Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Eating our way through le Sud.
Barbara and I spent the last two weeks of April in Southern France, and we focused our attention mostly on the towns and villages of Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence.
During this trip, I was reminded how good food can taste when produced at a local level by caring farmers; not by agribusiness giants that are more interested in the visual marketability and forced growth capabilities of plants and animals they grow, but not in how any of these foods actually taste.
In most towns we ate in small restaurants that offered regional food and used locally grown ingredients that were fresh, crisp and full of flavor; the eggs had deep-orange colored yolks and tasted the way I remember eggs tasting when I lived in Athens 55 years ago, and my mother would buy meat and eggs from real free-range chickens.
A surprise was the fact that ethnic cooking has taken a definite hold in the villages surrounding large and middle-sized towns in France. I would expect Moroccan, Turkish, Chinese, Thai or Greek restaurants in Paris, or the larger towns we visited. But, it was surprising to see an Algerian lunch joint in an out-of-the-way place like Capendu, a Carcassonne exurb.
Actually, France seems to have more immigrants that brought their cuisine and cooking methods with them, than neighboring Spain. Even though the cuisine of Andalucía, in Southern Spain has been heavily influenced by the Moors and Jews that lived there, since the end of the 15th century when both ethnic groups were either expelled or outright exterminated, Spain has been very homogeneous -- at least as far as religion and cuisine are concerned. Many of the regional Andaluz, Catalan and Basque dishes with which I’m familiar, have been adapted and popularized in other regions, and in Madrid, the capital, you can find restaurants with regional dishes from every Spanish province. However, when it comes to ethnic cooking from outside the Iberian peninsula, Madrid has a considerable dearth of ethnic food.
In the outskirts of Narbonne, one late lunch on the way to Aix-en-Provence, we had a very flavorful “pide peinirli pastirmali” a thin Turkish bread (pide), boat-shaped, with pastirma and baked cheese in the center. Pastirma is a Middle-Eastern appetizer; paper-thin slices of highly seasoned, air-dried, salt-cured beef filet, center sirloin or eye round, covered with a thick layer of a spicy paste called çemen (pronounced chēmén), made by pounding in a mortar garlic cloves, sea salt, fenugreek, cumin, allspice, plus both hot and sweet paprika – it is a staple in my home larder, and many times I will joke and tell people tasting it for the first time that it is preserved camel’s hump.
Pastirma or Basturma or Pastourma or Бастурмa is a favorite appetizer in Turkey, Armenia, Albania, Bulgaria, Southern Russia, Greece, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. As a matter of fact, Egyptian Basturma is considered the best, always made from beef filet, and is thought of as a true delicacy desired by the gourmets and gourmands of those countries. If the word “pastirma” seems familiar, consider that “pastrami” a cured, black pepper coated meat very popular in New York City’s sandwich shops, has come to America via Odessa with the Yiddish emigration of the late 19th and early 20th century. But, I digress…
In Castelnaudary we decided to have dinner at a local restaurant known for its cassoulet. The cassoulet, a very distinctive regional specialty, was shared by Barbara and me. Castelnaudary is considered one of the three cities that make authentic cassoulet, the other two being Toulouse and Carcassonne; the Castelnaudary version is thought of as the oldest, dating from the Hundred Years War; a war between France and England that actually spanned 116 years, from 1337 to 1453.
The cassoulet was rich and flavorful, made with ribbons of pork skin, pork chunks, pork sausage and confit of duck, a roasted duck breast, white beans, vegetables and spices, slow cooked for a very long time in an earthenware cassole. I would have liked to try the Carcassonne version, where red partridge is used instead of the duck, but it was not partridge season. If anyone wants a copy of a cassoulet recipe, a rather complex affair, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will be happy to email it back to you.
One evening in Trebés, another small town we were driving through, we went to a Moroccan restaurant for a lamb with prunes and dried apricots tajine (tagine) flavored with argan oil and honey. The starters were cumin and thyme flavored roasted cold carrots; eggplant and tomato Zalouk; and a salad of local greens. Fresh-mint tea was poured in small colored and gilded glasses. Baklava diamonds were brought in for dessert, accompanied by lavender-perfumed marzipan demilunes. The house wine was a blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan from the Costières de Nîmes. It was young and flavorful. Pure delight!
As we got nearer the Mediterranean, fish and seafood became deliciously abundant. In St. Marie de la Mer, sitting under white canvas awnings while having lunch, Barbara had a dozen fresh oysters and moules frites (mussels in a cream sauce with French fries), and I had fried white baitfish. Fried baitfish is a delicacy for me. I just squeeze juice from a fresh lemon on it, pick-up a finger-full and drop it in my mouth head, tails, bones and all. Anywhere you are, on any Mediterranean seaside restaurant, fried white baitfish is usually the freshest fish dish you can find.
A tomato, fresh mozzarella balls and green salad was added to our lunch but, unfortunately, the tomatoes had no taste. No matter how much salt, pepper and dressing I added to the salad, it was like chewing on cardboard. I gave up on it! But the frozen sorbet that we picked up at one of the dessert and ice-cream stores lining the streets parallel to the harbor was absolutely exquisite! Just one of about 30 flavors available in this store, it had a clean fruit taste (passion fruit in my case) and chunks of fruit frozen in the sorbet.
In Marseille, we only stayed one night to take the TVG the next day to return to Paris. Traveling around France by high speed train is lovely. You get to see the countryside in comfort, and you travel from mid-city to mid-city, without having to go through the airport hassles. Even the slower local trains, not as fast as the TGV, are preferable to flying or driving. Another TGV advantage: there is a dining car where pleasant food and nice wines are offered. We used a 15 day Eurail Pass to get from Charles de Gaulle airport to Carcassonne and back from Marseille, and for day trips in the region, and it was the most hassle-free part of our journey.
During almost the entire trip we drunk restaurant’s house wines, with the exception of one evening when we bought a bottle of a well known local wine from Château Sainte-Eulalie to have with our cassoulet. The house wines were young and fruity, pairing well with the regional food specialties we were ordering. I have to admit that restaurant house wines taste much better now and are of much higher quality compared to 20 or 30 years ago.
In Paris we stuck to classic cuisine bourgeoise. That is some of the best food Paris has to offer, unless of course you decide to go to the Michelin-starred restaurants where the food is exquisite but very international in ingredients and execution.
A fresh steak tartare with a side of frites is a perfect lunch in most French cities and Paris leads in the meat quality and tartare execution. Again, the side salad was tasteless. I’m afraid that French producers are purchasing seeds from giant American corporations that breed vegetables to just look good and last long during transportation to the market and to hell with taste!
For dinner, what else than a timeless onion soup? We sat at one of the red-awning bistros that are found in most blocks of the city, ordered glasses of pastis, a dozen escargots, and continued with the soupe à l’oignon gratinée. In La Cuisine du Marché, Paul Bocuse presents a recipe for gratinée lyonnaise made without using beef broth. Bocuse claims this is the original onion soup preparation made at bouchons in Lyon, ideal for late night snacks, not the “imitations” prepared in Paris at the Les Halles marketplace.
Well… in the wild and wooly days of my youth, when I lived in Paris for a while and worked sometimes at Les Halles unloading frozen beef sides and lamb carcasses to make pocket money, the soupe à l’oignon was the early morning meal most workers had, made with sweet onions (a very cheap ingredient) and scraps of beef and beef bones (we got them free from the butchers whose frozen meat we unloaded, and gave them to the local bistro where we all ate). The toasted bread with melted gruyere cheese on top was a luxury that sometimes we could afford and sometimes we could not. Everything was washed down with lots of very cheap Beaujolais at 25 new centimes a glass. Soupe à l’oignon gratinée made with beef broth still lets me know I’m in Paris!
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