Things to see and do - Languedoc Roussillon, Tarn Gorges
Languedoc Roussillon, Tarn Gorges :
Where to go?
The economic diversity of Languedoc-Rousillon and the Midi-Pyrenees is as vast and varied as its geography, ranging from artisanal crafting of fine leather goods, and the wondrous church bells cast at the Hérault foundry at Hérépian, to tourist-pampering spas and resorts, high-tech wonders like the Airbus A380 produced in Toulouse, bio and nano technologies, and sustainable energy endeavors. The population growth of Languedoc-Rousillon is twice the French national average, with 20,000 new inhabitants per year, 90% of these from other cities and regions in France. Immigration and changing demographics have recharged the region’s populace, which seems to be always on the move between big cities and rural havens, energised by the lifestyle and economic advantages of both. Balancing the long, slow exodus of inhabitants from isolated rural villages migrating to the cities, are young “neo-rurals,” new settlers who are reviving these phantom villages with organic farming schemes, theatres and radio stations, cultural projects and schools.
Languedoc-Rousillon is the fourth most visited tourist area in France. With some 15 million visitors a year, one-third from outside France, tourism is a huge economic player in the region. Summer beach-going on Languedoc’s “sunshine coast,” cultural tourism, sybaritic spas like d’Amélie-les Bains at Vallespir and ski resorts like Cerdagne et le Capcir.
And as for recycling... These days, the only miners working the open-pit mine at Carmaux, are statues of miners stationed at the heritage interpretation centre. The coal mine which has been a centre of coal extraction since the 13th century is now a tourist attraction.
Three commercial ports Sète, Port-la-Nouvelle et Port-Vendres transport 6.5 million tons of merchandise per year, and Sète is a gateway for Mediterranean cruises to Morocco.
The region’s booming demographics pose a challenge to the protection and management of the environment, eco-system and natural resources, and have stimulated a concerned consciousness and the growth of sustainable wind and solar energy development and technology. Air Languedoc-Roussillon is the first regional association in France created to control the quality of the air, and the Cerbère-Banyuls natural marine reserve is another regional environmental protection initiative.
Food and Drink
On the Mountain Plateaux
The region stretching from the Aveyron département to the Cévennes has a delectable local cuisine, based on livestock bred on the causses . Local cheeses include: Fourme de Laguiole, a type of Cantal used to make the local dish aligot ; Bleu de Causses, a blue cheese made from cow’s milk; Pérail and the well-known Roquefort, both from ewe’s milk; and Cabécou or Cévennes pélardons from goat’s milk. Lamb from the causses is a delicious, but pricey, main course. Many local recipes feature mutton or pork, common in traditional cooking. Offal such as tripe also features widely on local menus: tripoux de Naucelles (tripe stewed in white wine with ham and garlic); charcuterie from Entraygues; sausages from St-Affrique and Langogne; trénels de Millau (sheep’s tripe stuffed with ham, garlic, parsley and egg); alicuit from Villefranche-en-Rouergue (stewed chicken livers). Visitors to the Tarn should not miss charcuterie from the Montagne Noire, bougnettes from Castres (small, flat pork sausages) and cured hams and sausages from Lacaune. Fresh fish is hard to come by, apart from river trout, but recipes featuring salted or dried fish are common, such as estofinado (stockfish stew). Chestnuts are traditionally used in soups and stews, or roasted and eaten whole with a glass of cider.
For those with a sweet tooth, there are soleils from Rodez (round yellow cookies flavoured with almonds and orange blossom), fouaces from Najac ( brioches flavoured with angelica), Cévennes croquants (hard almond cookies) and nènes (small aniseed biscuits) from St-Affrique.
Languedoc cuisine is typical Mediterranean cuisine, featuring herbs from the garrigues (rosemary, thyme, juniper, sage, fennel), garlic and olive oil, and fresh aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes and peppers. A local garlic soup called aigo boulido is made with garlic, olive oil and thyme. Some dishes include snails, delicious wild mushrooms ( cèpes, morilles ) or even – as a special treat – truffles, found growing at the foot of the holm-oaks on the slopes of the Hérault and the Gard.
Common meat dishes feature mutton or pork, and occasionally veal. Local game raised on fragrant wild herbs, juniper berries and thyme, has a remarkable flavour, as do the lambs and sheep raised on the causses. They are used in pies or stews. Regional cheeses are mainly from goat’s milk, very tasty when heated and served on a bed of lettuce. Menus near the coast are based on a variety of seafood: oysters and mussels from Bouzigues, bourride sétoise (fish stew from Sète), gigot de mer de Palavas (fish baked with garlic and vegetables) and seafood pasties. In Montpellier, fish dishes are accompanied by beurre de Montpellier, a sauce of mixed herbs, watercress, spinach, anchovies, yolks of hard-boiled eggs, butter and spices. Sweets include oreillettes (orange biscuits fried in olive oil), eaten in Montpellier at Epiphany and on Shrove Tuesday, or grisettes (candy made from honey, wild herbs and liquorice).
Toulouse to the Pyrenees
The rich local cuisine of the Périgord or South-West France features goose and duck, either preserved as confits or as foie gras, or in stews. Assorted charcuterie includes the delicious saucisson sec (a sort of local salami). Meat dishes are usually stews which have simmered gently for hours. The most famous dish from this region is cassoulet , a thick stew of haricot beans, sausage, pork, mutton and preserved goose. Vegetables include sweetcorn, olives, asparagus from the Tarn Valley and the fragrant purple garlic from Lautrec. The Pyrenees produce a tasty ewe’s milk cheese called brebis. Those with a sweet tooth should sample nougat from Limoux, marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) from Carcassonne or rosemary-scented honey from the Corbières.
This is a typically Mediterranean cuisine, using olive oil, garlic mayonnaise ( ail y oli in Catalan, aïoli in French) and a paste made of anchovies, olive oil and garlic (el pa y all, or anchoïade). Bouillinade , the Catalan version of bouillabaisse (fish soup), and civet de langouste au Banyuls – spiny lobster stewed in dry Banyuls wine, make a delicious follow-up to a starter of Collioure anchovies. In Les Aspres, escalade is a fragrant soup made with thyme, garlic, oil and egg. Mushrooms fried in oil with an olive sauce are eaten with game (partridge and hare). Catalan charcuterie includes such delicacies as black pudding (boutifare or boudin), pig’s liver sausage, and cured hams and salami from the Cerdagne mountain. Cargolade , snails from the garrigue grilled over burning vine cuttings, frequently feature in the open-air meals which follow prayer retreats at the hermitages. Sweets include crème catalane (crème brûlée with caramel), bunyettes (orange-flavoured doughnuts), rousquilles from Amélie-les-Bains (small almond biscuits) and fresh fruit from Roussillon’s many orchards (peaches, pears, and melons).
Coteaux du Languedoc
The wine growing region of Languedoc is blessed with a Mediterranean climate and a variety of soil types (layers of schist, pebble terraces and red clay). It is the main producer of French table wine (vins de table and vins de pays), but today wine-growers here are concentrating on improving local grape varieties and the way they are blended. Their efforts have been rewarded with an increase in the number of designated AOCs (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée) in the region. Promoted to AOC in 1985, the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation includes red, rosé and white wines produced in the Hérault, Gard and Aveyron départements . Besides Faugères and St-Chinian, whose heady, powerful wines have won these areas their own AOC designations, the AOC has been awarded to particular vintages. For red and rosé wines, these are: Cabrières, La Clape, La Méjanelle, Montpeyroux, Pic-St-Loup, St-Christol, St-Drézéry, St-Georges-d’Orques, St-Saturnin and Vérargues, and for white wines: Picpoul-de-Pinet, aged in oak casks. The Carignan grape is the main grape variety cultivated in the region. The Cabrières region also produces Clairette du Languedoc , a dry white wine made from the Clairette grape, an AOC winner. Local table wine is sold under the label “Vins de pays d’Oc” or “Vin de Pays” followed by its département of origin. Notable vins doux naturels from the Coteaux du Languedoc include Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat de Mireval and Muscat de Lunel.
The Minervois region is reputed for its fine, fruity robust red wines which are well balanced and have a deep, rich red colour. The St-Jean-du-Minervois vineyard, covering the limestone garrigues on the uplands in the north-west, produces a fragrant muscat dessert wine.
The vineyards of the Aveyron
The Aveyron vineyards were once a source of great wealth to the region, thanks to the work of the monks from Conques. Covring steep slopes, these vineyards stand out from the surrounding mountain landscape. The well balanced red wines of Marcillac (AOC), with a hint of raspberry, go well with the tripe dishes of the Rouergue region. The red wines from Entraygues and Fel , classified as VDQS ( Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure – one step down from AOC), have substance and a nice fruity flavour. The whites from these designations are lighter with more finesse. In the Lot Valley, the Estaing VDQS vineyards are cultivated on the valley sides up to an altitude of 450m/1 476ft and produce pleasant dry whites and subtle, fragrant reds. The sheltered sides of the Tarn valley between Peyreleau and Broquiès are home to the Côtes de Millau VDQS vineyards, which produce mainly red and rosé wine. Cerno is a local aperitif made from Côtes de Millau wine and herbal extracts.
The wines of the Gaillac vineyards, to the west of Albi, are classified as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée . Dry white wines with a fragrant bouquet are made using local grape varieties Mauzac, Len de Lel and Ondec. There are three types of Gaillac white: sweet (moelleux), very slightly sparkling (perlé) and sparkling (mousseux) . Gaillac red is made from traditional grapes such as Gamay, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet, mixed with local varieties like Braucol or Duras for a robust wine, or Négrette.
Slightly farther west, just north of Toulouse, Côtes du Frontonnais wines are produced from a very old grape variety, the Négrette, mixed with Cabernet, Syrah, Fer Servadou and Cot, to give supple fruity wines which are best drunk young. There are two AOCs around Carcassonne: Cabardès, well balanced with plenty of body, and Malepère, a fruity red wine. Both of these wines are perfect complements to game and red meat.
Corbières and Roussillon wines
The Fitou Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée is reserved for a red wine from a specific area in the Corbières. Its alcohol content must be at least 12%, output is limited to 30hl per hectare/330gal per acre, and the wine must have been aged in a cellar for at least nine months. Fitou wines, produced from high quality grapes, are strong and full-bodied.
The Corbières Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée covers an area with a mixture of soil types, producing a variety of wines. Besides red wines with a fine bouquet, production includes fruity rosés and some dry white wines.
The Roussillon vineyards are noted for their high quality vins doux naturels (dessert wines), the Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon Village wines classified as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, and their robust, earthy local wines. Just north of Agde, the tiny village of Pinet produces a dry white wine called Picpoul de Pinet (from the Picpoul grape). It makes the perfect accompaniment to oysters from the nearby Bassin de Thau. This region’s vins doux naturels represent the majority of French production of wines of this type. The grape varieties – Grenache, Maccabeu, Carignan, Malvoisie, among others – add warmth and bouquet to these wines.
The warm local climate and the sunny vineyards make these wines mature perfectly with a high natural sugar content. The most famous examples are Banyuls, Maury, Muscat de Rivesaltes and Rivesaltes.
Blanquette de Limoux
This sparkling white wine, much in demand for its fine quality, is made from the Mauzac and Clairette grapes ripened on the slopes around Limoux.