Adventures in the Languedoc

25 07 2011

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.

Beautiful, colorful stained glass in Béziers

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.”

Beziers

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.

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Chartres

1 11 2010

Chartres is one of those places, if you’ve studied French for a long time, that you’ve heard about over and over.  It’s home to the best-preserved cathedral in Europe, which is also one of the purest examples of Gothic architecture, built relatively quickly between 1206 and 1260.  And it’s only about an hour from Paris. But I had yet to visit, until last weekend.

The catalyst that finally got me to hop on the train was an invite to a salon from Domaine La Beille.  A small winery run by a couple (he’s Australian, she’s French) in the Languedoc, not far from Perpignan and the Spanish border.  They make some nice wines, and I especially like the way they buck traditions to make single varietal wines in a country where blends are the norm.

Since the train tickets were a little spendy (14 euros each way), Nick and I figured we’d make a day out of it.  I researched some places to eat and made phone calls from the train.  I got a reservation at the first place I called, the Brasserie La Cour at the hotel Le Grand Monarque.

Table setting at Braaserie La Cour

After a short but cold walk from the train station, we walked into the elegant lobby of Le Grand Monarque.  Straight ahead was the airy dining room of the Brasserie La Cour.  Thus named because it is actually situated in the courtyard of the building, the space is very light.  It almost felt like we were dining outside, save for the fact that it was warm and we weren’t getting rained on.  So, better.  I was immediately charmed by the mini-baguettes that were part of the place settings at each table.  I was also a big fan of the little butter crocks, which contained perfectly softened butter.  (It’s a pet peeve of mine when restaurants serve ice-cold, rock-hard butter.)

Butter crock

Of course I had found out the local specialties before we headed to Chartres, and topping the list is a special pâté.  Pâté de Chartres is a rustic, meaty pâté with a hunk of foie gras in the center.  It’s wrapped in pastry and baked, then any space is filled with aspic.

Pâté de Chartres

Here it was served with a salad and a few pickled cherries on the side.  I liked the way the tangy cherries played off the richness of the pâté, but Nick wasn’t a fan.  (Of the cherries.  He definitely liked the pâté, and he also lucked out and got the piece with the big chunk of foie gras.)

Given the gray, rainy weather, for my main course I opted for the “Cocotte du jour,” which happened to be pot au feu – a French classic that consists of slow-cooked beef and vegetables in a rich broth.

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