Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Languedoc

The Languedoc reminds me of an Audrey Hepburn movie. I'm not sure which one; I'm not even sure it's actually one of her films. The image I have stuck in my head. It could be any one of several American movies made in the 50s and 60s set in the French countryside. Those films that have the young lovers driving along a quiet French country road in a convertible; the road lined by large plane trees on both sides. They rise up and meet in the middle; dappled sunshine peeks through the canopy of leaves above. The young lovers laugh and smile as they drive off. We rode along many of those roads during our recent time in the Languedoc: land of the Canal du Midi, Carcassonne, cassoulet, spectacular seafood, incredible wines, and pretty tree-lined roads.

I've enjoyed visiting Provence and the Côte d'Azur; but somehow the Languedoc felt calmer, less populated, and a little less popular. Our time there was relaxing, unhurried. The region is also stunning in its natural beauty. The sea, farmland, vineyards, the mountains. Not far from the Spanish border so influences of Spain are ever present. We visited the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, a place both Robert and I had always wanted to see, the medieval villages of Pézenas and Minerve; we went to the open air markets in Béziers and Narbonne where we shopped for meals with our hostess, Anne de Ravel of Saveur Languedoc.

And we ate. And we cooked. And we drank. And we ate some more. Four incredible nights cooking with Anne at her family's ancestral home near the hilltop village of Montady. We arrived on a Wednesday and Anne had the menu set and the shopping complete for our first meal. She made us, I helped a bit, Tielles, a local delicacy of octopus pie, Gigot (leg of lamb) with Artichoke Sauce, Gratin of Braised Swiss Chard, Anne picked the chard from her garden when we arrived, Salad of Escarole and Garden Lettuce, again picked fresh from Anne's garden, or potager as the household vegetable garden is called in French, ending with les fromages, a local Cantal, a local brebis (sheeps' milk cheese) and a chèvre. Rosé, a popular local spring and summer wine, quenched any thirsts. A wonderful meal for our first night in the Langeuedoc. And it only got better from there.

Anne and I met in New York City in the early 80s when we both took classes at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School. Each cooking station needed two people and Anne and I were paired up. Surprise to me that she was French, and surprise to her that I had lived in France and spoke French. We both took classes to add to our cooking knowledge and skills. We became fast friends, cooked together when we could, and have remained close over the years. It had been quite a long time since she and I had been in a kitchen together, and it was great fun to cook with her again. The meals she planned, the food we cooked, it was all simple, local, fresh, French country food. A menu is often not decided upon until one has been to the market, or the butcher or fishmonger, to see what is good or fresh that day, or checked the potager to see what is ready to pick. This is how we cooked and ate for the four days we were guests at Anne's house. Food heaven!

I often wonder if I make these things up in my head but I swear I tasted the earth in the vegetables that Anne picked fresh from her garden. There's a quality of flavor, and I was reminded of experiencing the same when eating fresh out of my great-grandmother's garden as a child, that one gets from vegetables just picked and served. It's an earthiness, for lack of a better word. As if you can taste the earth itself in the flavors of the item being eaten. There's a complexity to the flavors not apparent in days old, trucked, store bought produce. It was wonderful to taste those flavors again. It was wonderful to cook and eat with Anne again. There is more to come.

This is the first of several posts on our trip to France and Spain. Soon more Languedoc food details with recipes. And more about our time with Anne; followed by food and eating in Barcelona.

Photos above, taken by Charles Thompson and Robert Guerrero, from top to bottom: the Canal du Midi; Carcassonne; Minerve; the Friday market at Béziers; cheeses for sale at the Béziers market; Anne picking swiss chard from her potager for our first meal; Anne's family home, 'Soustre'; Tielles, octopus tarts for sale at the Béziers market; Beth Higbee, a fellow visitor, and Anne doing prep work in the garden; Charles and Anne tasting raw milk Cantal cheese at the Béziers market.

My Status: home, over jet lag and blogging, cooking, eating, blogging...

Upcoming Posts: France and Spain: more detailed blogs about food and travel adventures in France and Spain. The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce. Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'.

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  1. Great recap of your trip to the Languedoc, Charles. Thanks for sharing it with us. I had no idea that's where cassoulet originated. It is now my favorite town in all of France.

    The earthiness you picked up in those freshly picked vegetables wasn't something you were making up. It's your refined pallet and ability to taste what is absolutely true - that fresh things taste of exactly where they came from.

    Just as fish plucked right from the ocean taste of the sea, fresh vegetables pulled from the ground taste of the earth. There's an organic quality to this that seems inexplicable, but I think it's a gift from Mother Earth to all of us -- and it's a beautiful thing.

    Glad you got a chance to experience that, and thanks again for sharing your stories with us.

    PS: The Hepburn movie wouldn't be "Love in the Afternoon" would it? That was my mother's favorite. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050658/

  2. Thanks, Phil! Glad you enjoyed it. I'm glad to know that someone else knows what I mean about that earthy taste of fresh vegetables. I think it's probably that I've been eating too much store bought produce so it's always a surprise to taste stuff right out of the ground. One forgets. It might be 'Love In The Afternoon,' I'll have to check. A friend on Facebook said it was 'Funny Face'. Love having everyone's input.

  3. Charles, you had me at
    "The Languedoc reminds me of an Audrey Hepburn movie"...

    I'm thinking maybe "Charade"!

    Beautiful photos! I'm jealous, especially of that cheese!

  4. Thanks Jo! I love everyone's ideas on what Audrey Hepburn movie it might be. Guess I better figure it out and report back. The cheese was amazing. :-)

  5. Oh, this was the next part of our honeymoon trip after Spain! I love the Languedoc region, their cuisine and wines are superb! Thanks for sharing these beautiful photos! Looking forward to reading about all the details!

  6. Thanks 5 Star. Sounds like you did the same trip we did - it was a great combo Spain and southwest France. The Languedoc is a new favorite area of France for me. More coming soon!

  7. Marvelous description and photos! Now I really want to visit. It sounds like the region is just our speed. Did you happen to get the recipe for the Gratin of Braised Swiss Chard? Our garden is overflowing with chard right now. Can't wait to read more about your trip!

  8. Definitely Funny Face. Your shots are great, and that cheese...swoon!

  9. Thanks Phoo-D & Plumpest. I appreciate the wonderful comments. I hope to get the recipe for Gratin of Braised Swiss Chard posted soon, Phoo-D. You are a 2nd vote for Funny Face, Plumpest, I have a running list now and will report back... and those cheeses were totally swoonable and major yum!

  10. A friend and fellow food blogger had trouble getting her comment to post so I am adding it for her...

    Thanks Afaf!!

    "I was reading your post and I enjoyed it so much! I think you probably think I am making this up!! But I grew up in the same exact environment, I used to go to our back yard and pick Swiss chard and fava beans and eggplant and more especially squash, tomatoes and cucumbers, and you do taste the earth when you eat it, I can still taste the food there after all these years. The markets, the life style, the air, all so different!

    I do love living here, but your posts bring back memories from home. Thanks for sharing your amazing trip!"