A September Day in the Minervois

The Minervois, a region of the Haute Langue D’Oc famous for its wine, is so rich in beauty, history, wine and gastronomy that it is impossible to cover it one short, sweet post (or 100 posts). Instead, I will share one dazzling day I spent there last month.  The day began with a one hour drive, gradually climbing from seaside Agde to the lively market village of Olonzac with its particularly poignant WWI era war memorial.This was one of the most beautiful French drives I’ve ever taken, and I’ve taken many beautiful drives throughout France.  It stunned me, truly. With the  vendage (the annual grape harvest) underway, I often found myself behind harvest machinery and trucks laden with just-picked grapes. Given the incredible scenery all around me, I didn’t mind the delays. I stopped to admire vines set in a landscape of  gently rolling vineyards interspersed with warm brown villages and church steeples for as far as one can see. At the time of vendage, the vines are so heavily laden with grapes that seem ready to burst!Lunch was in Olenzac, a salad of fresh anchovies and tapenade accompanied by a chilled rosé. The vendage machinery rumbled through the town and the smell of the harvest filled the air. The vendage is the most important time of year, and you can feel the excitement. After lunch, I drove upward to the ancient Cathar village of Minerve,  in 1207 the site of one of the last Cathar sieges and massacres. Cathars were a threat to the power of the one Church and thus were pronounced heretics. Set high on a natural rock outcropping amongst sheer, deep ravines in a gorge carved by the river Cesse, one can easily see its fortress attributes. The drive to Minerve and the walk across the stone bridge spanning a deep ravine to the village (no cars allowed) is dramatic and beautiful. Leaving Minerve, I climbed higher, entering the Park Natural du Haute Languedoc. The landscape becomes more austere. Here and there lie the ruins of communal farms abandoned long, long ago. Fencing and the occasional sight of horses or cows shows that this land is still being utilized. 

The Parc has many well-marked trails, and I spotted a few hikers . As I drove back down to the sea, I passed many lovely and graceful châteaux. Most were built in the 18th century by vintners who grew rich on the wines of the Minervois. The downhill perspective of my return was equally enchanting. This is one drive I could never tire of! 

Just Another Trip to the Grocery Store. In France. 

I am often asked why I love France so much that I have a home here (and am looking for another). I give you a trip to the grocery store and lunch in the grocery store restaurant (because it has one, of course). Keep in mind that these are pictures of just some of it (left out the boucherie, patisserie etc etc etc so as not to overwhelm my readers). Enjoy!

Shopping

And dejuener (lunch). Salade Robochon. Salad, Tomatoes, Small Roasted Potatoes, Melted Reblochon Cheese, Dried Ham dressed with a mustard vinegarette. All accompanied by local Rosé, sparkling water and, of course, bread (Reblochon is a traditional fondu cheese which is not available in the US).  Bear in mind that lunch is commonly the biggest meal of the day in France and usually takes two hours, but they also work later than in the US. 

This ENTIRE meal (which was FABULOUS!) cost 18€ or $20. I love France!

Bon appétit!

Traditional Water Jousting in the South of France

Yes, water jousting! I learned of it when I first visited Sete  in 1999. Of course, I was captivated! Sete is an important fishing port on the Etang du Thau (Thau Lagoon) in the Hereault region of the Langue D’Oc. During  July and August, Sete is packed with cruise ship passengers and French citizens on summer holiday. Come September, it returns to being just a fishing town, but a lovely one. On September 1, I easily found parking and a seat at a canal-side cafe. Both would’ve been nearly impossible a week ago 

Sete has its own very strong cultural identity, cuisine and dialect. Sete is also known as the Venice of the Langue D’Oc due to its many canals, and none is more lovely than the Canal Royal. It is here that Water Jousting takes place


Water Jousting  was probably introduced by the Romans but it is impossible to know for certain. Sete is the capital of the sport. The competitions are hotly contested amongst several jousting clubs throughout the Langue D’Oc, and the participants are true athletes. Most come from generations of jousters. Jousting is celebrated throughout the region. Check out this video of these guys in action!


The earliest written reference to  jousting in Sete dates to the beginning of the 17th century. Jousting boats resemble a cross between a gondolas and a rowboat. 


They are propelled by 10 oarsmen, all experienced fishermen, with a captain at the helm. Jousters, four on each team, mount the tintaine (boat platform) single file with the jousters first in line doing battle with iron tipped wooden spears and protecting themselves with shields.


 The aim is to knock your opponent into the water. If a jouster falls, the next one of the four moves up to take his place. I am fairly certain I couldn’t even stand on that platform for more than two seconds let alone joust! All this is accompanied by a play-by-play announcer and LOTS of crowd participation. Traditional tunes of the Langue D’Oc are played between passes.


Whatever it’s origins, it’s an fantastic spectacle and a cultural treasure of which the citizens of Sete are rightly proud. I hope you get a chance to see it some day!

Bon appétit!

Feasting on Huîtres in the Langue D’Oc 

When people think of the Langue D’Oc, they often think of wine (for me, that’s a crisp dry Rosé on a hot summer’s day). They usually don’t think of oysters (huîtres en Francáis), but Langue D’Ocians have been harvesting and eating oysters since at least 600 BC , and ostréiculture (oyster farming) has long been both a tradition and an important part of the economy. Indeed, many villages and towns have annual oyster festivals, the best known being the annual Fete in Langue D’Oc’s oyster capital, Bouzigues. Don’t worry if you miss the Fete, fantastic shellfish is always to be found in Bouzigues! 

Me, I look forward all year to feasting on des huitres on the beaches of the Hereault, one of my favorite regions of the Langue D’Oc.  The oysters are farmed in l’Ètang du Thau, a large of a string of estuaries that run from the estuary of the Rhône River to the Spanish border.  

The French at oysters year round, and they are particularly popular at Christmas. Mediterranean oysters are considered to be at their peak from September-May because the warmer waters of the summer months are said to produce a brinier taste. I have eaten and loved them at all times of the year. My palette must not be as refined!

I love Langue D’Oc oysters paired paired with a crisp, cold Rosé.  The French eat oysters with butter, red wine vinegar, lemon and bread (just like The Walrus and the Carpenter), and that’s how I eat them when I’m here. No hot sauce!

On my way back from la plage (the beach), I often stop at my favorite magasine des huiîtres (oyster shop) for a dozen meaty, slightly briny Mediterranean oysters.

Oysters are usually eaten raw, but there are other preparations. Pictured above are Oysters aux Bechemal. The oysters are first steamed,then topped with Bechemal sauce and a sprinkling of bread crumbs and finally lightly broiled. I lack a superlative to describe how delicious these are!

Mark Twain said “twas a brave man who first ate an oyster.” Whoever that man was, he has my gratitude!