When on my travels I’m at least as interested in what’s on my plate as in the contents of my glass. The places that do it for me are the ones that offer stimulating food and interesting wines in equal measure. Little wonder I feel at home in Alsace (where I live) and in Catalunya (where both our kids have had the sense to settle).
Languedoc, the rugged, roasted, windswept, winegrowing region of southern France that bumps up ultimately against the Spanish border, makes a good stopping-off point between Alsace and Catalunya. It’s a must-visit for anyone into muscular, terroir-driven, distinctive wines, and surely chief contender for the title of France’s Most Improved Wine Region. At work here is a new generation of talented wine makers, some locally born and bred, others incomers from Bordeaux, Burgundy and beyond. Ergo, on the Alsace/Catalunya model, you could expect the cooking to show similar talent and locally-rooted distinction. You’d also be – to quote Pooh Bear – foolish and deluded.
On our most recent visit we let ourselves be guided on our travels by Rosemary George MW, who has a second home in the area and writes a blog on the wines of the Languedoc. Thanks to her, we met a bunch of sympathetic, highly motivated producers who are making waves both in France and farther afield with well-made, distinctive wines at approachable prices (see list of producers below, whose wines we bought/enjoyed). And the food? With a couple of notable exceptions, it limped along apologetically, trailing the wines by some miles.
Two meals distinguished themselves by their sheer, unredeemed awfulness. One was at the Auberge de Val Mourèze near the Lac de Salagou, where we chose to stay because well placed for the Terrasses du Larzac, one of the Languedoc’s most ambitious sub-regions, soon to be an appellation in its own right. The website (www.aubergedevalmoureze.com) looked inviting, the menus promising – have a look at it, please, and tell I’m not just foolish and deluded. It was here, at dinner, that I met the piece of cod that passed all understanding. Waterlogged, woolly and cooked to death, it came with a sludge-green wodge of something unrecognisable (cabbage? leek?), redeemed only slightly by an unctuous accompanying potato puree.
Lunch at La Terrasse du Mimosa in Montpeyroux, recommended and booked for us by Isabelle Goumard of Cal Demoura and lauded by Le Fooding guide (normally a reliable reference) was another waste of space. For a place that’s billed as a locavore’s paradise, they did a remarkably shabby job at describing/introducing any of their food or wines. An escabeche of sardines was so viciously vinegared it all but annihilated a beautifully structured and aromatic white from Domaine d’Aupilhac, and the sardines came back to haunt me all afternoon. The bill, when it finally came, bore no relation to what we had either eaten or drunk. We sent it back. They glared at it belligerently, then at us, then went back to their sums and re-submitted it without a word of explanation or apology.
To keep things in perspective, we did score two delightful meals. One was at Le Tracteur in Sanilhac-Sagriès south of Uzés, this one a recommendation from a friend who’s long lived in the area and has a steer on the (few) good places to eat and the (many) good bottles to broach. The welcome was warm, the service prompt and efficient and the concise €29 menu served out under the stars in the tiny gravelled garden pitch perfect. First a chilled aubergine cream with a clutch of piping hot crusty fish croquettes; then a choice between underdone tuna piled high with a herby fennel salad and a succulent piece of rare breed pork; and finally a delectable strawberry and peach crumble (above) or an intensely chocolatey sorbet with tinily diced fresh pineapple. Oh, and a bottle of Pierre Chaude (‘hot rocks’) red from L’Anglore in the Rhone, pioneers of the natural wine movement. Yum, all round.
The second spot-hitter was the Relais Chantovent in the show-stopping Cathar village of Minerve, a fave of my foodie friend Petra Carter who runs the Le Souqueto B&B and cooking school in nearby Mirepeisset. The Menu Terroir (plump, sesame-topped brioche packed with soft, fresh goat’s cheese, a melting chunk of pork cooked – Petra explained – sous-vide and yet sporting a fragile crust, and a fruit charlotte) was presented with great charm and flair – a snip at €19. Can’t wait to go back for the other menus.
- Le Tracteur, Sanilhac-Sagriès, Tel. 04 66 37 19 31
- Relais Chantovent, Minerve, Tel. 04 68 91 14 18