This post is not about food. Mostly. At least most of my vacation pictures don’t feature food, in a vast departure from my normal routine of photographing my meals and pretty much nothing else. Not that we didn’t eat well during our week in the Languedoc. Our first stop was Montpellier, where we stayed with a colleague of Nick’s. He took us to Les Estivales, a weekly food-and-wine event in downtown Montpellier. A glass and three 10cl pours of wine cost just four euros, and there were food stands up and down the main drag, selling everything from paella to aligot. The three of us indulged in mussels, calamari, some skinny little sausages that looked like SlimJims but tasted way better, some tuna-filled African “empanadas” whose proper name I have forgotten, a trio of vegetable-laden tartines, and probably a few more things that got lost somewhere between the third and fourth tastes of wine. The next day we lunched at a café on the beach, and after sunning ourselves most of the afternoon (don’t forget your sunscreen, kids!) we stopped to pick up an array of seafood and vegetables which we grilled on our host’s balcony.
The next day Nick and I headed south. We stopped in Béziers for lunch, and were pleasantly surprised by Le P’tit Semard, a cute little restaurant featuring fresh seasonal products from Béziers’ main market, conveniently located across the street. I say we were pleasantly surprised because when you arrive in an unfamiliar French town at 2pm on a Sunday, the chances of you finding something to eat, period, are slim. That it would also be a worthwhile meal is almost too much to hope for, but we got lucky this time.
After lunch we decided to take a stroll through the town, and stopped to take a look at the Madeleine church, originally built in the 10th century. The architecture was definitely different from the Gothic style with its sturdy stone walls, square construction, and few small windows. But these windows had some amazing colors. Outside we read some of the history of the church, which was mostly horrible and bloody. At one point, there was a massacre, the leader of which was quoted as saying, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”
Under semi-threatening skies we took the bridge out of town with the top down on our convertible (did I mention that we rented a convertible? We did, and it was awesome.) but put it back up before hitting the main road, not wanting to get caught in a sudden rainstorm.
An hour or so later we arrived at our destination for the night, Domaine La Beille. Ashley and Agathe welcomed us with glasses of newly blended wine and lovely dinner featuring grill-roasted leg of lamb. In the morning Jean, Agathe’s father, drove us up to the top of Força Réal, where he gave us fascinating lessons in the history and geography of the region. (A tidbit: many of the hills in the area have forts on top of them because the French and the Catalans were constantly coming to take over.)
In the above photo, taken from the top of the hill, you can see the red roofs of Corneilla-la-Rivière on the right, and the Pyrénées mountains heading down towards the sea in the background. Closer in are some of La Beille’s hillside vineyards, which we proceeded to visit.
Many of the vineyards in the area trim their grapevines in “goblet” form, which means that they have several vines coming up from a single “stem” or “trunk”, as opposed to trellised vines. Goblet vines require hand-picking the grapes, so are more work, but having tasted some of these wines, I can vouch for their flavor. It’s relatively early yet in the season, so the grapes were just starting to ripen.
Following our vineyard tour, we had lunch and went to poke around Banyuls and Collioure, two picturesque beach towns right near the Spanish border. And then came the most dramatic drive of the trip.
We left Corneilla-la-Rivière, heading north towards Couiza, a small town just south of Carcassonne. The GPS led us there on some serious country roads, which I guess is normal when you’re going to the middle of nowhere. All of a sudden, we found ourselves on a curvy, one-lane road through the Gorge of Gallimus. Rocky outcroppings hung out from the cliff and over the road on our right, on the left was an equally steep drop down to something we couldn’t see.
The temperature dropped a few degrees, but the surrounding scenery was stunning: sheer gray cliffs jutted up from dark green forests, and the Pic de Bugarach loomed over us.
As we came out of the gorge and the road widened again to almost two lanes, the sun broke through the clouds in a very cinematic fashion. Nick and I joked about this being the Promised Land as we entered the idyllic, almost cult-y feeling town of Bugarach. But we didn’t stay long, we had a castle to get to, hopefully in time for dinner.
We arrived at the Château des Ducs de Joyeuse around eight, giving us just enough time to freshen up a bit before dinner at nine. We ate in a cozy room just off the castle’s courtyard, and we both ordered the cassoulet. After the eerie drive, we definitely deserved it. It was one of the best cassoulets I’ve had, with a nice crust of breadcrumbs atop a crisp-skinned leg of duck confit, and the creamy, savory white beans were to die for. The foie gras I had for my starter was also exemplary, and my dessert – beautifully sweet strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries heated through under a crumble of crushed almond – was divine. But oh, that cassoulet stole the show.
The next day we met up with Jennifer and her husband for lunch in Narbonne before heading back to their place for a couple of lovely evenings of cooking together and drinking local wine. Nick and I took a day trip to Carcassonne, where we ate more cassoulet, and finished the day with a drive to Minerve, a smaller but no less impressive gorge than those of Gallimus, crowned with an adorable little village, named one of France’s most beautiful.
We had a fabulous week exploring the Languedoc, and my most heartfelt thanks go to all our friends who were so gracious as to accommodate us, feed us, and give us advice on local sights. I hope to see all of you again soon!
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In food-related news, my recipe for caviar d’aubergines is up on Girls’ Guide to Paris – it’s a perfect eggplant-season appetizer or picnic dish.
On this day in 2008: Du Pain et Des Idées – still one of my very favorite bakeries in Paris.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.