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.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Bottling at Domaine Ribiera 2013 style

My 2012 post on Bottling at Domaine Ribiera at Aspiran described a lego-kit family and friends bottling line. This year, to explore an alternative, the faster but more expensive approach of a full-scale bottling lorry was taken.

Enormous lorry complete with pop-out sides
Like the lego-kit operation at least 7 people are needed, although four come with the lorry. The benefit is speed with up to 1 bottle a second which is three times faster.

The grab arm feeds a whole row of bottles at a time

Everything is computerised
Once the bottles are loaded, everything is automated under computer control except packing the bottles into cases - a job needing two professionals to keep up.

Checking the white Terret for clarity
Boxes are manually loaded onto palets and a fork-lift truck whisks them away to the cave.

Régis Pichon and David Caer (Clos Mathelisse) loading boxes onto palets

Friday, 14 June 2013

Naural Wine 3 years on

I see it’s now 3 years since the term natural wine has registered in my wine conscience and attending the Roquebrun Festival des vins naturel prompted me to reflect. Back then I more or less concluded “so what” given that most independent Languedoc growers were following practices upheld by the movement, especially in the area of organic/sustainable grape growing and minimal intervention in the winery.

Today, if I go to a natural wine fair, natural wine bar or just browse the vins naturel shelves of a caviste, I have expectations, at least in France (less so in the UK). Expressive young wines that dance around the senses perhaps playing with the limits of volatility and yeasty characteristics. Brett often features. Whites might be prickly, oak for reds will be less common and used lightly. The majority are best enjoyed relatively young.
B list grape varieties that are particularly low key on widely recognised characteristics will feature strongly. This is one area where natural wine makers excel; making interesting wines from the likes of Cinsault, Terret, Aligote, Gamey, Cot, Melon de Bourgogne etc.

I’ve also learnt that most “natural wines” are not made by zero SO2 fanatics with beards and sandals. Most growers are pragmatic and will, for example, add a dash of sulphur for wine destined for export. Others make “conventional” wines, but when conditions are right will bottle a modest cuvée sans SO2. Some bottlings will only be sold locally to reduce the risk of spoilage in transportation.

France vs UK emphasis

In the UK I’ve found the “definition” of natural wines to be a bit looser, possibly down to the dominance of marketers in a land where wine making is niche and hence lacks a winemaker driven movement. I've witnessed Organic and Biodynamic grape production used to make conventional wine branded as natural wine. In France a Bio wine fair has a different emphasis to a vins naturel one.

Road to an accepted norm?

I spent many years working in IT, an industry where new ideas and products emerged continuously. There is what observers call a "hype" cycle for new technology before it becomes mainstream. Take mobile phones. Initially they were hyped as the next big thing but then the first products were launched. They were seriously bulky, had a short battery life, offered no coverage and were expensive. Disillusion set in and the traditional telecoms companies continued to shun them. All these shortcomings melted away as the technology became ubiquitous rather than novel. The traditional telecoms invested heavily and made acquisitions to catch up.

Natural wine isn't an IT technology but some parallels with a "hype -> disillusionment -> enlightenment -> mainstream" cycle can be observed. There are still too many poor and overpriced examples that put consumers off, but know-how and standards are improving. Conventional wines are gradually using less sulphur and other additives. Significantly,  Languedoc negociant giant Gérard Bertrand now offers non-sulphured lines (stocked by Marks & Spencer in the UK) which signals a market for those who want or require such wine. A market beyond thrill seekers like me. Mainstream consumer acceptance may never fully happen, but this is a significant step. Arguably restaurant wine lists are the closest we have to broad acceptance with many serious lists featuring natural wines interspersed and indistinguishable from more convention offerings.

For me, “natural wines” have shaped a new style of wine to enjoy; up there with the “new world” invasion 30 years ago and my discovery of the Languedoc.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Festival des vins natures 4th edition Roquebrun

The marketing for this event is pretty specialised, seemingly through growers and cavistes. It was also spot on, buzzing not heaving and with nearly 200 seated for the long late lunch. Fewer were there earlier for the Balade vines to Domaine Marquise des Mures on the hillside above Roquebrun, an informative and pleasant prequel to the tasting. The setting, along the banks of the Orb in the shade of poplars, was idyllic.

General observations: -
  • These were wines at the natural end of spectrum – organic vineyard standards, "wild" fermentations, no or minimal sulphur added
  • The majority of growers come from less well known sites in their appellations. Cinsault and Terret were popular with most wines made way outside AOC regulations for grape variety percentages.
  • Oaked reds less common or toned down while some whites had too much and/or were too young (2012).
  • All wines leapt out of the glass showing their characters – no desperate glass swirling to coax closed wines
  • No prices with little selling taking place
  • Knowledgeable attendees
  • High quality wines, only one I though was at the limit of VA and a couple were a bit too rustic, plus many of the 2012s on show needed longer to settle down in bottle.
Some highlights (from memory, nobody was making notes)

Les Temps des Cerises I recall having a red at the excellent restaurant Octopus in Béziers 6 or 7 years ago and it stands out as my first exposure to (as I can now associate) modern natural wine. Since then a couple of encounters have sadly seen volatile wine falling apart, perhaps down to poor storage by their guardians.
These examples, especially the reds, had the vibrant freshness I would have expected from a wine made in the relatively cool upper Orb valley north of Bedarieux.

Far Ouest Mylène Bru is from the unfashionable (excepting Peyre Rose) Saint-Pargoire on the left bank of the Hérault. From Grenache, Carignan, Syrah with some Cinsault, Marselan and Tempranillo it's quite a rich full stlye and very Mediterranean without being heavy - clearly carefully made. At the more conventional end of the natural spectrum and none the worse for that.
I was served a glass last year at the (now closed) Le Mimosa restaurant, so high praise indeed.

Domaine Yannick Pelletier Saint-Chinian. L'Oiselet (Cinsault) is another wine I've had in several restaurants including the aforementioned Octopus in Béziers. It always has a nice pure and structured cutting fruit and drinks well, as it did at the fair.

l'engoulevent is more savoury and substantial (mainly Grenache, Carignan, Syrah) with lots going on under the surface.

I found Coccigrues too oaky, especially in the context of lunch time in the open air.

La Fontude is a Domaine sited in the hills just to the west of Lake Saligou. I came across a bottle a few years ago but it didn't leave an impression. Clearly things have been refined as the "rouge" (Cinsault) was vibrant and delicious.

The only disappointment was the 2006 Entremonde (Carignan, Aramon, Grenache, Cinsault) where the oak was still bullying the wine. Reusing the barrel made the younger vintages on show much more promising.

Domaine Ribiera. Last but not least the home team from my village. Régis Pichon was showing two whites, Y'a un terret (Terret) and Les Canilles (Rousanne) that were the whites of the show. Both 2011s, they had been in bottle a year and settled down. I found them the best whites on show. The Terret had a light racy crunch with attractive mouth feel while the Canilles is more aromatic but not at all heavy - fresh fennel and citrus peel.