We’ve just spent a few days away in the Minervois, not far from home but far enough to be a little different and to give us a break. But it also gave us a rare insight into the way tourists experience our area and I’m not sure they’re always offered the best of it, especially when it comes to food. Is it that restaurants in tourist areas give their clients what they want, or is it what the restaurant owners think they want? We ate very well, and have no complaints about the food we ate or the service we found, but I was disappointed that chances to show strangers the real Languedoc are being missed.
On our first evening we ate our supper at La Peniche at Homps on the Canal du Midi – a gathering place for holidaymakers because it’s a centre for the canal boats that can be hired by the week and a stopping place for others who are cruising up and down the lovely plane-tree-lined waterway. Although the restaurant has café tables next to the canal its restaurant tables are in a courtyard behind the main building so there’s no view of the water from your table, but the courtyard is a pleasant place to eat and given the number of people there it seemed quite relaxing. And the service is excellent, from the friendly owners and their staff, even while they’re very busy. I don’t want to complain about the restaurant, just to point out where they might have given their visitors an even better experience.
I always look first at the menu du terroir, which to me suggests that the food is typical of the immediate are around the restaurant. Here, the menu du terroir seemed to cover a much wider area: yes, it had cassoulet as one of the main course dishes and that is a speciality of this area around Carcassonne, but soupe de poissons (as a first course) and seiche à la Sétoise (as a main course) were also included – about forty kilometres from the sea, more than a hundred kilometres from Sète and in a different département. I chose the menu régional (a vaguer term) and very much enjoyed the entrée, an assiette occitane, and the main course, osso bucco de souris d’agneau (lamb shank with osso bucco sauce), although lamb is not common in much of the region.
The real disappointment and failure to show the tourists the best of our area came with the cheese course: a slice of Brie (from northern France), a piece of unidentified cows’ milk hard cheese and a piece of blue cheese, probably fourme d’Ambert which comes from the Auvergne region of central France. How sad that visitors to Homps are not given the chance to taste some of the excellent goats’ milk and sheep’s milk cheeses that are made in the region.
If you’re in Homps I would recommend La Peniche as a place to eat a reasonably priced (for a tourist area) menu accompanied by good local wine in pichets - rare in restaurants, where usually the owners try to make money from selling over-priced bottles. But it’s a shame that a popular restaurant like this cannot introduce visitors to more local delights in its menus.
Because we’re lucky enough to be invited by friends to their homes to eat the traditional dishes of this area, like ragout d’escoubille and civet de sanglier (wild boar), for instance, we know what visitors are missing when they eat in the tourist hotspots. The best food we ate while we were away was in small unpretentious cafés offering a menu du jour for a reasonable price. In Montolieu, a village of bookshops and a marvellous museum of the history of printing, under the welcome dark shade of plane trees in a small place next to the church, the colours of the place settings and the salads shone:
And in Cessenon-sur-Orb, on our way home, the shade once more came from plane trees (so much cooler than parasols when it’s 35 C) and the plat du jour was a delicious sauté de porc with red pesto sauce that had been made by the woman who served us. In the cafés in small villages like this the food approaches the best of home cooking that we know is there.