My experience in the south of France has been one of daily discoveries and simple pleasures – one I won’t soon forget. But I won’t lie: I’m really looking forward to givingÂ my liver a break.Â And I can’t tell you how much I’m craving a kale salad.
The daily menu at CÃ´tÃ© Mas is short, seasonal and mostly locally sourced. San Miguel cured ham is sliced to order on an antique slicing machine; Aveyron beef and lamb are cooked Mediterranean-style and served with garden vegetables; desserts, such as Ile Flottante, are all contemporary takes on French classics. The surprise comes in the subtle use of Asian ingredients, such as in tuna tataki, marinated with garden herbs and served with black radish, wasabi spaghetti, soy jelly and yuzu. The reasoning becomes clear as soon as you notice TaÃ¯chi Megurikami leading the kitchen. A Japanese chef at the helm has long been part of proprietor Jean-Claude Masâ€™ plan. â€œThey will take something as inspiration and make it better,â€ he says. â€œThey will create something sublime.â€ Like spheres of duck foie gras with very three distinct flavors: soy sauce, honey, and red mulled wine. Then again such anÂ unorthodox approach to French cooking is in keeping with Mas’ attitude towards making wine, full of the spicy, new world aromas and flavors of the Languedoc.
TÃªte de veau is one of those delicacies you don’t find outside of France too often. (and when you do it’s more often than not something best skipped.) As the name implies it’s the head of a veal calf: boiled, braised, and roasted until the meltingly tender flesh literally falls from the skull. Often the meat is then moulded into a terrine and sliced before frying, so you get that idyllic interplay of a crispy exterior enrobing a layer of buttery soft veal. AtÂ Restaurant l’Entre PotsÂ in Pezenas they take it further, pairing the tÃªteÂ with grilled squid, which mirrors the texture of the terrine and manages to create a complex dish that tastes of both land and sea.
The magnificent Abbaye de Valmagne in Montagnac, founded in 1139, is one of the most well-preserved in France. Unusual in that though it was home to just a small handful of monks, the church and accompanying cloister are massive, having been inspired by the great cathedrals of Northern France. As with all good ruins it went from prominence to obscurity in just a few short centuries. Eventually it was confiscated by the government and sold into private hands. Having been looted and abandoned the empty church made the perfect 18th century wine cellar for a Mr. Granier-Joyeuse. Ironically it was the wine that ultimately saved the structure, providing support to the interior walls until proper buttresses could be added to the exterior. To this day the abbey remains in private hands, focusing its efforts on organic gardening and in a nod to monks, brewing small batch beer.
Architect Norman Foster’s Viaduc de Millau is the tallest bridge in the world, with the summit of its highest mast towering 1,125 ft above the base – making it the tallest structure in all of France. A cable-stayed bridge – meaning cables attached to pylons support the roadway – it spans the valley of the River Tam for one and a half miles along a road deck 900 ft above the ground. Ranked as one of the great engineering achievements of all time, it’s exhilarating to drive across. And yet the true magnitude of the achievement only becomes clear at a distance: joining two massive geological plateaus together.
Roquefort â€“ both cheese and town â€“ owes its success to a natural disaster. A series of landslides in the plateau some million or so years ago left behind a chaotic heap of rocks riddled with fissures and natural caves, which were ingeniously adapted into cellars for the purpose of making cheese. These cellars lie at the tip of fleurines, or long faults that channel the air flow, creating a constant temperature and humidity year round. (At Societe des Caves â€“ the oldest and largest producer of Roquefort in town â€“ the cellars go eleven stories deep, with fleurines on every level.) To make this King of cheeses, fresh ewes milk is mixed with penicillium roqueforti spores at the dairy and the resulting curds are shaped into large rounds. Before heading to the cellar, each round is needled to create small cavities, allowing for aeration. Deep underground, the cheese is dusted with salt and left to ripen in the bare caves. And hereâ€™s where the fleurinesÂ works their magic, fostering the growth of microorganisms like the penicillium roqueforti as well as other naturally occurring flora, which slowly ferment the cheese from the inside out, raising its temperature and causing the salt to melt and penetrate down into the cheese. Once ripened, the rounds are wrapped in tin foil by cabanieres, aka â€œthe ladies who wrap the cheese,â€ and left to mature. Between affinage and maturity, the entire process can take up to twelve months, and the result, if you’ve ever tried real Roquefort, is a uniquelyÂ complex and creamy cheese. Little wonder then that Charles VI granted the inhabitants of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon the monopoly on cheese ripening and turned the cellars into a protected landmark. Thereâ€™s gold in them there fleurines. And it’s blue.
In the interest of putting to rest the rumors that I’ve devolved into a wino, it’s high time I introduce you to the man who’s brought me to the south of France: Jean Claude Mas, owner and winemaker of Domaines Paul Mas,Â which comprises seven estates spread across the crus of the Languedoc – most of which I’ve by now had the chance to imbibe. Jean ClaudeÂ is an ambassador of sorts for both his family owned estate and a unique concept called “le luxe rural,” or affordable, everyday luxury. There’s no pretense about him, just as there’s no pretense to his wines. And more importantly, Mas isn’t selling some imagined romantic notion a la Ralph Lauren, but bringing the best facets of the rural way of life center stage; made by hand and built on traditions that stretch back to his grandfather, who first farmed a small vineyard close to the estate. Â Itâ€™s an intoxicating conceit because it smacks of authenticity, not just marketing savvy. Mas talks the talk, but he also lives the life: utilizing the local farms, promoting local craftsmen, pressing his own olive oil, commissioning local artists, even creating a line of clothing line based on provincial designs and textiles. Wine, it turns out, is but the tip of a far grander ambition: taking the ordinary out of the quotidian. Now thatâ€™s a life we all could live.
I love a good hotel. And yet as I get older, I find myself more and more Â drawn to the off beat and the one-off. HereÂ in Pezenas,Â Hotel de Vigniamont is a prime example of the latter. While notÂ a hotel in the American sense of the word, it’s aÂ chambre d’hote, or bed and breakfast, set in a quaint 17th centuryÂ hÃ´tel particulier,Â an old mansion. You enter through a vine-draped door to a cool, central courtyard marked by strikingly dramatic arches.Â AÂ stone staircase showing the wear of centuries winds its way up to five spacious suites and a roof terraceÂ with chaise lounges.Â The individually designed rooms are immensely comfortable, stylish, and include the kind of small, thoughtful touches you’d expect from staying with friends. But best of all is the bubbly hostess, Babette. Delightfully friendly, she’s enthusiastic about both her home and her town.
Old world wine with a new world attitude, Arrogant Frog has to be the cheekiest label around. Grown in the gravely, clay limestone hills of the Herault Valley in Languedoc, these eminently drinkableÂ wines have a personality that tastes of their distinctive terroir. Good marketing only goes so far towards establishing a brand, but these are good value everydayÂ wines that will have you coming back to the barrel in spite of the clever labeling.
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