con carne, and Californian Mexican, in which everything is mushed together, has not yet quite taken over. You can find it in Santa Fe, alas, but there is other food too.

The climate of Northern New Mexico is mostly dry and clear and for most of the year hot in the day, cool at night. The clarity of the skies are characteristic of desert lands, but with a difference. The lights, particularly in the early morning and at sunset, are full of radiant colour, aquamarine, turquoise, pale beige, rich russet-brown, peach colours, colours that are present in the land itself. For in the land there are sands and stones of almost every hue imaginable, which, ground down, are used in the magically-healing sand paintings of the pueblos.

The adobe structures are as much a part of the landscape as anything made by nature. In remote villages you will find centuries-old churches of adobe, their flowing forms matching the hills around them, some sanctuaries and places of pilgrimage and healing, as holy and magnetic as anything in Europe. They are still places of faith.

The Spaniards adapted the style for their palatial and domestic buildings. They added more out-jutting beams, and built their rooms around garden or utilitarian courtyards, with cool fountains and shady terraces and balconies. As USAers came down, they added wooden cottages in the middle of lots, very different. But in the centre of town the two styles live pleasantly side by side, the adobe dominating as nostalgia governs city planning.

The city spread up canyons and ridges, and as it did so the newly rich and the newcomers, even commercial firms and hotels, mostly adopted adope styles, adapting them to modern living. My brother built some for a while. They can be totally phoney, that is ordinary structures with a bit of sand coloured cement thrown on. But in their architectural expression, their soft colours and gently moving lines, minimizing sharp angles, their ability to blend with the landscape and yet create oases of courtyards, shady spots, gardens and vistas, they are without compare. Many world renowned architects found their inspiration in this countryside.

So too did artists of every description, painters, sculptors, workers in beads, cloth, silver, jewelry, potters, traditional Indian geniuses, immigrants who gained inspiration from Indian motifs and techniques and the soft colours of the countryside. Indian art itself grew and adapted without losing its truth. It is mostly soft art. But it also mostly speaks to the soul.

So that, whether you look at pottery, textiles, jewelry, painting, sculpture, Santa Fe is, downtown and along some of the canyon roads, one great artistic show-case. It is much more than those little European towns like Les Baux de Provence or even Carcassonne, because it is not just a front for history, transformed to make a living.  Read the rest

Alsace – Cultural Separatism

Alsace – Separatism in Food

NOTE in 2001 :  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…………..

There are those who doubt the seriousness of the contribution of Alsace to great cuisine, and those who declare that in Alsace there is the most refined and advanced regional cooking of France. Most of those who adhere to the first viewpoint are foreigners whose idea of Alsace cooking (with some justification) is that of heavy weight-producing massive plates. I  know of only one small English language book that is totally devoted to the recipes of Alsace — most English writers concentrate on Provence, because they think of it as a better place to live. Tra la la, we’ll see about that.

French writers, chefs, and English writers who describe the regions of France in a single volume, know better. The Robert Freson volume on the Taste of France contains by far the best, very short, account I know of in English on the cultural roots of Alsace food. Paul Bocuse’s most recent compendium gives good weight to the Alsace. Elizabeth David only tips her hat, and Patricia Wells is quite summary. Before I left Vancouver, several of the better French style chefs declared to me that in Alsace you will find the most imaginative and inventive cooking in the country. Perhaps they are not far wrong.

Many of the well known traditional Alsace dishes, from choucroute garnie to baeckaoffa, from foie gras to kougelhopf are heavy, often highly salted, cooked with butter or bacon fat or cubes (lardons). At first sight, especially when caricaturely downed with copious draughts of beer, they are not consistent with modern international tendencies toward light food and small portions.

A choucroute royale  will be a mountain of preserved cabbage, larded and seasoned, heaped with gigantic pieces of back bacon, ham, pig’s knuckle, at least a couple of kinds of fatty sausage, frankfurters or Strasbourg sausages, and as many other meats as imagination dictates. The mountain can be consumed by a single person in a restaurant, although it is often prepared for several, and as such fits, not unreasonably, the image of the Alsacien as gourmand and massive eater. While this kind of eating can and does occur, the modern Alsacienne cannot be bothered doing all that, and can be just as concerned about weight as anyone else. Hence domestically, and in many restaurants, there is more emphasis now on smaller servings of choucroute as a modest accompaniment to lighter dishes, and there is innovation to find ways of using it with different taste combinations.

Choucroute itself is a complex food with as many variants as there are commercial, artisanal, or domestic producers. It consists of finely chopped cabbage hearts, the outer leaves and stalks discarded, pressed between layers of salt (mostly washed out before final presentation) and left for several weeks to ferment. The taste of the final product, from highly to moderately acidic, changes as the cabbage is stored after fermentation is stopped. There is almost as much interest as in Beaujolais nouveau for the first arrival of choucroute nouvelle in the boucheries and delicatessens, which can be any time from July (where I sampled it in Katzenthal) onwards. When cooked it may be seasoned with lardons, potato, juniper, herbs, or left to its natural taste, and may be served as the base of dishes like the one I described above or as a bed, or lit, for almost anything. Some of these concoctions I will mention when we get to the restaurants that innovate on the basis of traditional beginnings.

The use of salt for preservation and fermenting is an art the Alsaciens have developed highly. One can be taken aback at the proliferation of sea fish dishes in an inland region (local river fish having almost entirely disappeared as a public source of food through heavy pollution and over-fishing). But salted fish, particularly North Sea and Baltic herring, and smoked salmon and trout, are part of the traditional fare. True “fresh” fish is rare, as it was in early England. But long before the invention of the refrigerator or freezer, Alsatian traders perfected the art of transporting fish well packed in ice, so that sea fish was a common part of the diet.

The use of salt for preservation à la choucroute was extended to other products, especially navets, i.e. turnips, (now, alas, quite rare in public menus) which were once used like choucroute itself, and beans. Josianne Syren’s book, describing potée aux navets salés simply says, from a base of salted turnips, make the suriruewa just as you would a choucroute and with the same ingredients.

The heavy use of salt, sometimes subtle, sometimes extreme, turned out to be the main difficulty I had with Alsace diets. It turns up of course in prepared meats of almost infinite variety, in cheeses, in sauces, to a level that is not so universal in French national cooking (although always in France and Italy I am aware of it.) I do not know what effects if any there are on blood pressure in Alsace; I do know that my own rose significantly, though perhaps not for that reason.

You cannot be long in Alsace before you discover that the country is both France and Germany, but wishes to be neither. The people do not love their cousins outre-Rhin, yet many of their foods and their dialect have important similarities. They love even less the centralizing mania of French bureaucracy and political life, a lack of amity that we will find repeated in many parts of France.  Read the rest

Quintana Roo and its Mayan Arts (a.k.a. CANCUN and its Mayan Food)

Quintana Roo and its Mayan Arts

© Cyril Belshaw

NOTE in 2001 :  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…………..

Quintana Roo, as a phrase, probably doesn’t mean much to you. The Yucatan Peninsula probably means more. Cancun is that place in the sun that is touted as Mexico’s greatest shopping spree, the centre of the best scuba diving in the world, the resort you are planning to go to some day. They are all linked together.

The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico has a line drawn through it, more or less NE to SW. On the western side is the State of Yucatan, capital the old Spanish-colonial city of Merida, most famous archaeological site Chichen Itza, where the Toltec observatory and pyramid do fabulous tricks at the equinoxes and solstices, attracting visitors like circus performances.

The indigenous people, and majority population, of Yucatan are Mayan (the Toltecs conquered them and were rulers for a time until the Spaniards put them in their place.)

On the eastern side of the line is the State of Quintana Roo, which contains the magnificent Mexican Caribbean coastline, with its resorts, beaches, reefs, environmental parks and non-Toltec ruins, each in competition, mostly destructive. Quintana Roo has only been a state since 1974. The people of Q.R. are Mayan too, but Mayan with a difference. They have been, and in some respects still are, determined separatists. Like the Indians of British Columbia, Canada, they do not consider themselves to have been legitimately conquered; but they lack the means to make an independence stick.

To understand this, you must know some things that are not in most of the history books. I looked through all the history books in English that were available in the poorly stocked book shops of Cancun (when you go to Cancun, the theory seems to be, you don’t go to read), many of them classics. Most of them do not even have Quintana Roo in the index. They give chapters to the wars and the twentieth century revolution; and the works of Presidents constitute the organizing themes, like the works of Renaissance princes (who did a lot better). But the Mayans of Q.R.? Zilch.

(There is a monograph I have not been able to consult by Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatan, Stanford University Press, 1964; and a good summary of many features, but mainly dealing with events outside of Quintana Roo, in Demetrio Sodi Morales, The Maya World, published by Minutiae Mexicana, third edition, 1989.)


The Spaniards made their influence felt, I won’t say dominant, from the very earliest years, from the sea. The first Spanish explorers were scared stiff at what they saw, sailing past the coastal fortress and religious city of Tulum, afraid of its extensive population. For years after some of the coastal islands became playgrounds of Caribbean pirates, literally. But eventually, by persistent efforts, the Spaniards prevailed, on the surface. From time to time they were faced with Mayan armed protest, sometimes small, sometimes massive, not only in Quintana Roo, but in Chiapas and Yucatan

In the middle of the nineteenth century, from 1847 to 1901, when their leader Santa Cruz de Bravo was captured and executed in the mystically famous town of the Talking Crosses, Chan Santa Cruz, the Mayans were in full fledged politico-religious revolt, known as the war of the castes. That was a long long time to be omitted from the history books. And long after the death of Santa Cruz there were forceful and psychological resistances in Quintana Roo. In all parts of Mayan country there are major examples of continuing religious syncretism, many with significant political overtones.

But then even by comparison with other states, to Mexico  Quintana Roo and its Mayans were marginal. There wasn’t much of an economy — a little fishing, and great copra estates on the coast. For the rest, the Mayans were, and to some extent still are, hidden in the forests of the great limestone plain.

Once the revolt was officially quashed, the Mexicans didn’t quite know what to do. They named Quintana Roo, not after a geographical or ethnic entity, but after a nineteenth century leader who was on the side of joining the Mexican State. The name continues to rankle among some. They gave Chan Santa Cruz the new name of Felipe Carrillo Puerto after a Mexican Revolutionary Governor, and made sure eventually that the streets of new towns honoured national Mexican patriots and archaeological sites, rather than Mayan heroes. They recognized that the Mayans of Q.R. were less tractable than those of Yucatan, within whose boundaries the territory formally lay, or at least they were less overlaid by Spanish-Mexican power — sporadic revolts were still going on. The solution was to create the present boundaries and establish a political Territory, directly ruled from Mexico.

It didn’t work. As I say, I don’t have a history book to tell me why. The period is an embarrassment to officials, politicians and historians. All I know, and of all things it comes from the text attached to a poorly drawn map of the area, is that in 1913 Q.R. was attached to Yucatan, in 1931 it was moved into the State of Campeche, and in 1935 after only four years it became a federal Territory again — until 1974. That does not sound like an easy-going peaceful kind of place.

If you cull the guide books carefully you occasionally get other snippets of information. You learn that much of the resistance was centred on the archaeological sites of Tulum and Cobal, and that Mayans still hold Tulum in religious awe, using it for ritual.  Read the rest