main street carcassonne

carcassonne panoramaLooks can be deceiving: Carcassonne is not a castle. Surrounded by almost 2 miles of fortifications it’s the largest walled city in Europe. The first signs of settlement in this region of Languedoc date to about 3500 BC, but things didn’t take off until the Romans identified the hilltop site as strategic and started building fortifications. Next came the Visigoths, who expanded the fortress into a fiefdom – until the Papacy stuck its nose in. Pope Urban II arrived to bless the foundation stones of a new cathedral and turned the growing city and its environs into a secondary seat of church power – all the better to launch a crusade against the pesky Cathars, a religious group which rejected Catholicism as the Church of Satan. Holy war, as we all know, is very good for business. More ramparts went up, dungeons were built, and towers were erected to house the Inquisition. Carcassonne became a border citadel between France and Spain that remained unconquered until the 17th century, when an economic revival under Louis XIV trumped the city’s military significance. In truth Carcassonne wasn’t so much conquered as absorbed into a burgeoning colonial empire. Cite de Carcassonne, as it’s now called to distinguish it from the modern-day town of Carcassonne down the hill and over the river, is no longer a functioning city – technically. Yet it’s been restored to varying degrees of authenticity in an example of artistic simulacrum. Populated with shops, hotels, and tourists eating ice cream at outdoor cafes, the city appears at first glance authentic. But not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA, it’s all a facade. And yet I have to give someone serious props because it’s an awfully good one at that.
carcassonne main street

carcassonne

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video: vin sans romance

IMG_2300I’ll be the first to admit that I had a somewhat naive idea about how wine is produced in the 21st century. This being France, I assumed little old men in flat caps individually filled each bottle with a pipette out of oak casks – while precariously dangling a cigarette out of the corner of their mouth, natch. But oh, how times have changed: industrialization is everywhere. As I recently discovered at Domaine D’Astruc in Malras – and as these two video clips below make abundantly clear – it might completely shatter the romance of winemaking, but there’s something beautiful in the startling degree of efficiency achieved.

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9,999 bottles of cremant on the wall

9999 bottles of cremant

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mauzac de limoux

IMG_2321Following a little dirt road along the Martinollet River as it winds its way through vineyards, olive trees, and garrigue in the shade of the Pyrenees, it eventually ends at the modest estate of Chateau Martinolles, part of Domaines Paul Mas. This part of Languedoc is rich in heritage. In Medieval times Cathars settled in the area to escape – ever so briefly – persecution by the Catholic Church. Nearby is the Abbey St. Hilaire, where in 1531 the method for creating sparkling wine was discovered and Prima Perla, the first bubble, was born. The rugged climate and topography together create a superb terroir for chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, but it’s Mauzac that stands out. A local varietal, it’s the key to Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux, two effervescent AOC sparkling wines redolent with apples and freshly cut grass.

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danger, wine up ahead

danger ahead

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twilight: bouzigues

twilight - oyster beds - bouziques

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spoils of war

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video: zen & the art of oysters

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romain, the oyster whisperer of thau

romain

 

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moliere is everywhere

moliere is everywhereThough by all accounts playwright-actor-stage manger Moliere spent only a few years of his early artistic life in Pezenas, the small Sud de France town has adopted him as though he were a native-born son. (Without benefit of a beach or other tourist attraction, you can’t really blame them for doing what they have to do.) There’s the Hotel Moliere, of course, and a public monument to the writer in the center of town. (The only one outside of Paris, people are quick to tell me.) In the local museum a chair used by Moliere while he was in residence is proudly displayed – a gift of cultural patrimony purchased by villagers who banded together to rescue the relic at auction.  A summer festival of his plays is one of the big cultural draws.  And though I cannot vouch for the quality of the drink produced, there is even Les Caves Moliere for anyone who likes their wine a bit on the theatrical side. Note to marketing gurus everywhere: even the most tenuous of connections can be made charming when executed with Continental panache.

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the stir at la scene

IMG_2268Chef Stephanie le Quellec is causing quite the stir at La Scene, her debut Paris boite inside the newly reopened Hotel Prince des Galles on Avenue George V. The first female winner of Top Chef France, Quellec is no shrinking violet – neither while commanding her small staff in a pristine open plan kitchen, nor when it come to composing multi-textured, intensely flavored plates. (This is France after all: to be taken seriously as a upper-echelon female chef one must engage in a bit of bark as well as bite.) Embracing the farm-to-table ethos of her native Provence and the current trend for responsible sourcing, as well as employment of methode ancienne, Quellec has created a fine dining experience that’s altogether familiar yet radically new at once. Pearl oysters are simply opened, paired with a fragrant matcha foam, white beans and nori; blue lobster from Normandy is roasted and succulent, with chanterelle, juicy apricots, and a silky sauce of old mimolette; sweetbreads so inviting that I blanched and forget take a photo, supple and toothsome, paired with golden apples, white asparagus, and a mousseline of dates; parfait of verbena: crisply herbaceous, with cherry and fluffy egg white presented with an artistic flourish. The tablecloths at La Scene may be starched, but the food – generous and sensual – is most definitely not. Let’s hope Quellec is at the forefront of a new gastronomic trend. I’d call it the new nouveau.IMG_2272

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oops, i did it again

IMG_2279I swear I had the best of intentions, and yet this morning I managed to find myself a flaneur in Les Halles – outside E. Dehillerin (la specialiste du materiel de cuisine, depuis 1820!) like a homing pigeon returned to the roost. Who am I to argue with serendipity? Rest assured my tradition of hauling copper pots across multiple countries remains intact.

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locks of (optimistic) love

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death by butter (and salt)

IMG_2267Needless to say my vegan, raw food diet has gone out the window pretty quickly here in Paris. Good riddance, I say; especially when there is butter like this to be had. (and fleur de sel, and foie gras, and croissants as ethereal as angels wings.)

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