The warmer months are the ultimate time of the year to be in the South of France. Perhaps this unseasonably warm summer has been a strong point of complaint by locals, but for those who visit, the movie like scenery and gorge-worthy food to be had in this part of the world outweighs a little heat. We travelled to the Southern boundary of France, where the land meets the sheltered waters of the Mediterranean sea. Taking the train from Paris will take roughly 4 hours, and we recommend spending just a few extra beans for first class ticket, because it’s a little more pleasant.
On arrival at the seaside town of Agde (a very popular spot for French holidaymakers during the summer), the journey went on by rental car to the town of Pezenas where we had booked in at the Villa Juliette, a little bed and breakfast that sung true to the French Provincial experience one looks for. The little Fiat 500 clung to the narrow, winding road that ran us past many-a-winery, and an uncountable number of grape vines. The countryside in Longuedoc has a very Mediterranean feel to it. Picture olive trees, rocky mountains, clusters of stone walled houses with terra cotta roofs, and the penetrating sound of cicadas from every possible direction. Having grown up in Australia, an orchestra of vibrating exoskeletons touches a nostalgic spot in my soul, and will always remind me of summer. No matter how loud, or how relentless, the cicada’s song cannot bother a single bone in my body. Others have strongly disagreed.
The Villa Juliette, a French husband and British wife run B&B was a charming house that was enchanted with great provincial interior decoration and the warmth of its welcoming proprietors (oh yeah, their friendly pointer Eros made things all the more homely). The garden was flourishing, tamed, yet slightly unbridled to leave you at ease. A concrete and stone swimming pool sat in the sun, while an old cream utility truck relaxed in the shade of the trees. Breakfasts were classic continental mornings of freshly baked viennoiseries, baguette, local butter, fruit, yoghurt in the pot, and the most delicious homemade jams that were made in house. We were fortunate enough to sample their latest batch of fig jam that I watched cool upside-down on the kitchen counter the day before. The following few days were left for exploring the treats that surrounding towns had to offer, whether it was edible, audible, or swimmable, we went on a hunt for goodness to share with you.
The following are our highlights and must do’s in and amongst the region of Languedoc, that is very much overshadowed by the popular Aix en Provence, but definitely a bolder and wiser choice in our books. In this region we have extraordinary wines, olive oils, great French cookery, Medieval towns, archeological sites, swimmin’ holes, specialty pate’s, pies, and one of the best music festivals ever.
Le Petit Bistrot
[Cor Neuburg 14, 34200 Sete]
This is actually a Michelin starred joint (not that really matters in our books) that stands up to its star in the seafood department. The renovated seaside space lends itself to indoor and outdoor eating, but be sure not to arrive after 2pm if you’re coming for lunch because they will get very upset in typical French form. Their plating and menu seems slightly dated, with square plates and lots of things happening about some very generous portions, but if you stick to simple seafood dishes then you’ve already won. For those conscious of the sea, ask what line caught fish they have that day, or go for some oysters because they’ll be super fresh and served the classic French way with a shallot and red wine vinaigrette. At the end of the day, one can be judgemental of the Michelin starring system but this joint puts out good things. I lapped up any opportunity to have some of that incredible local olive oil, burratta (from neighbouring Italy) and jamon iberico (from Spain that’s just a 2 hour drive away).
Tielles are a specialty of Sete. As a port town, fishing was and still is a large part of industry. Imagine a pate brisee (or shortcrust) tart casing, filled with tomato pulp and squid, topped with another pate brisee lid and baked until golden. Traditionally, this pie was made with the scraps from the fisheries or whatever didn’t sell at the market table but I think this poor man’s food has evolved to become quite a treat. Because of Sete’s accidentally-strategic geographical positioning between Italy and Spain, a lot of the cuisine has influence from these two neighbours. The tomato-y filling reminds me of Italian cooking, and according to Wikipedia, the pie like form of the dish can be related to the Spanish empanada, although many French people begged to differ when I made that comment on Instagram. You can only assume what your gut tells you.
Try Tielles from the famous Cianni Marcos in Port de Sete.
[24 Rue Honoré Euzet 34200 Sete]
Worldwide Music Festival is a wonderfully curated week long event held in Sete that brings together some incredible international acts. A project of Gilles Peterson, British DJ, music tastemaker, BBC radio host, and record label owner, (just to name a few), this festival is based on his unique selections made on his radio show ‘worldwide’. This year we experienced magic by epic acts like Ed Motta, Roy Ayres, The Paradise Bangkok Molam, Lefto, Toshio Matsuura, and so many more that left us speechless, sitting on the tiered stone steps of the ancient amphitheatre where night shows were held. Oh yeah, this amphitheatre overlooks the Mediterranean sea…
Home fort, Pézenas.
[6 Chemin de la Faissine, 34120 Pézenas]
[10 Rue Aristide Rouzière, 34120 Pézenas]
Coffee in France isn’t talked about much because to be Frank, it’s just not great. When I find a great coffee spot, it can be a highlight of the day, a kind of respite from the dreadful black sludge that is most often served. I know I’m definitely biased towards lighter roasts, specialty coffees, and all those hashtag hipster buzzwords, and I can appreciate that some people really enjoy a super dark tobacco shop espresso that tastes like burning tar to some. Cafe blahbla however will probably be the best coffee you will find in Pezenas. You’ll smell them freshly roasting beans from the top of their narrow lane way, only to be welcomed with more pleasantness when you sit down on their quaint al fresco seating arrangement out front. They even import special alpine milk from Germany which they believe makes the best latte head, and they do a mean chocolat glacee (iced chocolate) on a hot summer’s day. You’re even welcome to BYO croissants from across the lane way to have with your morning cuppa Joe!
Creperie la Cour Pavee
[46 Rue Conti, 34120 Pezenas]
Tucked away in the ground floor of the tight-knit townhouses that dictate the Pezenasian lifestyle, this creperie transports you through time to simpler days where people focused on doing things right. Have a buckwheat galette with a filling of your choice under the old stone archways that act as natural air conditioning and welcome respite from the hot summer air. Your galette should be crisp from cooking on a hotplate and smothered with French butter. A must when you’re at a creperie is a mug of cider, and for dessert, don’t miss a salted caramel (caramel beurre sale) crepe to seal the deal.
Les Glaces de Sophie
[Place Gambetta, 34120 Pezenas]
Summer holidays aren’t right without the daily dose of ice cream. In Pezenas, head straight to Les Glaces de Sophie for your fill of the best homemade stuff in town. I couldn’t go past a scoop of their dark chocolate paired with one of seasonal white nectarine. What a combination.
Eat / Stay /
[12 Place de la Croix, 34600 Hérépian]
This is a Michelin starred restaurant that truly deserves all of its credit. What a refreshing take on French provincial cuisine, executed by a young husband and wife team who elevate great local produce with a wonderful sense of honesty and simplicity. Their approach to hospitality is a breath of fresh air for France and what impressed me most is their dedication to the idea of roots.
Attention to detail like using specific local olive oils for changing flavours, matched the care taken to cook both protein and veg. I had the most perfectly cooked pigeon that gleamed blushing pink from the centre, while the exterior melted with flavour from a good amount of basting in the cooking process. The man knows how to cook his meats, for sure. I was equally impressed by the way the chef handled his veg, serving the most unctuous mashed potato I’ve tasted in my life. Our team had to interrogate the two on whether or not stock was used in the magic potatoes, but we were assured that the tricks lied in perfect seasonal potatoes, and good local olive oil. Amazing.
There are also a few rooms in L’Ocre Rouge for guests to stay in. If you’re like me, you’ll want to dine here every single day of your stay.
Restaurant de Lauzun
This is not so much of a recommendation, but rather my personal thoughts on the restaurant rating systems that seem to rule the culinary world. It’s the truth about never judge a book by its cover, and a sad one in that. Restaurant de Lauzun received its first Michelin star not so long ago, headed by chef Matthieu de Lauzun who did his apprenticeship at La Poularde à Montrond-les-Bains. I’m afraid the meal was the first out of a week of serious eating that left us all feeling heavy from starchy, creamy, dense, dishes that confused our taste buds with a number of clashing flavours that did nothing for each other when put side by side. Each plate from amuse bouche to dessert reminded me of a heavily layered oil painting where I was unable to distinguish meaning or draw direction from. The team could draw conclusions to chef Lauzun’s source of inspiration, Morocco, and a connection to his background of classic French cookery, but all we could taste was an idea that ‘bigger is better’. Big flavours, bold ingredients and big portions were presented to us with a slightly dated fine dining experience. I think the ball of potential needs time to develop and mature.
This village tucked into the hillsides of high Languedoc is the most charming place that feels poetically historic. The Tour de Guep, a central tower that overlooks the town and is inscribed into their coat of arms, was built around 900 AD, to give you an idea of how old we’re talking. Take a walk through the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets of the hill-y town, and have a cooling swim in the rocky streams down below the cluster of stone buildings. I love how the houses are made from the stoney surroundings, cemented together with mud and clay from the landscape.
Visit La Cerise sur le Gateau, a vintage boutique that stocks a great collection of antique French provincial linens to 60s style homewares. It’s an interesting viewpoint to see the town’s transitioning trough time.
Wine List /
We finish with our highlight wines of the area, curated and narrated by @mrpinot.
2008 Domaine Philippe Charlopin-Parizot
Subtle red berries on nose,
Slightly chewy tannins,
Delicious long and silky finish.
2014 Cote des Thongue
Estate grown and produced by the young wine makers Adele and Olivier at Mas Lou,
Six months in oak,
Quite toasty nice apricot on nose and palette,
A homage to youth,
From Navarra a Rose of Granache,
Red fruit on nose,
Dry plenty of sugar and acid,
A lunch time delight.
2012 Artuke Finca De Los Locos
From Bodejas Artuke
Enjoying the Basque Country,
16 months in French oak,
80% Tempranillo 20 %Granache,
94 from Penin 93 from Enterwine,
Not the modern style,
Lacks weight slightly dried out by the time in oak,
However enjoyed the classic Rioja,
Velvety finish and good acidicity balance with fruit.