Friday, 21 June 2013

Languedoc Gastronomy

I originally wrote this piece for my Languedoc dining site where it still resides. Food and wine were never meant to be separated and a read through reminded me that the region's gastronomy is as diverse as the wines.

The Food of the Languedoc

Gastronomically, the Languedoc isn’t the most renowned of France’s regions – a turbulent history and a degree of confusion due to culinary diversity being the main reasons. Being located at a geographic crossroads does mean a wide variety of ingredients are available and the diverse cuisine this leads to make it a great all-rounder. On the coast is the seafood of the Mediterranean, go north and there is the full range of mountain produce – many overlook that Lozere is part of the region. Catalonia to the southwest brings a refreshing non-French influence. The Pyrenees and Gascony, land of the duck and goose, are to the west. Last but not least just to the east is the vibrant market garden that is Provençe.

The markets of the region are the best and most enjoyable means of obtaining ingredients. A comprehensive list of Languedoc markets can be found on the Languedoc Page. Also excellent are the increasing number of organic farms that sell direct. See for more information in the Hérault. In summer a profusion of stalls popup in lay-bys and the like, but beware of origin and prices.

Seasons are everything. Winter is obviously the leanest time for fresh fruit and vegetables, but at least the better supplies from Spain and North Africa are available as opposed to the blander Dutch greenhouse produce that dominates further north in Europe. The arrival of Green Asparagus from the Hérault at the end of March marks the arrival of spring produce.

Local ingredients

Fish from the Mediterranean – thon (tuna), sardines, anchovies, boudroie (local name for lotte i.e. monkfish), rouget (red mullet), seiche (cuttlefish), pisseur (red squid), soupions (baby squid), poulpe (octopus), dourade (bream), loup (sea bass) – to name but a few. Sadly overfishing and the practice of landing immature fish threatens most of these species. As a result fish mongers are in decline.
Red Squid known locally as Pisseurs

Shellfish – is reared in the large Basin de Thau behind Sete with its miles of oyster and mussel beds. Young shells are actually imported from the Atlantic coast to mature in the basin. Connoisseurs will say they are inferior to produce from cooler Atlantic waters, but locally they will be fresher. Also look out for small triangular clams called tellines, they’re sweet and make a superb jus.
Coincidentally or not, Picpoul de Pinet is made from the vineyards that surround the Basin de Thau.

Anchovies – most famously landed at Collioure on the Cote Vermille near Spain, are available fresh, salted, in oil or marinated in various ways.

Salt Cod – would have originally arrived via traders from the north and could penetrate much further inland than fresh fish in the days before roads and refrigeration. Best known for carefully mixing with olive oil, milk, garlic and perhaps a little potato to make Brandade de Morue, a speciality of Nîmes.

Charcuterie – dried sausages are made all over region but for something special and reliable seek out the mountain produce from Lacaune.

Cheese – with the Languedoc planes dominated by vines one has to head for the limestone hills to find sheep and goat country. The most famous cheese is the blue Roquefort. Matured in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (politically in the Midi-Pyreneees) much of it originates from the ewes living on the high Grande Causses (limestone plateaus) of which Larzac is by far the largest.

All over the hills goat’s milk makes small Pélardons and Crotins. Perail is a creamier sheep’s cheese made throughout the region. Beyond the Causses are the mountains of the Auvergne and their famous cows cheeses – St. Nectaire, the Cantal family (Salers, Laguiole), Tommes of all descriptions etc.

Olives and olive oil – the Languedoc is on the northerly margins for the frost hating olive tree. The oils are light and elegant in style and ideal for complementing more delicately flavoured food such as fish. Low yields mean that they are expensive, so use them on their own as seasoning oils and keep Spanish or Greek oil for mixing dressings and for cooking. If you like your oil particularly peppery then watch out for new seasons oil from the end of the year.
Without doubt the star eating olive is the local bright green lucque. These are best freshly bought as they oxidise (go soft and dark green) within days once exposed to air. Under water in sealed jars will preserve them for several months. The green Picholine variety also eats very well, as do the marinated small brown variety known as Nicoise.

Honey – there are apiculteurs all over the region. Depending on the blossom and flowers in season different honeys are produced so have a tasting at a market stall or visit a producer. The range is as diverse as wine with the heady flavours from the indigenous plants and trees resulting in some powerful tastes such as chestnut and lavender. If you like something more delicate seek out bruyère (heather).

Camargue Red rice – is an attractive brick red colour with a nutty flavour and firm textur.

Garrigue herbs – the limestone scrubland dotted with holm oaks and other shrubs is known as the garrigue. It will always be land that was once cultivated  by man but has been abandoned. A profusion of wild rosmary, thyme, fennel, bay, juniper (higher areas) etc. make it a heady place, especially a few days after some good rains.

Salt – The town of Aigues-Mortes at the edge of the Camargue remains a major producer of salt. Fleur de Sel is collected by hand when the conditions are right for surface crystals to form on the evaporating salines. Buy it in small cork lidded tubs that state the name of the family producer and use it as a garnish. La Balene (whale) make a more everyday salt that’s exported all over the world.


Cebes, sweet white onions famous in the area around Lézignan-la-Cèbe in the Hérault valley.

Seasonal Ingredients

Green Asparagus – the first of the new seasons produce appears from the end of March (best, with most flavour) to the beginning of June

Garlic – new seasons green garlic from May. The purple tinged skin of the Ail rose de Lautrec is the most recognisable. From April watch out for young garlic with horsetail like leaves that can be used directly in salads.

Cherries – Ceret is near where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean and lays claim to the region’s first cherries in early May, but for the sweeter eating wait until early June.

Strawberries – the local Gariguettes peak from mid-April to the end of May but watch out for other named varieties such as Mara de Bois from small holders.

Apricots, Peaches and Melons – ripen in June when roadside (beware of origin and price) and ad-hoc village stalls appear in abundance.

Tomatoes, Aubergines, Courgettes and Peppers – are best in summer. Look for small-holder produce and remember that ugly shape usually means best flavour.

Late summer figs
Figs – these grow wild and there are two seasons. In June some trees produce a fig-fleur that  are delicate, fresh and succulent. From August the main crop is prolific.

There are several varieties, although relatively few travel or keep well enough to be commercially viable.

Grapes – table grapes arrive from late August with several varieties being available. Don’t expect many seedless varieties, those with pips do have more flavour.

Chestnuts – the slopes of the Cevennes, especially away from the limestone areas, are heaving with chestnuts from mid-autumn. Olargues is a particularly renowned area.

Walnuts and almonds – the regions trees provide an abundant autumn harvest.

Wild mushrooms – are most common in the autumn after the rains when the large cèps arrive from the mountains of Lozere.

Pomegranates – bushes grow in the hedgerow but the fruits rarely ripen.

Quinces – can again be found in the hedgerows, but wild one’s are susceptible to insect infestation.

Winter vegetables – the village of Pardailhan in the cooler Haut-Languedoc is renowned for its Navet de Pardailhan (black turnip that has white flesh), carrots and other root vegetables grown on a clay-limestone soil plateau.
Navets de Pardailhan

Some Regional Dishes

Finding good examples of region dishes can be a challenge. Many restaurants find they don’t sell well as presumably most diners want something different. Where they are available it’s often for tourists and cost pressures invariably mean that short cuts are taken and quality suffers.

Rouille à la setoise – cuttlefish cooked in a tomato and saffron sauce thickened with a garlic and olive oil aioli. Also cooked in a similar way is encornets farci – stuffed young squid. Bourride de Sète is similar but features monkfish (locally called boudroie). Bourride can also mean a soupy fish stew – the Languedoc version of Provençe’s bouillabaisse that is a bit more rustic.

Tielle or Tièle – these orange glazed seafood pies are commonly seen in markets. Big is best as small ones have a higher percentage of pastry. A splendid as takeaway food. Based on poulpes (octopus) and tomato.

Anchoïade – is a spread similar to tapenade (olives, capers, garlic, olive oil) but includes anchovies.

Petits pâtés de Pézenas – these disappointing small pastries look like toadstools and are stuffed with sweet lightly spiced mutton. Said to have been introduced by Clive of India.

Cassoulet de Castelnaudary – acknowledged home of this rich, slow cooked crusted haricot bean stew packed with duck or goose confit and Toulouse sausages. Definitive winter fayre.

Brandade de morue – amalgamated salt cod, olive oil, milk, garlic and perhaps a little potato. Can be served warm or cold.

Aligot – what is basically a mixture of mash potato and mountain cheese with garlic is, when well made, a uniquely stringy textured and delicious creation that demands second helpings.

À la catalane – a dish with a base of tomatoes, onions, garlic, red or green peppers and ideally some red Banyuls wine.

À la languedocienne – a dish with a base of dried ham, garlic, chard and parsley but in practice has pretty diverse interpretation.

Crème catalane – is crème brûleé flavoured with lemon peel, fennel seed and perhaps cinnamon bark.

1 comment:

  1. A nice read, Graham - and a reminder of so many things that are good about Languedoc and its gastronomy. It's a shame our holiday in the region has come and gone for this year. Oh well, we'll just have to look forward to next year!