If you haven’t heard enough here about why you should visit Carcassonne, check out the lovely article about our region in Condé Nast Traveler.
Titled “Why Languedoc Is Like Nowhere Else in France,” you can see it here.
The gorgeous photos are by Oddur Thorisson, whom francophile blog readers probably know as the husband of Mimi Thorisson of Manger. (Because I don’t reproduce other people’s photos without permission, the photos here are my own.)The writer visits many of our favorites, from la Cité of Carcassonne, shown at the top, to the beach at Gruissan, above, the garrigue, below, and more. The article calls Languedoc the Tuscany of France, but I think of it as the “other” south of France–more low-key and down to earth, less fashionable and flashy than Provence.The markets overflow with succulent local produce and products that end up in delicious dinners shared among friends and family or at restaurants. And the wine!
It is a pleasure to share the local secrets with you, especially the ones about savoir-vivre–the French art of living well.
Tangentially, check out this beautiful tapestry that some dear friends gave us. We put it in la Suite Barbès. It’s two meters (six feet) wide, which gives you an idea of how big the room is.
The tables were laid with pottery, slate slabs, knives and wooden spoons. The wine glasses were recycled yogurt pots. You know how Pinterest is full of DIYs for Ball jars? Same thing here, but with yogurt pots, in glass or terra cotta. Yogurt of the brand la Fermière (the farmwife) comes in them.
As we enjoyed an apéritif of spiced wine, the actors and band set up.
There was a witch hunt, a sword fight, a king crowned and much more.
As for the food, we started with a tranchoir, a large round of bread, topped with slices of ham, pâté and smoked duck breast, along with a salad, for which we had no forks because those weren’t common until later. (Quizz: when did the Middle Ages end? Answer at end.)
The actors, who were part of the Echansons du Carcassès club, also served the dishes, which were carried out on a litter.
Next, we had bowls of fèves, or fava beans, with grilled sausages. It doesn’t look like much, but it was delicious and hearty. One tour guide, at the Château de Guise in the north, described the cuisine of the time in detail. For example, a bird like a turkey would be killed, put in a pot with spices, buried with the head sticking out and left to sit. When the beak fell off, it was “done.” No. Thank. You. More medieval dishes here and here.
Wine also was served. Duh.
Finally, we had a vanilla cream, like panna cotta. It arrived on a litter with a château replica whose towers were aflame. Nice touch of drama.
As night fell, the band struck up. The Artemuses ladies danced, stories were interspersed between songs and much merriment ensued.
As the last song ended, the skies unleashed a much-needed downpour. Perfect timing.
These kinds of gatherings are open to anybody. This goes for other kinds of events as well. If you see a poster, you can attend (and don’t forget to look for the line about “apporter vos couverts” telling you to bring your own plates and silverware. If it isn’t indicated, it’s probably provided). Best to call the number on the poster to reserve. The price usually is very reasonable. This dinner cost €20 per person. Bon appétit!
If you miss a medieval fête, you can get a medieval meal at La Rôtisserie restaurant in the Château de Villeroute-Termenès, about 50 minutes east of Carcassonne.
Answer: usually Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492 is considered the end of the medieval period and the start of the Renaissance, though, like much of history, that’s up for argument.
I never thought I’d get into speleology. For one thing, where I grew up, it’s flat. No caves that I know of. Well, John Brown’s cave, but that was pretty far away. For some reason, I dreamed of seeing Carlsbad Caverns, but that was even farther.
Turns out the mountains in France are Swiss cheese. Caves galore to expore!
I wouldn’t say I’m “into” speleology, but when it’s as easy as the Grotte du Limousis, it’s hard not to at least check it out. Limousis isn’t adapted for wheelchairs or strollers, but we took elderly mother-in-law, who managed the short hike through the garrigue from the reception to the cave entrance, after which, you’re in a more or less flat cave at 55 degrees. Which is fabulous in the middle of summer. Or winter.
As a room mother, I had the honor (?) of visiting an unmarked, “wild” cave nearby. There is nothing quite as terrifying as being cut off from mobile phone reception (duh, underground), with a lamp on your helmet (already, we have to wear helmets? It’s that dangerous?) and a squirming bunch of third graders who are harder to herd than cats and a guide who says, “keep a watch over there,” pointing to a dark corner of the cave, “there’s a hole that goes down 20 meters or more.” Because that’s the room mother’s job, keeping stray cats, I mean kids, from falling into bottomless holes in the middle of the earth.
Saving grace: while there were bats, there were no spiders. It occurred to me to be afraid of the bugs only after I was well underground with the class and no longer allowed to panic, and it was a huge relief to discover there were no bugs at all.
Limousis is nicer because (1) it’s well-lit, (2) you can walk through it comfortably—no wiggling like a snake through a chatière (definition: “a very difficult and tight passage that you can only get through by crawling”—ha! as if a chatière were big enough for being on all fours! no, you squirm like a worm, plus it’s wet), (3) no puits or deep drop-offs or holes, at least not on the tourist route, (4) it’s beautiful, (5) they serve wine.
So if you’re into caves, just curious, or want to taste some good wine, Limousis is for you.
The cave was discovered by people who could write in 1811, or maybe 1789. It was discovered much earlier by people who didn’t write, but who left skeletal remains, thank you very much. A bear left its marks, too, near the entrance.
There’s a room that’s rather large with a nice flat floor that the nearby village of Limousis used to use as a salle de fête—a party hall, like for wedding receptions—and it’s naturally air-conditioned (summer) or heated (winter)! Plus the acoustics are awesome. The floor was created over millennia by calcium deposits on an underground lake, which eventually hardened, while the lake water receded, leaving the floor stretched like the cover of a drum, and a hollow space below that produces the resonance.
There’s a pretty green pool and stalactites (the ones hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones growing up from the ground), not to mention columns where the two meet, all over the place. Don’t touch or you’ll “kill” them—oils from our hands changes the special chemistry. It would be a shame because they grow drop by drop, about a quarter of an inch to almost an inch per century. Math quiz: if a stalagmite is 3 feet tall, how old is it?*
In the last room, there’s a huge formation of aragonite, which is pretty cool.
In the first room of the cave, the wine cooperative Alliance Minervois ages some wine, called l’Amethyeste—what better place, right?
We missed the Fourth of July. Don’t know how. For several years when we first moved to our little village in the south of France, we hosted a July 4th cookout. It was a way to invite the various people we had met but we didn’t yet know well enough to have over for a more formal dinner.
But the party took on a scale we hadn’t anticipated. After a few years, we had over 200 people, many of whom we had never seen before–word of mouth spread and it got out of hand. From what I’ve read, we’re not alone.
We stopped doing the party. But by then we had a circle of really good friends, who lamented the loss of hamburgers with all the fixings. So we did it again, on a smaller, invitation-only scale.
We were planning a belated July 4 cookout on Sunday with 15 people or so, when a dear pal, A., asked Husband if he could bring some extras. I wasn’t present for this, and when I found out, I panicked. It was late Friday night, or was it already Saturday? I had just gone to bed after having made the desserts…for 15. How many extras? Maybe six. Maybe 15.
We always make more than enough burgers and figured we’d be OK there. I made extra salads and crudités the next day and picked up some watermelon to stretch the dessert table. Still, on Sunday morning, I was stressed, in a rotten mood not knowing who or how many would appear.
Some friends came into the house as I was about to take out the appetizers. Mostly distracted by the friends, I heard music and thought, vaguely, that Husband had set up a sound system as he loves to do, but this was really loud for the kind of mini-speakers he prefers. I also thought Husband’s taste in music had suddenly improved. It sounded like Norah Jones. Did she have a new album? Or was it Corinne Bailey Rae? Or Diana Krall? Not thinking too much about it, I took the food outside.
And ran into a live jazz quartet, SummerTeam. The lovely chanteuse was singing “Fly Me to the Moon” as I walked out of the house and got gob-smacked by their presence. ?!?!?!? I worship jazz. And these beautiful young things played all the old standards. I really almost fell over.
They squeezed into a bit of shade between the pergola, the pool and and a palm tree, and seemed to actually have fun. I suppose there are worse gigs than playing between a palm tree and a pool, and being fed great burgers between sets.
The guests arrived in a constant flow. La bise, la bise, la bise. Then came the Unknowns, bearing huge, foil-covered trays. Me, mouth gaping in astonishment: WHUH?!?!?!? Under the foil were chicken wings and legs, and deep-fried calamari, to round out the appetizers. Thank you, A! The Unknowns (who didn’t remain unknown very long) and A. had pitched in to hire the band to come and play!
The surprise guests were fun and charming, and very helpful. We have a stock of 40 simple Ikea dishes we use for events–they have gone through hundreds of parties over the years, along with accompanying silverware and glasses–we don’t do plastic. But 40 wasn’t quite enough for 35-ish guests to move on to dessert. Dishwashing was in order, but the automatic one would have taken too long. In Europe, appliances like dishwashers and washing machines heat the water themselves rather than taking it from a hot-water heater, so the process is much slower than in the U.S.
One of the surprise guests came in the house, spied me washing dishes and stepped back outside to bellow “EQUIPE!!!” In seconds my kitchen had six or eight (hard to tell! it was crowded) men and women wielding soapy sponges and tea towels. I don’t expect guests to do dishes, but I was grateful to them, again.
Back outside, I thought how magical it was, thanks in no small part to the band. All the guests, the entire place, were transported by the magic of the music. It helps that the band was really, really good. I loved every single song, and I am very picky about jazz.
The kids dove in the pool and stayed there…mostly (they somehow have radar to hear the lifting of plastic wrap on desserts that are still in the kitchen). One neighbor brought chocolate mousse, another nice surprise. The adults lounged around, increasingly horizontal. Some eventually had to leave. But a few just lolled about, until, around 7 p.m., somebody said, hmm, we really SHOULD eat dinner. Husband defrosted some Toulouse sausages and relit the grill, the remains of the salads came back out, and a dozen of us had Round 2. There was no shortage of food, despite my worries. It broke up at nearly 11 p.m., after discussing and resolving the major problems of the world. We had started at noon. I would call that a successful bash.
So, if you decide to crash a party with a bunch of pals, do it with food in hand and a live band!
BTW, I need to cut back to posting twice a week. I will post on Tuesdays and Fridays. Be there or be square.
Carcassonne is home to two Unesco World Heritage sites: la Cité and the Canal du Midi.
The Canal du Midi stretches 150 miles from near Sète on the Mediterranean, to Toulouse, where it meets the Canal de Garonne, which goes to the Atlantic.
Unesco says the canal, which was built between 1667 and 1694, is one of the greatest engineering achievements of the Modern Age, and that it laid groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.
It was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, who started out as a tax collector and who not only came up with the idea for a canal (well, the Romans thought of it first but couldn’t figure out how to carry it out), he also was the engineer for it.
It was no small feat. Although the canal travels across a plain, it’s flat only in comparison with the Black Mountains to the north and the Pyrenees to the south. There are plenty of hills (ask any bicyclist). Riquet also had to build a reservoir, the Lac de Saint-Ferréol near Revel, to feed the canal with water from the Black Mountains.
There are 53 locks, or écluses, to accommodate the changes in elevation, which used to be operated by men and/or donkeys but now are electric. As many as 10,000 workers were engaged at a time, making it one of the big infrastructure projects of its time. Support for it was high because it would cut the trip between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and also avoid the piracy around southern Spain at that time. (More locks shown below.)
Riquet paid for it partly with taxes that he was empowered to collect and partly through his own fortune, which he exhausted. Carcassonne originally had been bypassed, not wanting to pay up; the canal got a detour through Carcassonne that opened in 1810.
Riquet died in 1680, just a few months before the major part of the canal was finished.
Of course, when there’s lots of rain, the canal risks overflowing, so Riquet devised basins (called épanchoirs) to divert the excess.
The canal even goes through a tunnel (the Malpas tunnel), built in 1670 in Hérault, and over a river (the Orb in Béziers).
The barges, carrying wheat, wine, fabric and other goods, were pulled by men and donkeys, and fruit trees were planted along the banks to provide food. As the traffic made the banks erode, the platanes that are so typical of the south of France were planted instead. However, the platanes are under attack from an untreatable fungus, and are themselves being replaced by oaks.
The last commercial barge passed in 1980. The only traffic since then has been touristic.
Around November, segments of the canal are drained to allow for dredging and repairs to the locks. It’s a sad time of year, seeing the mud bottom exposed. When the canal is refilled later in winter, it feels as if spring is already around the corner.
The canal is great for hiking and biking—it’s flat and mostly shady. It’s impossible to get lost.
You also can go for boat rides (or you can rent houseboats (le Boat, Canalous) that you pilot yourself if you want to stay on the water that long). A boat ride is a perfect inactivity for a hot summer day. Just get your tickets in advance–if a busload of tourists arrives ahead of you, you’ll have to wait for the next departure.
Lou Gabaret, le Cocagne and le Defi offer cruises along the canal, with different lengths and starting times. There also are evening dinner cruises. Even if it’s hot, take a sweater, because you get a nice breeze off the water. The starting point is the Port of Carcassonne, in front of the train station. The cruises usually include a historic commentary, given in as many languages as needed. The guides are really amazing linguists.
Today we’re going WAY back in history, to the Visigoths. Everybody gets all excited about the Middle Ages, but there were plenty of things that happened in these parts a good 1,000 years earlier.
The Visigoths were a Germanic tribe that moved into southwestern France as the Roman Empire started falling apart, around 400 A.D. In fact, the Visigoths sacked Rome (it was the second time for Rome, having been sacked the first time 800 years earlier, by the Gauls), which speeded the empire’s decline.
The chief of the Visigoths was Alaric, whose name graces the peak of a small mountain just outside Carcassonne. Mont Alaric, at 600 meters high, makes for a nice hike that affords wonderful views.
The countryside in the south is riddled with Visigoth traces. Near the village of Villarzel-Cabardès, about 12 km from Carcassonne, a Visigoth cemetery, known as the “Moural des Morts,” is nestled under some pine trees. The Visigoths are thought to have lived in the area from the fifth to seventh centuries.
The cemetery has 44 stone tombs, oriented east-west. The Visigoths don’t seem to have been big people. Obviously child mortality was high back then, but even the biggest tombs seem pretty small.
The archeological artifacts from the area, apart from the tombs themselves, are collected at a small but fascinating museum in Villarzel. It’s the passion of Louis Guiraud, whom one must telephone to open up the museum. He’s an excellent guide.
A horn sounds, and the ancient wood door swings open. A dozen men and women wearing red robes and hats file in, forming a semicircle. The initiate walks into the center of the group, takes his vow and is swathed in a red robe. A green ribbon with the group’s charm is placed around his neck. The members break into celebration.
The charm: a tiny cassole, the clay pot for making cassoulet. The vow: When asked “is the cassoulet good,” the initiate replies, “Aco v’aimi!” which is Occitan for “I like that.” No, not occult. Occitan. The ancient language of the south of France. Oc was the way folks in these parts said “yes,” so the region is the Langedoc—the language of oc. As opposed to the north, where they said “oïl.”
After the vow, the man who came up with the academy, chef Jean-Claude Rodriguez, is asked to give a speech. “Me? I have nothing to say!” he sputters. Then, he exclaims, “Aperitif!” Applause (and glasses of bubbly) all around.
Rodriguez and some friends created the academy to promote true cassoulet around the world. The group’s bible is “Le Festin Occitan,” by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, who also wrote the first Larousse Gastronomique.
“The real cassoulet is hidden behind business. It’s hidden by a world that goes too fast. It’s hidden because we don’t have time to cook with tradition,” Rodriguez said in an interview I did with him a while back.
According to legend, cassoulet was created during the Hundred Years’ War with the British. During a siege at Castelnaudary in southern France, food was running low. The people were asked to contribute whatever they had, and the result was good: beans, duck, pork. But it’s a laborious process, taking two days to do it right.
As a result, many people now make it only a couple of times a year or they buy it canned or order it at restaurants. This is what drives the Academy. A firm denunciation of “industrial” cassoulet and a crusade to see that what’s made in restaurants is up to standards.
“In the beginning, we had lots of member restaurants,” says Jean Ramond, a founding Academy member. “Five or six of us would visit the restaurants, incognito, and order cassoulet. One would sneak into the kitchen, one would check the other rooms, another the toilets. Does the restaurant live up to our standards? We had to eliminate some,” he says, shaking his grizzled head sadly.
The group has “embassies” in several countries, including Japan and Singapore. There is just one in the U.S., in New York. It’s hard to find places that can comply with the charter, namely respecting French tradition and using fresh ingredients.
“Over the years, the ingredients have less flavor,” says Academy member Alphonse Caravaca, a man whose booming laugh, mischievous eyes and thick, black moustache mark him immediately as a bon vivant, despite his métier in insurance (his title is “protagoniste avéré,” or proven protagonist, on the Academy’s administrative council). “The pork, the duck are raised differently. Industrially. You have to get back to the land to get the flavor.”
“When we get together, conviviality grows,” Caravaca continues. “The table, the table is a big party. People don’t eat together anymore. Maybe we’re dinosaurs, I don’t know.”
The horn sounds again. Two men enter with a giant, steaming cassole on a litter. This meeting of the Academy is held in Rodriguez’s restaurant, Chateau St. Martin Trencavel, near Carcassonne. As the main critic of inferior cassoulets, and in the midst of a group of self-professed worshipers of the dish, he has a lot at stake with the evening’s dinner. Not to fear. The black crust is rich, the portions of duck generous, the beans tender.
“I like the beans best,” confides Ramond, the ex-arms dealer. “They soak up all the other flavors.”
The noise level drops markedly as the members concentrate on their plates. After a dessert featuring thyme ice cream and peaches and coffee, the meeting draws to a close. Pierre Poli, the grand master, cites Montagné: “Cassoulet is the god of Occitan cuisine, with Castelnaudary the father, Carcassonne the son and Toulouse the holy spirit. Have you found paradise?”
When I tell people I live in the south of France a few years ago, they invariably respond, “You get to live on vacation!” Then they ask whether I live near Aix or Nice and which movie stars I’ve seen.
But I live in the other south of France. This isn’t Provence or the Riviera, those celebrity-studded regions with lofty prices and haughty attitudes. I am in the Languedoc, which starts west of Provence and stretches along the Mediterranean down toward Spain. It’s much more rural and low key. It’s so unglamorous, the pensioners in my village wear their plaid flannel bedroom slippers when they go out to buy their daily baguettes or deformed bread that was just baked on a hot stone in a woodburning oven.
As the antithesis of bling, Languedoc reeks of authenticity. In most of its little villages, life goes on unhurriedly as it did for generations, giving one the impression of having stepped into an old Pagnol movie. Little old men in crisp white shirts play petanque, the game of bowling with steel balls, in the shade of the ubiquitous platane trees.
Most of the villages are so small that one can wander all their little streets in less than an hour. While racking up a score of villages visited wouldn’t jibe with the region’s laid-back spirit, it’s addictive to wander among their crooked stone houses, peeking into a courtyard or garden whose door has been left open. And, while all the villages have certain characteristics in common—the architecture, the quietude, the town square and fountain—they each show a distinct personality. We’ll explore some of them soon.