Touring the Food and Wine Regions of Southern France from Montpellier
Raise Your Glass to Rabelais and the Local Wines!
In the heart of the Promenade du Peyrou in Montpellier, I pulled a wine glass from around my neck, out from a burgundy-colored pouch with Le Festin de Rabelais splashed across it. I proffered my glass to the winemaker from Domaine du Pech St. Pierre. I had asked to try the best of his red wines. He straightened the red bandana tied across his forehead, pulled a bottle from the counter, and started to pour. "Women tend to like this one," he said with all seriousness. "Of the two premium red wines I have here today, this one has a lower tannic content."
As if that explained everything. I took a sip. It was fruity and full bodied but it was not very bold. I wanted to try the other red, the daring one he saved for men. I was annoyed that he had segregated his wines, but I walked away and sampled some local foods while finishing the feminine glass.
I was at Montpellier's food and wine festival in honor of writer, humorist, doctor, and all around lover of good food and wine, Francois Rabelais (1483-1553). Festival-goers may purchase a booklet of coupons good for exchange at any of the dozens of white pitched tents along the Promenade du Peyrou, under which Languedoc’s finest regional chefs, winemakers, and artisanal cheese creators and bread and patisserie bakers offered their finest culinary creations. Each Rabelais-rouser received a burgundy-colored picnic pouch filled with a glass wine glass, fork, knife, spoon, and napkin. Louis XIV's horse-riding statue held the park and festival center. A great white chef's hat had been placed on the king's head by some festive soul.
I went back to the AOC Corbieres tent and found the man in the red-bandana. My glass was empty again and I again extended it to him and smiled. "This time, please give me the red wine you say men prefer." He gave me a head to toe consideration, smiled mischievously, and poured generously as I handed over another coupon from my booklet. I took a sip. Finally. More tannin also meant more earth; the fruit was balanced with strong mineral tones—the ones I imagined locked in the secrets of Languedoc's red earth, especially in Cathar country from which this particular vintage sprang. It was at once silky and earthy, like green moss and mushrooms. I held my glass in a toast to Monsieur. He nodded in return, a twinkle in his eye.
Montpellier: A Geographical and Cultural Center in Languedoc
Montpellier is central to so many delightful destinations that most people use it only as their transfer point, often on their way to the more known, and more expensive, Provence. But here, there is that similar sunny disposition amongst the locals that welcomes the visitor and encourages him and her to partake of the fruits of the land. Some 40% of wine produced in France comes from Languedoc-Roussillon. The overall territory is a magnificent mix of wild mountains, hills, forests, and salty shorelines.
Montpellier’s central position makes it a perfect home base in southern France from which to explore the many wine and food producing hinterlands of Languedoc-Roussillon. But before you venture beyond the city’s fortress walls, visit the daily markets, one covered, Les Halles, and one in the open air on the edge of the Place de la Comédie near the tourist office. Also soak up the many wine and food shops dedicated to the indigenous local products of the land and sea. And finally, sample these same delights in the restaurants contained within the old stone walls of the old city.
A university town for several centuries, Montpellier also has an engaging 16th century teaching garden, the Jardin des Plantes, near the famous medical school, where medicinal and decorative plants grow from near and far. The edible and medicinal herbs and flowers are clearly marked. Frogs, fish, ducks, and the occasional cat also inhabit the greenery.
|Dinner time in the medievel quarter of Montpellier.
The Spanish-French Connection
Another fascinating aspect of Montpellier is the strong Spanish-French connection. This cross-Pyrenean link goes back hundreds and thousands of years but was recently reinvigorated by the Spanish who fled Franco’s Civil War and made this part of France their new home. Almost every other person I met in Montpellier had some connection, recent or more distant, to Spain. From the ancient cultural cross-roads shared between Catalan and Occitan cultures, the train between Barcelona and Montpellier reinvigorates the connection daily, filled with people coming and going from each country, like a living and active cultural tapestry.
Top Five Day-Trip Recommendations
Beyond Montpellier and into the fruitful hinterland, here are my recommendations:
- Take in the Saturday market day in Uzes to the northeast, with a visit to Nimes and to the Pont du Gard for some Roman treasures. Or, just give yourself the whole day in Uzès; the small town will easily give you plenty to absorb, from great cobble stone pathways and churches, to the wealth of local foods and wines, including truffles when available and in season.
- Drive through Cathar country, especially the lands including and south of Bezier, Narbonne, and Carcassonne. Make a special visit to the Magdalene chapel in Renne-le-Chateau, near Couiza, to absorb Mary Magdalene’s legacy in the south of France. Lunch in the town square in Limoux after stopping at a couple of surrounding vineyards that specialize in La Blanquette de Limoux, a vibrant white wine unique to the region. Limoux’s market day is Friday.
- Visit the village and monastery of St-Guilhem-le-Desert, through vineyards west and north of Montpellier. The monastery church’s cloister now stands in New York City’s Cloisters, a sale and transfer that happened in the 19th century. The church still merits a visit and has lovely Romanesque influences. Walking paths around the village can take you into herb covered hills.
- Visit the Minervois wine region, south and west of Montpellier, walking slowly amidst the vineyards and stopping for tastings at places advertised roadside as open to the public.
- Soak up the unique salt marshes with a visit to the Camargue, lunch in Arles, and then return to Montpellier via the coast for a dinner of locally farmed oysters from the Bassin du Thau in Sète (a few kilometers south of Montpellier).
Some Local Culinary Fundamentals
Wine: Regarding those prolific wines, AOC Languedoc wines make up many denominations and you could easily dedicate weeks to exploring the vinological wealth. To help out, here are the main AOC designations within the region: Corbières, Minervois, Coteaux du Languedoc, Fitou, Saint-Chinian, Faugeres, Clairette du Languedoc, Limoux, Cabardes, Malepere, Banyuls, Berlou-Chinian, Clairette de Bellegarde, Collioure, Costières de Nîme, Côtes de la Malepère, and Côtes du Roussillon, among others.
Weekly Markets: These are numerous and Southern France lists nearly all the weekly markets unfolding in the Hérault, the department in Languedoc in which Montpellier sits: www.southernfrance.com/Regional/Markets%20H%E9rault.html.
For events and activities, culinary and beyond, the tourist office is a terrific place with very knowledgeable and helpful staff. They also rent bikes, a pleasant alternative to driving into wine country, or to the coast for those oysters. Their website: http://www.ot-montpellier.fr/
A couple fine restaurants:
Restaurant Le Dilemme: 12, Rue Farges, 34000 Montpellier, 04-67-69-02-13.
The restaurant is near the train station in a less touristy neighborhood and features daily menus with classic French and Languedocienne cooking.
Restaurant La Tapaseria: 21, Rue de Vallat, 34000 Montpellier, 04-67-60-77-23. The restaurant is in the heart of the medieval neighborhood and is a warm, gregarious place to inhabit for the evening. Run by an owner who is dedicated to the local production of food and wine, and also with a passion for Catalan culture, it is a good place to discover delicious but unheard of wines and cheeses, as well as enjoy an endless possibility of classic southern French cooking coupled with that Spanish penchant for tapas.
|Catalan-Languedoccienne tapas in Montpellier's Restaurant Tapasiere.
I strongly recommend renting a vacation apartment, which you can do easily via Montpellier’s craigslist or numerous other holiday apartment rental listings, such as www.homelidays.com. This way you will have a kitchen into which to haul your market catch and enjoy the daily food and wine finds as a local. You can rent an apartment for as low as €250+ (~US$325) a week for a cozy studio or as luxurious as you wish for €600+ (~US$780) per week. Either way, it is more economical than staying in a hotel.