Loving the Languedoc

France lives up to its international reputation as the
cradle of fine food

RICHARD HOLMES

This is not just any radish. To my – admittedly untrained – eye it’s about as perfect as a radish is likely to get. As
brassicas go, this is blue-blood royalty, with a deep red tuber mellowing to a pale tip. Its bright green shoots have been clipped and trimmed with a surgeon’s precision. This is a work of art, not an earthy vegetable.

But did I mention it’s dipped in butter that’s hardened into a perfect coat of salty armour? It arrives on a slab of black slate, alongside rustic bread served on a side plate of tiny chainmail. Chef Franck Putelat is nothing if not a stickler for detail.

Then again, you don’t earn two Michelin stars with a slapdash approach in the kitchen. Detail is everything at Le Parc, his elegant but understated eatery in Carcassonne, where good value set-menus start at €33 (R380) for lunch. For this level of care and attention, it’s a bargain.

Seeing my widened eyes, the waiter walks over with a smile on his face. Happily, there’s little Parisian attitude
down south. “The butter?” he asks, in reply to my exclamations mumbled through a mouthful of radish. “Yes sir, it comes from Normandy. It is the best inall of France. And so it is also the best in
the world.”

The waiters may be friendly, but they’re not shy to remind tourists that France is the cradle of fine food. Mediterranean sardines and a deconstructed duck follow in quick succession, washed down with wine from the nearby Rivesaltes appellation. A three-tier cheese trolley trundles by – they have more than 35 cheeses on offer – but I have a busy afternoon ahead of me. The cité is waiting.

Carcassonne is one of the most popular destinations in France, drawing four million visitors a year. While the
new town – “yes, it was only built in the 13th century”, explains my affable guide Philippe – is where you’ll find shops, hotels and the railway station, it’s the hilltop cité, a World Heritage Site, that is the main attraction here. A fortified citadel that was once the heart of the heretic Cathar religion, it’s a medieval postcard brought to life in stone.

The Basilica of St Nazaire and St Celse is perhaps my favourite corner; a gorgeous mix of leery gargoyles and soaring Gothic arches that have stood for over a thousand years. And right across a cobbled square from the Basilica is one of the gourmet highlights of Carcassonne, the Hôtel de la Cité.

The hotel’s history stretches back to 1909, and over the decades it has hosted everyone from Winston Churchill to Rudyard Kipling. It’s ahappily rambling place with 60 rooms overlooking both the old and new town. It’s also home to La Barbacane, one of the finest restaurants in the city, with raftered ceilings and woodpanelled walls lending a grand air that is the perfect foil for the modern

French cuisine of chef Jérôme Ryon. La Barbacane has held a Michelin starfor over 20 years and Ryon has cooked here for 10 of those.

Despite the formal service and setting, there’s a modern edge to La Barbacane’s food in both style and presentation.Simple spring vegetables are cooked into a perfect medley, while scampi arrives with green asparagus and a truffle sauce. With set menus running upwards from €130 (R1 500) it’s not a cheap outing, but it’s a dining experience you won’t forget.

Chuffed as I was with my growing galaxy of Michelin stars, it was something less upmarket that I’d flown here to eat.

Cassoulet is a peasant dish found almost anywhere from the Pyrenees to the Rhône; a hearty mix of white haricot beans and garlic, cooked up in stock with pork, sausage and duck. It’s rustic and unpretentious, not unlike one of the best places in Carcassonne where you can enjoy it.

Le Sénéchal is just outside the gates to the citadel, and my meal begins with a surprise: salad. “This salad is a speciality of Carcassonne,” says owner Philippe Decaud, handing me a bowl overflowing with young artichokes, boiled eggs and slivers of fresh onion. “Thirty kilometres from here, you won’t find this dish.” He’s a gregarious, generous host, and it’s not long before wines are poured: a white from nearby vineyards, a sparkling ‘blanquette’ from Limoux. Out comes another local delicacy: pork liver, cured in salt and served on crusty bread with lashings of salty butter. Red wine follows as an enormous bowl of cassoulet emerges.

“Cassoulet is a peasant dish, and a meal for the family,” says Philippe, ladling duck, sausage and beans onto my plate. “The true secret of cassoulet is the time; it should take three days to prepare. You cannot make cassoulet in a hurry.”

Sadly, I’m always in a hurry, and I bid farewell to Carcassonne to head north. The pink city of Toulouse is waiting. The clay bricks that gave the city its moniker are unmissable, with winding lanes and wide open squares all covered in the unmistakable hue of the local clay. But this city is no museum piece. Home to one of the largest universities in France, alongside hi-tech aerospace companies like Airbus, the city walks the perfect line
between charming and cosmopolitan. An outpost of Galeries Lafayette is here – visit the top-floor sushi bar for great city views – but equally you can wander quiet alleyways and discover ancient churches, like the Saint-Sernin Basilica, a splendid Romanesque church said to be the largest in Europe. Almost every corner in Toulouse has a little history to share.

The Victor Hugo marketplace, the city’s main fresh produce market, has been here for over a century and remains one of the finest foodie destinations in the city. Markets can be frustrating for tourists, as there’s not much you
can do in your hotel room with a dozen langoustines, but grab a baguette andsome cured meats and wander across the road to Xavier Fromage, one of the finest cheese shops in France.

“We only work with small producers, and we have around 150 cheeses on sale at any one time,” explains Pierre Curret, as we tramp down the steps into the cool cellar. It’s the cellar that sets this fromagerie apart from many others, being one of just a handful in the country to mature their cheeses on site.

“We buy our cheeses soon after they are made, and mature them for up to three months,” says Pierre, massaging
the side of a chevre to check for ripeness. “There are a few tricks to maturing cheese properly, but you must have a good cheese to begin with. The thing that everyone asks for here is a good goat’s cheese that’s been properly matured. It should be ripe with a good flavour, but still be creamy inside.”

The cheese is just the beginning of what Toulouse has to offer. There’s modern art in the striking new galleryLes Abattoirs, walking tours exploring hidden corners, and boat trips on the Garonne River. Or, there’s the simple joy of whiling away the evening in a European square, and this is how I spend my last hours in Toulouse: settled in at a table at Café Emile on Place St Georges. On the menu, scallops cooked in their shell and served with foie gras tempt, while cassoulet is always a draw card. For the adventurous, roasted spicy pigeon served with fried chickpeas is a local speciality.

In just a few short days I’ve eaten my way from peasant food to a planetary system of Michelin stars. Wherever you choose to dine in the Languedoc, the food is bound to be good.

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