Over a meal with my ‘foodie’ family recently we realised we tend to remember our holidays by what we ate. Less of the “Wow, amazing museums” and more of the ‘That paella was to die for”! Which might account for our ending up in France.
And we aren’t the only ones. Watching a recent episode of Escape to the Chateau DIY we saw Dick Strawbridge advising newbie castle owners how to run a gourmet weekend as a sure fire way to bring in the punters. So I got to thinking – what does our local area have to offer foodwise? And very quickly racked up a great list.
Almonds – almond blossom is a welcome first sign of Spring here, and orchards abound in the more fertile valleys. Almond paste, almond oil, chocolate robed almonds, salted, almonds, biscotti, almond brittle…at Les Amandes de Mont Bouquet you can try and buy the lot. Chestnuts are the alternative, brought down from the Cevennes where they've been cultivated for centuries. Find them marinated, glaced, pureed or roasted.
Not far away at Fons sur Lussan the goat cheese – Pelardon - of Laurence and Frederic Guiet is highly prized. Laurence supplies many of the prestigious restaurants of the region, and welcomes visitors to the goat farm to see their production. Cheese of different ages - 3 days, 5 days, a week or more, the latter looking a little shrivelled to the uneducated eye - to be chosen simply according to taste are available. They aren’t the only fromagerie around – everywhere you turn you can see or hear the goats whose wooden bells echo round the garrigue.
Truffles are highly prized in the region and at the Truffier d’Uzes , depending on the time of year you can learn how this fungus is cultivated, how it's found and how to eat it. During the winter and summer truffle seasons a Pop-up restaurant serves a great choice of truffle dishes. Try and buy.
For the sweeter tooth there’s honey galore. Honey from the garrigue, from lavender, from Chestnuts in the Cevenne – everyone has their own favourite and at the local markets there will always be a choice.
You can’t discuss the south of France without thinking of olives and unsurprisingly there are olive groves and olive mills everywhere. Here you can take your olives to be turned in to oil, learn how to prune an olive tree or simply taste the delicious varieties of oil or cured olives. My favourite is a citrus olive oil, delicious with tomato salads when in season. The Moulin de Paradis and Moulin Soulas on the road to Alès are my favourites – the latter really good in salad dressings.
For anyone who wants to not only taste and shop, there are opportunities to learn and cook . Maybe you know which garlic to use in which dish - pink or smoked perhaps? Or how to see if a melon is ripe? If not you might enjoy one of the Market Day courses run locally by both Cook ' n' with Class or Le Pistou. Visit a local market with an expert, learn what's on offer and then buy, prep and cook - and of course end the day with a sumptuous supper and local wines. Both schools also offer more intensive specific courses. Always fun.
What else – well you can’t ignore the markets. Quite aside from fresh produce there’s the ‘traiteurs’. The man who cooks up aubergines in rich luscious tomato sauce, or the paella stall or – impossible to pass without swooning – the classic French roast chicken seller. Memories of a hot roast chicken, warm baguette and a simple tomato salad in a French garden have stuck in my family’s collective memory since they were small – maybe more so than Disneyland. “Plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose!”