Full moon sorcery

The place behind the church in Neffiès was transformed from its everyday use as a playground and pétanque ground, and from the night before too, when it had been the scene of a fantastic lively concert by Occitan musicians Du Bartas. Last night it was filled with small low tables surrounded by cushions and long tables covered with pretty cloths, laid with wine glasses glinting in the light, netting floated from the trees and candelabras hung from the branches.

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A group of eight or nine women, all dressed in white, had prepared a supper for eighty people to follow a tasting of local wines. Las Mascas – female sorcerers in Occitan – had conjured all this from the space and the food made entirely from local ingredients. And in between cooking and serving they toured the tables singing Occitan songs too. It was a memorable evening.

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And the food? A delicious and inventive four-course supper:

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A tortilla-like concoction of egg and nettle leaves, tapenade made with olives from the village, and salad made from locally grown chick peas with tomatoes, onions and wild herbs from the garrigue.

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Mutton sausage with vegetables and aioli made with wild garlic.

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Goats’ cheese from a farm near the village, served on a vine leaf and with rosemary syrup.

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And chocolate gateau decorated with a mallow flower, just before midnight as the full moon rose above the plane trees.

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A tourist experience

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.

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lamb shank with osso bucco sauce

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.

The beginning of summer?

I always feel that once we have the tomatoes planted out in the garden I can believe that summer will come.  This weekend we spent a couple of mornings putting up the canes for the first 32 plants and planted out 16 – 4 coeur de boeuf, 4 ananas, 4 Andes, and 4 of a variety that we unwittingly created from cross-fertilisation two years ago and that I’ve named Gabian breakfast because each fruit is just the right size for one person to rub on bread, Spanish-style, at breakfast.

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Putting up the cane frames for the tomatoes – luckily we have a constant supply from the bamboo that grows at the end of the garden.

These Languedocian and Roma plants will be the next to be put out in the garden:

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The peppers have been very slow to grow this year and need a bit more warmth and nurturing on the balcony before they can fend for themselves outside:

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After our work in the garden yesterday morning we came home to a good Sunday lunch of pot-roasted pigeon with polenta, loosely based on, or maybe I should say inspired by, Nigel Slater’s recipe in the Observer.  Instead of marsala and grapes I used some figs that I’d conserved in Armagnac a couple of years ago and these flavours were wonderfully rich with the pigeon.  I also added garlic (as I usually do), lardons and oregano.  I had a small fire in the pan when I thought it was all simmering nicely and put the lid on, but the alcohol hadn’t all burned off so the pan filled with flames.  I wished I’d had the camera ready because it looked quite spectacular!

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I bought the pigeon at one of the two excellent butcher’s shops in Roujan – Franck Perez – and while I was there I asked Mme Perez how she felt the new supermarket that has just opened on the outskirts of the village would affect their trade.  She seemed to think it will be all right because people will always want proper meat from a proper butcher even if everyone does have to go to supermarkets to buy washing powder etc.  I hope she’s right.  The other butcher, which I think is slightly less excellent, will have a shop inside the new supermarket, so clearly they think that’s where there future lies.  I shall continue going to Franck Perez because he sells such good meat.

Food security

One of the first things we hope for from our food is that it will make us healthy rather than ill.  Over the past couple of weeks some scary stories have been appearing in the press and other media which suggest that this is not always achieved.  First there were the Spanish cucumbers, falsely, as it turns out, accused of causing an E coli outbreak in Germany.  Spanish cucumbers….in Germany?  Isn’t that rather a long way for cucumbers to travel?  Well, yes it is, but it doesn’t surprise me at all since whenever I pass near the motorway that leads through the Languedoc from Spain to the rest of France and then northern Europe the lorries seem to be almost nose to tail as they speed towards the lucrative salad market of the northern supermarkets.

There are so many issues raised by this trade in vegetables: the damage done to the environment by transporting them, the use of scarce water resources in southern Spain to feed the northern hunger for ‘fresh’ food and the exploitation of low-paid migrant labour in the polytunnels of Andalucia, to name but three.

For the moment, I’ll stick to just one other important issue, that of taste.  How can a cucumber, a lettuce or a pepper taste good when it has been transported hundreds of kilometres?

Today there’s another E coli story: seven children in northern France have become ill after eating burgers bought in a supermarket.  The meat to make the burgers is said to have come from France, Germany and the Netherlands.  Three countries, in one burger?  It sounds as though this too is very well-travelled food.

A few years ago I  read an interesting book by Gillian Tindall, Céléstine, about life in the Berry region of central France 150 years ago. Tindall discovered from letters written at the time that people in the village of Chassignolles very rarely went to the nearest town, La Châtre which was only 7 km away. The only things they needed to buy there were needles for sewing. Everything else was produced in the village. This kind of self-sufficiency is almost impossible to imagine now.  But it’s still important, I think, to eat as locally as possible and Lo Jardinièr and I try to eat only food that comes from within 100 kilometres of where we live.  That’s not always possible – I have never been able to find a substitute for the Italian coffee to make the three cups of espresso per day that I need, or for the occasional piece of chocolate to accompany the coffee.

But what we try to do, and what I think we should all attempt to work towards, is to grow as much of our food as we can organically, and to buy what we can’t grow locally in small shops and markets rather than in supermarkets.  That way, we know where everything comes from, very little of it is processed so we know exactly what it contains, and none of the meat we buy is made in industrial plants which use ingredients from three different countries to make something that really doesn’t taste very good.  Local food is safe because everyone knows where it comes from and if it wasn’t safe or didn’t taste good people wouldn’t buy from that producer.

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The only chemical we use in the garden – a little Bordeaux mixture or copper sulphate, which is allowed in organic agriculture and protects against blight and other diseases in tomato plants and vines, among other plants.

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Our cucumbers are safe to eat and delicious – straight from the garden and onto the table.  Most of our vegetables come from plants grown from seed we’ve saved from last year’s plants, or from friends’ plants.  These cucumbers come from plants that have travelled a bit further – we buy the young plants in the village market from a stallholder who brings them from the next village 3 and a half kilometres away.