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.

l’assiette occitane

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.

>Dry / Sec

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Usually, after a dry summer, we have rain here at the beginning of September. This year we’re still waiting. The garden needs it. / Normalement, après un été sec, il pleut au début de septembre. Cette année on l’attend toujours. Le jardin en a besoin.

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Will it rain soon? Maybe not. Clouds come over from time to time, but no rain falls. / Pleuvra-t-il bientôt? Peut-être non. Les nuages passent au-dessus de nous de temps en temps, mais la pluie ne tombe pas.

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The plane trees / Les platanes

Day after day we’ve heard the chainsaws and seen the lorries taking away the felled, healthy trees. There is an emptiness where they’ve been cut down which I can’t bear to photograph yet. Everyone we talk to is upset about it.

Jour après jour on a entendu les tronçonneuses et on a vu les camions en emportant les arbres sains abattus. Il y a un vide à coté de la route qui je ne peux pas photographier encore. Tout le monde dit que ça les fait mal.

We think the chainsaws disturbed a hive of bees, as a swarm passed frighteningly close over us in the garden the other day. It‘s not the usual time of year for swarming. / Nous pensons que les tronçonneuses ont troublé une ruche d’abeilles, parce que un essaim sont passé très proche au-dessus de nous au jardin. Ce n’est pas la saison pour essaimer.

We’ve found that shield beetles are attacking our tomatoes. There doesn’t seem to be an effective organic way to get rid of them. We are starting to pick some good tomatoes again, though, and luckily the flowers in the garden are a more cheerful sight. / Nous avons trouvé que les punaises attaquent les tomates et il semble qu’il n y a pas une façon biologique de les tuer. On commence à ramasser encore des bonnes tomates, et heureusement, les fleurs au jardin sont plus joyeux à voir.

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Two morning glories which seem to glow with their own light, and a pelargonium.

>Update on the plane trees / Les platanes – mise à jour

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At a meeting yesterday evening the mayor presented the revised plan for the plane trees and it seems that the muncipal council has accepted a compromise. All the remaining plane trees on one side of the road will be stay. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we can hope for. What a pity this wasn’t agreed before some of the trees were needlessly felled.

A une réunion publique hier soir le maire a presenté le nouveau projet et il semble que le conseil municipal ont trouvé un compromis. Tous les platanes qui y restent à un coté de la route resteront. Ce n’est pas idéal mais c’est mieux que le projet précédent. C’est dommage que quelques arbres sont déja detruits inutilement.

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Looking north from the bottom of the lane which leads to the gardens, the trees on the right of the picture will be preserved. / Les arbres à droite resteront.

Oysters / les huitres

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Today we bought oysters from the van from Bouzigues and ate them for lunch in the garden, simply with lemon.

Aujourd’hui on a acheté des huitres du producteur de Bouzigues, pour manger au jardin, accompagnées tout simplement de citron.

We’ve started sowing the autumn crops, even though we’ve had no rain yet. We sowed lettuce – Rougette de Montpellier, a good autumn and winter variety – Cavalo Nero kale and turnips.

>Plane trees update / Les platanes – mise à jour

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At a meeting in the village this week the mayor and the technical staff involved in the project to cut down the plane trees seemed willing to compromise at least. They are willing to consider keeping the trees on one side of the road, while felling those on the other side so that there is room for a pavement and a central reservation in the road. This last ‘improvement’ is said to be necessary to slow down traffic and protect cyclists, but some of us think that there are other, less destructive ways of doing this.

À un réunion cette semaine il a semblé que le maire et les responsables techniques étaient prêts à faire un compromis – de garder les platanes à un côté de la route et d’abattre les autres pour faire un trottoir et un terre-plein au centre de la route pour faire ralentir les voitures.bien que quelques uns entre nous pensions qu’il y a des autres moyens moins destructifs de faire ça.

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It will be sad to lose half of the remaining trees, but better than losing them all. Although some say that they are dangerous because speeding drivers crash their cars into them sometimes, I would say that is not the fault of the trees. In fact it has been found that when the trees are felled drivers go faster because the trees provide an illusion of speed which makes drivers slow down.

Plane trees are not native to the Mediterranean region, but they do adapt well to the dry conditions and shade the roads in summer.

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This plane tree at St-Guilhem-le-Désert not far from here is said to be the biggest in France. I took this photo a few years ago when we visited the village. / Le plus grand platane en France à St-Guilhem-le-Désert.

This whole project of road ‘improvements’ and tree felling will have to be watched carefully to make sure that no more trees than is necessary are destroyed. We need to keep these old trees which were planted over 100 years ago – for the sake of the environment and the character of the village. It is an old village and some of the older inhabitants have long memories of these trees. Most of us do not want a ‘suburban’ look imposed on a rural wine-making village.

Summer harvest / La récolte d’été

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We’re harvesting a lot of tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers and aubergines now. We’ve made ratatouille to preserve for the winter. / On ramasse beaucoup de tomates, courgettes, concombres et aubergines maintenant. On a fait de ratatouille pour garder pour l’hiver.

The biggest courgette in this photo was hiding under the leaves so we’d let it grow too big – it was almost a marrow, but still sweet and tender. Lo Jardinièr cooked it this evening: cut it up and roasted it with sweet onion, roughly crushed the pieces, added thyme, garlic and cubes of feta cheese and put it back in the oven until the cheese browned. We ate it with tomato and basil salad. A delicious supper!

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Courgette, cuite au four avec d’oignon doux et du fromage feta et du thym, et servie accompagnée d’une salade de tomates et basilic.

>Spanish breakfast in the garden / Un petit déjeuner espagnol au jardin

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The tomatoes are ripening and the best time of day to work in the garden is the early morning before it gets too hot.  This morning in the garden we picked tomatoes straight from the plants to make the breakfast we’ve had in Catalunya and in Andalucia: peeled, chopped tomatoes with salt and olive oil on bread.  A wonderful start to the day!

Les tomates murissent et la meilleure heure du jour pour travailler au jardin est le matin avant qu’il fait trop chaud.  Ce matin nous avons ramassé des tomates pour faire le petit déjeuner que nous avons mangé en Catalogne et en Andalucia: des tomates pelées et hachées avec du sel et de l’huile d’olive sur des tranches de pain.

Today’s harvest / La récolte d’aujourd’hui

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Haricot beans, courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and aubergines.  The Ananas tomato on the left above weighed 430 grams.

Plane trees update / Les platanes – mise à jour

There are rumours that it may be even worse than we feared and that the felling of plane trees in the village is part of a wider plan to cut down all the plane trees in the Hérault and Aude départements.  There will be a meeting next week to discuss the situation and what we can do about it.

On dit que peut-être c’est pire que nous avons craint et qu’il y a un project d’abattre tous les platanes dans l’Hérault et l’Aude.  Un réunion aura lieu la semaine prochaine pour discuter ce qu’on peut faire.