Sunday was the grand déballage–the big unwrapping, a term used in connection with antiques–in Pézenas.
Pézenas is a beautiful town in the hills of the Herault department, a bit beyond Béziers. We have been numerous times to visit its bounty of 50-some antique shops. Many are open on Sunday and offer a rare something to do for those of us who don’t have the usual obligations with extended family on that day. Twice a year, Pézenas holds a big brocante faire, with about 150 antiques dealers, who set up stalls along about a mile around the ring of the historic old city center.
It was a lot of fun, on many levels. We had specific things in mind to buy and tried to ignore everything else, no matter how enticing. (It is very hard to stop looking at furniture when you’ve been hunting for so long, but now there’s no more room!) Still, we couldn’t help but be distracted by pretty or quirky things from time to time.
The top photo shows a crystal egg, called a cave à champagne. A glass or mirrored tray inside holds the champagne flutes around a hole for the bottle, which descends into ice below. The whole thing looks like it requires nerves of steel and no partaking of the champagne by the server to ensure a steady hand. We saw several, including in dark blue. Très cher.
We heard English (of both the British and North American varieties), Spanish, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian, as well as plenty of French–with different regional accents.
We didn’t find what we wanted and came away with just a framed picture. However, we completely enjoyed browsing. There were many objects, and many collections of such objects, that we rarely see at the vide-greniers, which are often the first stop on an antique’s journey to a second life.
That’s what makes antiques a challenge and so satisfying–you can’t just walk into someplace or order online and get just what you want, the first try. You have to look and look, and wait and keep looking some more. You have to play a long game. Here, where vines take six years to produce grapes worthy of turning into wine but then produce for 40 or 70 years, the long game is in the DNA. Rushing to buy almost-good-enough is throwing money away. Patience and persistence make the find all the sweeter.
Last week, I offered some tips for choosing a restaurant in France. Today has been-there-done-that counsel for eating out with kids in France, plus some general kid-friendly travel advice.
It’s fairly rare to see children at fine restaurants in France. It isn’t that the French don’t love kids–they have a higher fertility rate than other developed countries (1.98 kids per woman in France, compared with 1.91 in the U.K. and 1.86 in the U.S.). and government policies around maternity leave, job protection and pay are strong (I don’t want to say “generous,” because that sounds as if it isn’t deserved, when in fact it’s earned).
All the same, kids and adults occupy distinct realms in France. And to have the best experience possible while traveling with kids, it’s good to know the cultural expectations (you can always flout these–it’s a free country–but you will be subject to Gallic scowls).
Dinner is late in France. Most people I know eat between 7 and 8 p.m. at home (BTW, the French use the 24-hour clock, so it would be 19h (h for heure) and 20h). But it’s rare to find a restaurant open at 7. Most start service at 8. When toddlers need 12-14 hours a night and even preteens need 9-11 hours, it’s logical that they are in bed around 8 p.m. The French deal with this by leaving the kids at home with a babysitter.
The other challenge is the French expectation that dinner should be enjoyed slowly. It is difficult to enjoy dinner when you have a ticking time bomb of a toddler sharing your table. We would target one of the few restaurants that opens at 7, La Grande Bouffe, which suited the Carnivore just fine, as it specializes in large slabs of red meat cooked (well, quickly passed near) a wood fire right there in the dining room. We would get there the minute it opened and order quickly, lest a big table arrive and overwhelm the one-man kitchen.
Our child would sit angelically for an hour, which seemed like quite a feat for a one- or two-year-old, but after that, all bets were off. First fussing, then increasingly emphatic demands to get DOWN. However, even in family restaurants, kids don’t wander the way they do in the U.S. Restaurants do not provide crayons and special paper placements for coloring. Bring your own. Also a sippy cup, because they also don’t have plastic glasses, and you can’t enjoy your meal if you are trying to keep your kid from dropping or knocking over a glass glass. A stroller is a good option (if there’s room–some restaurants are tiny), because they can go to sleep.
There are options, such as brasseries, with wider hours. Informal family restaurants–mostly chains like Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill–open early and have reliably OK food but do you really want to spend your meals in France in the equivalent of Applebees? (I like Applebees well enough but I wouldn’t cross the ocean to eat at one.) One Parisian restaurant that’s quite loud–in a raucous, not discotheque way–is Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois, a medieval-style place where the servers, dressed in period costumes, stab your knife into the table. It is not gastronomic, but pretty fun, a bit like our medieval meal last summer.
Nice restaurants in France are quiet. In the U.S., the louder the better, but that doesn’t hold here. Everybody speaks in a whisper. That means you have no cover or plausible deniability when your kid shrieks. And nicer restaurants rarely have children’s menus or high chairs (and forget about changing tables!).
If you don’t want to go downmarket to family-focused restaurants, consider nice restaurants with outdoor seating, where the ambient noise level is higher. The catch is that all the smokers want to sit outdoors, but you might be able to score a spot upwind or with nonsmokers around.
Another option is to shift your schedule and eat your “nice” meal or main meal at lunch. The expectations for calm are somewhat less strict at lunch, plus the menu usually is cheaper–double win.
If a place doesn’t have a kid’s menu, they sometimes will offer the same menu as for adults, with half portions at half the price. One of our favorite restaurants in Carcassonne, Le Clos des Framboisiers, does the half-size, half-price option. Our favorite Chinese restaurant, La Jonque, suggested a stir-fry of chicken and vegetables with rice–not on the menu, but it was a big hit with our kid.
Some years later, our kid asked to have a birthday sleepover with two friends, with dinner at La Jonque–ALONE. So I called and reserved two tables, specifying that they should be as far apart as possible in such a small place. The chef and his wife have kids, and understood. We arrived all together, then split into opposite corners of the dining room. Another family with kids about the same age were there, and those kids stared wide-eyed with naked jealousy as ours ordered on their own and seemed to have a great time at their very own table.
If you have decided your main “nice” meal is lunch, then you can have something simple or even get takeout for dinner. This is one of the best arguments for renting an apartment, where you can feed your kids, put them to bed, then relax with a glass of wine. I am not one of the people who will put a child to sleep in a hotel room and then go down to the lounge in the lobby. But it’s no fun (been there, done that) to sit IN the hotel room in the dark while your kid sleeps for 12 straight hours. A separate bedroom lets them get the sleep they need (a tired kid is a cranky kid), while letting you look over plans for the next day or just zone out in front of the TV.
The way to hold out from noon to 8 p.m. is to adopt the French snack, called un goûter (a taste), un quatre-heures (a 4 o’clock–this one doesn’t follow the 24-hour system) or even un petit quatre-heures (a little 4 o’clock). Don’t even get me started on how un quatre-heures is masculine when heure is feminine.
I have found that an essential element to good behavior in children is to use up their energy. France has great parks and playgrounds. The lovely Place des Vosges in Paris has a big playground, full of beautifully dressed kids (wearing artfully tied scarves) being watched by their chicly dressed parents. Our kid’s eagle eye would detect playgrounds from a mile away. “Maison!” I would strain to pick it out, and sure enough, on the corner of a public square otherwise filled with café tables, there was a playground with a little house on stilts and a slide coming out. Just watch out for the “Pelouse interdit”–keep off the grass–signs and stick to the actual playground.
In Paris, in the basement of the Louvre, there’s a shopping gallery, and at one end, there’s a big empty space where you can see excavations of the ancient foundations. Almost nobody goes there (“What’s this?” “Old stones.” “Cool. OK, what’s next?”). This is the perfect place for some little ones to run and scream their heads off before dinner. Even if you’ve been hoofing around sight-seeing, your toddler has probably been strapped into a stroller and is dying to move.
Coming soon: great things to see and do with kids in France.
From what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.
Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.
First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.
But if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.
The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking, or to help them succeed for good cooking. That is, away from the most obvious tourist spots, where the restaurants don’t have to care about the French diner. In order to get the best of French cuisine, you have to eat where the French do.
Things to look for:
Multilingual menus–they are often a clue to a high level of tourist trade.
This is not a fail safe measure. Even for establishments without personal translators, it takes minimal effort to get the job done online. (Sometimes with comic results; however, bad translations don’t mean bad food–they mean bad translators.) So on the one hand, let’s give restaurants credit for being welcoming to tourists by providing translations, since it really shouldn’t be a big deal.
On the other hand, the tough judges aren’t the tourists but the locals. You want to eat where they do. And if a restaurant is good enough, it will have so much business with the locals that it won’t need the tourists. This is the ideal restaurant. Reservation cards on tables are one hint that a place is good. Locals don’t walk in; they reserve.
Let’s say you’re walking around, looking for a place to eat. How can you tell whether a restaurant will be satisfying? One tip: look for chalk.
Pre-printed menus, like translations in many languages, aren’t a huge effort or expense anymore. But they can (as in sometimes) indicate that the menu doesn’t change with seasons. And that the menu is too big. There’s a risk they’re out of this and that, especially if you’re not traveling in high season, or you’re going to be served pre-cooked or industrial stuff, not freshly homemade.
Instead, look for a chalkboard with the day’s menu written in chalk. That means it changes, possibly daily.
A small menu means the chef pays attention to each dish and each ingredient.
Another key to your dining satisfaction is to know that an entrée is a starter/appetizer (not the main course). Entrée means entry, after all. The main dish may be called a plat (plate, or dish) or else you’ll just see viandes/poissons (meats/fish) in a separate category. I have noticed more vegetarian choices lately, but that’s a new trend. Even salads tend to have meat. Salade gourmande usually includes foie gras, gizzards and slices of dried duck breast. Just so you know. Usually these kinds of big salads are considered a meal and aren’t in any “prix fixe” or set-price menu. A “salade composée” is just a lot of ingredients laid on a bed of lettuce, not tossed. The French are not big on tossing. They like each item to be distinct. Just so you aren’t surprised.
Often, the menu will have separate dishes in their separate categories–five or six starters, then five or six main courses–and then a variety of “menu” choices, where you can get a good deal. It might be choose among entrées, plats, desserts for one price. Or it could be entrée + plat or plat + dessert for one price, and entrée + plat + dessert for another price.
Cheese, at least a nice wedge or round with a bit of bread, usually is included in a menu. Sometimes also a small pitcher of wine, especially at lunch.
Seriously. This IS France!
On to the waiters. They are professionals. The tension is not really about them and their alleged rudeness but about diners’ expectations. What French diners expect from waiters is not at all what Americans expect.
The French waiter is not supposed to be your friend. He (and it very often is a man) is supposed to serve you. This is not rude; he’s supposed to leave you alone. He will not tell you his name; he may describe the day’s specials, but not to the extent that is fashionable in the U.S. He won’t stop by to see whether everything is OK.
But if your water pitcher is low, it probably will be whisked off the table and refilled without you asking. If you drop your napkin, a new one will appear next to your plate as if by magic. The French waiter is not a participant in your meal but an invisible guardian angel ensuring that your meal goes flawlessly.
This continues right up to the end. Because in France, especially outside big cities like Paris, your table is yours and yours only for the entire evening. You can reserve for 8, but if you show up at 7:45, they won’t say it isn’t ready yet. If you show up at 8:30, you won’t be scolded and then rushed through your meal, because another party is scheduled to take over the table at 10.
Since the French love to linger at the table, there will be a pause between courses. This is expected; the service isn’t slow because the French don’t want their dishes to arrive one right after the other. When diners finish eating, their plates stay on the table until everybody in their party has finished, so that the slow eaters don’t feel pressure to rush. And, if they don’t see anything awry at your table, the waiters won’t come unless called. This is because you have every right to stay at the table and yak with your friends until the restaurant closes, without being pressured to continue to order drinks or coffees or whatever. So when you do want to leave and pay, you have to get their attention. The easiest way is to start to leave; they’ll come quickly with the check.
I have been to restaurants in France with visitors, and they have judged the service as bad, because it didn’t meet their American expectations: the waiter didn’t chat, the waiter ignored the table (though we never needed him), dirty dishes weren’t whisked away upon the last bite, the check took forever to arrive.
The other thing is if you order something that’s not “done.” Two possibilities might ensue: First, in France and much of Europe, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is sadly mistaken (not the same as wrong). Take the menu above; the last item is veal sweetbreads with a morel cream sauce and risotto. But the waiter might have seen several non-francophone diners confronted with ris when they were expecting riz, having misread the menu. And he might try to see whether you know that ris isn’t rice, even though it’s pronounced exactly the same way as riz. And you might easily take it as the waiter being rude.
Or the waiter just can’t comprehend what you want. On a family trip to Italy years ago, my brothers routinely ordered coffee with their meals. Coffee lovers, they couldn’t wait to taste a vaunted Italian venti. The waiters would nod, “sì, sì, signore,” but the coffee wouldn’t come, despite frequent pleas by my brothers. The waiters would reply something in Italian that probably meant “we didn’t forget your coffee.” Eventually, the toddlers in the group had enough of sitting still and we would rush to get the check and leave before tantrums began. And my brothers never got their coffee. Because in Italy, nobody drinks coffee with dinner; it’s for after dessert. (They finally went to a café expressly to have an espresso. “There was a little cup, about the size of a thimble,” one brother recounted. “The bottom of it was barely covered with some brown foam. But I tell, you, it was enough!”)
When we lived in New York, the Carnivore suffered grievously every time we went out to eat. It was the same problem of clashing expectations, but in reverse. Why are these waiters telling us their names? Look, here they come again! Can’t they leave us in peace? Why do they bring the main dish so quickly? They don’t give us a minute to breathe! They give us the check before we’ve even had coffee!
He would send the main course back and tell them to wait until he had finished with the appetizer (or worse, the aperitif). And he would completely lose it when we would be told we needed to finish up and get out because the next party was waiting for our table. Once, he hadn’t finished the appetizer when the main course arrived, and the waitress grabbed the appetizer plate as he was still stabbing food with his fork. He pointed out that he hadn’t finished, so she just dumped the remaining food onto the main course dish.
But what do you expect? In New York, waiters are actors or singers or some flavor of Future-Successes for whom waiting tables is unworthy of their Greatness. They play the obsequious role only up to a point, then rebel as soon as it looks like they might not get a maximum tip. In France, waiting tables is an honorable métier, paid a living wage (with health coverage and retirement, of course), worth doing for an entire career.
Also, forget about the 20% tips over here. Usually service is included, but one is polite to leave a little extra–10% would be generous.
So those French waiters aren’t ignoring you. They will know if you drop your fork before it even hits the floor and will slip you a new one before you think to ask. Their job is to work magically, without you noticing. They aren’t being slow or inefficient; they are letting you take your time.
The Pont du Gard is everything and more. Although it isn’t a bridge (pont) at all, but an aqueduct built by the Romans to carry water to the city of Nîmes from a spring near Uzès.
The Romans turned something practical into a work of art that has lasted for nearly 2,000 years, even if long ago it stopped channeling water in the 6th century. In fact, it had an afterlife as a tollgate in the Middle Ages, and from the 1700s until it became a museum, it was a road bridge.
The pont has three levels of arches–making it the highest Roman structure–across 360 meters (almost 1,200 feet), to cross the Gardon River. The pont is part of an aqueduct system that’s 50 kilometers (31 miles) long and is so perfectly calculated that water flows only thanks to gravity the entire way, even though it descends only 12 meters over its entire length. How do you say “hydraulic engineer” in Latin?
The entire system took 10 to 15 years to build, and the pont itself took less than five (and there are 19 other, smaller bridges). History doesn’t tell us whether there were cost overruns, but it seems there weren’t many delays, especially for something so huge built by hand. How do you say “project manager” in Latin?
Nîmes at the time was a booming city, and the local spring wasn’t able to keep up with its fast-growing population. The Romans were picky about where they got their water–they liked to go to the source (pun intended), in this case the spring, or group of springs connected to an underground aquifer, called the Fountain of Eure, near Uzès. That they went so far and actually thought it would be a good idea to carry the water all the way to Nîmes is pretty amazing. How do you say “geological engineer” in Latin?
The setting is gorgeous. Driving through rolling hills, you get to the gorge carved into the soft sandstone hills by the river. The Pont du Gard is even more amazing for having withstood 19 centuries of fast and furious rain-swelled river without damage.
When we visited, last fall, the river was low and slow, with quite a few bathers.
Thick forest covers the hills. You can hike up to a belvedere, or lookout, above the pont. The path is steep and rough–natural–and not suitable for strollers or canes. However, the parking lots are reasonably near the entrance (there’s one on each bank of the river) and the lanes to the bridge are smooth and mostly flat; there’s a wide walkway alongside the bridge, too. Lots of bikes were there (good and bad–too many expected the throngs of pedestrians to jump out of their way).
Above, some awesomely old olive trees. Below, the plaque says: “This aqueduct built by the Romans to conduct to Nîmes the waters of the Fontaine of Eure repared by the states of Languedoc in 1702 was consolidated and restored in 1855 by the orders of the Emperor Napoleon III and by the care of the minister of state”…then the name of the architects, which I can’t quite make out except of Ch. Laisne.
And of course, graffiti is nothing new:
When the euro notes were designed, the idea was to use images of architectural elements common across Europe without copying any single structure. The idea was unity and common culture, beyond historical personalities or past conflicts. But the back of the €5 note looks suspiciously familiar.
The Pont du Gard is about a two-hour drive from Carcassonne.
The south of France has a long tradition of bull fighting, with ferias taking place in several cities and villages from spring to fall.
Azille, a village of just over 1,000 inhabitants about 35 kilometers from Carcassonne, holds a feria around the May 1 holiday–this year it’s scheduled for April 30-May 1–with a second one planned for July 21-23.
Some of the ferias turn into drunken bacchanals as evening arrives. The machismo and surplus of testosterone seems to bring out the worst in young men still high on having chased bulls in the morning. Arles, Bézier and Nîmes all hold huge ferias in their Roman arenas.
But Azille’s feria is more of a family affair, with lots of rides and games for small children. And the village is very pretty and worth a visit on its own.
The big excitement, besides the bullfights themselves (and I can’t bring myself to see those), is the running of the bulls from one end of town over to the stadium where the bullfights are held.
The crowd mills between stands for food, drink and games, the smell of grilled meat wafting through the air. Singers and flamenco dancers entertain from a side stage.
The excitement builds as people are shooed from the main street to take cover behind large grills hooked together on either side. You don’t want to be too close to the grill, because the bars are wide enough for a horn to pass through. Anyway, most people have climbed up on the tables in order to see.
A few foolhardy boys and men older boys remain inside the barred zone, waiting to prove their masculinity by pulling a bull’s tail.
A band of riders on horseback wait for each bull to be released from a truck. The poor animal usually comes out rather dazed, a condition only exacerbated by the yelling crowds on either side. There’s only one place to go–down the big empty street, and so off it goes, pell-mell.
The horses are guided around the bull to keep it on track. The bull often turns tail, sending the young males fleeing for cover. It would be boring if the bulls simply trotted down to the stadium, right?
As each bull is delivered to the arena to await in ignorant bliss the corrida later that day, the horses head back for the next release. They really are the stars of the show, with their utter calm in the midst of chaos.
Last fall, a court in Spain overturned a bullfighting ban in the Catalonia region of Spain, just over the border from France. Anti-corrida petitions and graffiti spring up regularly in France, but the custom still holds.
We just got back from seeing the Carnivore’s family in Belgium for the holidays. A white-knuckle drive through a whiteout segued into fog and finally the southern sun. I must admit that we had good weather during our stay until it was time to hit the road. But the northern sun was as satisfying as watered-down coffee. Didn’t even need sunglasses.
So we’re going to revel in some fair-weather shots from our trip to Provence last fall. Saint-Rémy de Provence has a marvel of Roman ruins just south of town. The archeological site of Glanum wasn’t discovered until about a 100 years ago, leaving it buried for 17 centuries.
Glanum was first inhabited by Gauls around the 7th or 6th century B.C. The Greeks arrived in the 2nd and 1st century B.C. and started building. The Romans colonized it next, around 63 B.C. It fell into ruin around 260 A.D. after the Alemannic invasions of Germanic people, and the inhabitants moved to present-day Saint-Rémy.
For an archaeology nut/wannabe, it’s paradise. We were the first to arrive on a Sunday morning and had the place to ourselves for over an hour. The best way to pretend to be Indiana Jones.
The main street is perched over drains the length of Glanum. The slight slope ensures good drainage.
Gutters handle run-off from houses and public buildings as well.
And there were interesting drains. Those Romans had plumbing nailed.
What must the market have been like? Probably not much different from those today–stalls, maybe some produce spread on the ground. It was majestically outlined by Doric columns. Nice touch. You can see one of the columns below. It’s the one on the far left. I was more taken with the “house with antae,” which is in the center of the photo.
The antae are the columns with Corinthian capitals. The rooms of the house surrounded an enclosed courtyard with a pool. I approve.
All those stones, covered with lichen. What was life like then? Pretty tough, don’t you think? In spite of the plumbing.
So many carvings. Of people and places long gone. Did their monuments to themselves make them happy?
Twin Corinthian temples were “dedicated to the cult of the Emperor’s family,” according to the site’s brochure. An exquisite decoration, like a butterfly’s wing, is on top of one, which was partially rebuilt to give us an idea of what it was like.
The photo below shows one of the wine-smoking rooms. Who knew? Smoking helped preserve the wine. Pre-bottle-and-cork technology.
I always think, when I’m in a museum or a place like this, that there’s such an abundance of fabulous stuff, and everybody is so busy gawking at the headline items like the temple above, that they practically walk past wonders like those below:
If this were in my garden, it would be admired every single day, not passed by on the way to something more impressive. Here it’s another rock in a rock pile. Injustice, really.
Outside of Glanum, just across the road (where cars and bikes come screaming down the hill and don’t stop for the crosswalk–beware!), are two more Roman wonders, called “les Antiques.”
Above, the Mausoleum, or Cenotaph of the Julii, from 30-20 B.C. It’s unusual for having a rectangular base with a round top. The base is elaborately carved.
Right next to it is the Triumphal Arch, showing Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls. Way to rub salt in the wound, eh?
Also, right next to Glanum is Saint-Paul de Mausole, the psychiatric hospital where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year. We didn’t have time to visit on this trip. Gotta go back!
Takeout isn’t a thing in France, at least not in the New York-millions-of-menus-under-the-door sense.
Aside from pizza and Chinese food, and of course McDonald’s, restaurants don’t usually do dishes à emporter–to take away.
The French have their own forms of takeout. You just have to know where to look.
This can be especially useful if you’re renting an apartment for your vacation and you have a kitchen at your disposal. After all, it can get to be a bit much–for the budget and the waistline–to eat all one’s meals in restaurants. Not to mention that doggy bags aren’t done in France. You can’t just eat half and take the rest home for the next day.
The top place for takeout is la boucherie, or the butcher. France still has lots of small butcher shops, which often have homemade dishes on offer as well as raw meat. I counted 24 mom-and-pop boucheries in the yellow pages for Carcassonne. And if the butcher has volaille–poultry–there’s a good chance they also sell roasted chickens.
Similarly, un traiteur, or caterer, might have dishes to go, though some only do banquets. You’ll immediately see by looking in the window whether takeout is a possibility.
The supermarket usually has a wide selection of prepared dishes as well as salads. Not a salad bar kind of salads–no lettuce is involved–but grated carrots with a white vinaigrette, grated celery root, taboulé, etc. In fact, I’ve never seen a deli-style salad bar in France, though maybe they exist in bigger cities.
The outdoor markets have stands, more akin to food trucks without the truck, selling prepared dishes from couscous to paella to Chinese dishes to traditional French specialities like cassoulet and aligot–yet another form of cheesy potatoes. There are trucks whose sides open up to show rows of rotisserie chickens, with the grease dripping onto a bed of potatoes at the bottom. Good enough to make you cry!
Food trucks make the rounds, especially of villages and roundabouts, selling pizzas, quiches, crêpes, and sometimes other things. One that used to come to our village had specialties of Sète, a town on the coast.
You can get a jar of homemade cassoulet from a market vendor or, at the butcher or the indoor market, called les Halles, a bowl of homemade cassoulet big enough for three or four people, ready to pop into the oven.
The day I decided to shoot at les Halles, I arrived late–around 11:30–and many of the offerings were nearly sold out. Proof they were good!
Cabanel is a cathedral of alcoholic beverages. This Carcassonne institution not only sells everything imaginable from around the world, but also makes its own spirits. Founded in 1868 by Joseph Cabanel, it’s been in the same Belle Epoque building since 1905, making it not just a shop but practically a museum, or a step back in time.
Its signature product is micheline, which supposedly dates to the fourth century as a potion for eternal youth. Like other spirits, it originally was for medicinal purposes, and contains lemon balm, nutmeg, cardamon and many other spices. A framed box shows the different ingredients.
Other specialities of the house include Kina, an apéritif made of plants, including the cinchona bark, which is the source of quinine, and spices. Cabanel also makes Or-Kina (gold Kina), crème de noix (walnut liqueur) and Carcasso (walnut wine) among others. Today, they’re distilled on the premises by Jean-Marc Gazel. Another regional specialty is cartagène, a vin de liqueur, or wine of liqueur, drunk as as an apéritif. (Below, hover over the pictures for the explanation.)
Carcasso, a walnut apéritif.
Rigolo…the name means funny. It’s a vermouth.
Syrups, from left: mint, grenadine and lemon.
Dolin is a vermouth from Chambéry, France.
Mint cream liqueur.
This is a boutique to spend time in. The counter stands in the middle of the shop, as was the custom at the turn of the last century. A glass window separating the shop from the office has an opening marked “Caisse/Reseignements“–cashier and information.
The owners are more than happy to explain the different alcohols and liqueurs, from the ingredients to the history. It was fascinating. Did you know that alcohol comes from the Arabic word “al kohl,” or the metallic powder used to darken eyelids and provide relief from the sun?
A fountain in the corner.
The shop is full of cool old stuff, like the first phone they had–still with the same phone number, and many old photos.
I apologize for the rotten quality of the photos. I went in on a dark, rainy day and didn’t use a flash. Plus I can’t see a darn thing with or without glasses, much less in the gloom, much less on a little screen. My bad. I took the outside shots on a better day.
Cabanel is located at 72 allée d’Iéna, just south (uphill) of the Bastide. Don’t miss it!
The châteaux of Lastours are among the Cathar castles the closest to Carcassonne. The site consists of four ruined châteaux, perched on hills in the Montagne Noire, or Black Mountains.
Looking at the steep, rocky terrain, you wonder how they picked this spot to live. Life must have been rough, with good views. The Orbiel river runs at the bottom of the valley, providing an occasional flat and fertile spot for gardens.
The visit starts in a former textile factory, with a great archaeological exhibition—the site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age.
The climb winds around the hill, which makes it longer but safer than trying to go straight up. Still, it’s challenging. Not handicapped accessible or stroller accessible or even out-of-shape accessible.
But the vistas are fabulous. On a clear day, you can see all the way across the Aude plain to the Pyrénnées. Lastours has only one road, which just goes further into the mountains and thus isn’t heavily traveled. As you climb, you don’t hear cars but birds and the wind whistling through the low brush. You also pass through a mostly open cave, which tends to be unbelievably exciting for kids.
The four castles that make up Lastours (which is Occitan for “the towers”) are perched close together on a ridge, so once you’ve climbed, you’re good.
My fireman brother was fascinated (not in a good way) by the spotlight wiring, bundled haphazardly and running right across the trail for everybody to step on, and the guardrails (as in, lack thereof).
Those who can’t hike can get a bird’s eye view from an even higher spot on a hill across the valley, where a belevedere is set up with benches for an evening sound and light show. Entry is included in your châteaux ticket, or reduced if you just hit the belvedere.For a village of under 200 people, Lastours punches above its weight gastronomically. Le Puits du Trésor has a Michelin star, thanks to Jean-Marc Boyer, who is a real sweetie besides being a great chef. The restaurant is situated in the same factory as the entry to the châteaux and is open for lunch and dinner. Boyer also has a less-expensive bistro, Auberge du Diable au Thym (Thyme Devil’s Inn) next to the restaurant, with a terrace next to the fast and clear Orbiel.
A five-minute walk away, still next to the river, there’s a little bakery with homemade ice cream and tables in a little garden. And at least one shop sells local products, meaning local FOOD products.
You can’t get out of Lastours without eating, I’m telling you.
You need a car to get to Lastours. Maybe a Tour de France biker would take on the steep road (no shoulders, no guardrails). Anyway, follow the signs for parking. Do not think you’ll find something closer. You’ll end up driving through town and then you’ll have to keep going until you find a spot wide enough to turn around. The town is vertical, with the road at the bottom next to the river, and there isn’t room for a sidewalk let alone parking, aside from the little parking lot.
Part two of Ferme en Ferme fall: our postprandial yet still gastronomic promenade through the Black Mountains.
Picarel le Haut, run by Catherine Souef near Saissac, has 120 cerfs (deer), biches (does) and daguets (brocket deer–a small species), as well as 30 Arab pure-breed horses. (Saissac is a great day trip from Carcassonne, with ruins of a Cathar castle in a very pretty village perched on a mountainside.)
Tastings included deer pâté and morsels of grilled doe steak. I’ve never been a fan of deer meat, despite having grown up in a family of hunters, but here biche is a classic for Christmas dinner. And now we know where it comes from.
The shy animals were well behind the trees of their large enclosure, and it wasn’t easy to get a picture. Did you know that stags shed their antlers every year?Another stop was at the Ferme du Villemagnol, just west of Saissac, where Nadège and Corine Guinebault raise free-range pigs and sheep.Wine-fueled singing wafted out from the tent for diners; clearly the customers were content. We were keen to pick up some saucisson, or hard sausage. The line stretched around the tent housing the butcher counter, even though the staff worked quickly to slice ham to order and wrap up sausages and other goodies.
Our charcuterie experts decided, upon tasting, that it was worth the wait. “It’s nothing like what you get in the supermarket,” the Carnivore declared. “It’s nice to chew, it has no gristle or lumps of fat.” Yes, food gets analyzed in the same way wine does.We also visited the Chevrerie du Colombier, near Fontiers Carbardès, where Cécile and Thomas Hollard raise goats to produce several kinds of cheese.There were the softest cushions of snowy white fresh cheese to heart-shaped cheeses covered with gray mold to great rounds of hard cheese, with thick crusts. The names include petit colombier, tomme, cabrichon and cabribert. Cabri is a kid–a baby goat.We were disappointed not to happen on any goat-milk ice cream, which is a real treat. I suppose they didn’t expect the weather to be so warm.
By the time we got home, it was clear what we would have for dinner: cheese, sausages and fresh baguettes. Just perfect.