9 March 2017 by Pippa McCarthy
While Paris, the French Alps and the Cote d’Azur continue – and rightly so – to attract the world’s attention, it’s often between the headlines that you’ll find France’s true joie de vivre. And this is where the Occitanie region comes in. Tucked away in the country’s southwest corner, brushing up against Spain, it’s here that French traditions live on in the homely kitchens of quiet medieval villages, endlessly sweeping vineyards and the Michelin-starred delights of such big-city favourites as Toulouse and Montpellier. Delve into Perpignan, the Rousillon city with a dual identity – part French, part Catalan, and entirely proud.
The result? Welcoming communities where the bread is still hand-delivered daily and the seafood caught that morning. It’s all watched over by a collection of great 12th-century castles, built atop jagged hilltops by the Cathars in defence against Catholic crusades.
But it’s perhaps Occitanie’s natural world that’s the most impressive. Hiking trails criss-cross the Pyrenees’ sky-tearing jags, the region’s green interior rolls languidly on and fishing villages from Collioure to Banyuls preside over crescents of pristine sands and coastal crags alike. It’s these fertile landscapes that have given rise to a deliciously diverse cuisine, washed down by varietals from a series of world-class wineries. The following is your guide to Occitanie’s finest offerings.
Occitanie draws influences from its long and diverse history, which you can taste in the hearty indulgence of its indigenous stews, Mediterranean flavours such as garlic, olives and wine, and flavours tinged with Provençal and Catalan cadences that have made their way, over the Pyrenees, from the south. It’s the particular mix of all of these that excites the palette.
In the region’s east, classics that travellers may think of as Provençal enjoy a homespun twist. Bourride – a derivate of bouillabaisse – adds tomatoes, ham and leeks to the classic fish soup, while aillade mixes in cayenne pepper to the region’s famous garlic mayonnaise, aioli. Speaking of seafood, Occitanie features France’s largest Mediterranean fishing port, specialising in cuttlefish, cod and crayfish. It’s all inventively realised in everything from moreish pies to rich fish soups. Continuing down the coast, mussel and oyster delicacies – sourced from a tapestry of lagoons – provide further delicacies.
Moving away from the coast, there’s plenty in the region’s verdant interior to keep the taste buds occupied. Bull meat is a popular staple, often served in a rich stew known as gardiane de taureau that’s accented with Occitanie’s olives and garlic. The beef from Aubrac, the high plateau of the Cévennes, is renowned for its quality and exceptional tenderness, and is sold in fine steakhouses all over the world.
For more recognisable classics, you’ll find that controversial delicacy – foie gras. But many farmers here won’t hear of a life without the silky terrine, as it is a beloved treat here as well as the backbone of an industry. In fact, duck forms the basis of many of the region’s finest dishes, with confit and grilled breast among the highlights. Duck fat is also a popular ingredient, perhaps to some even a staple, providing a rich base for dishes from beans to pork ribs to fried sausages.
And, as you travel into the mountains, you’ll find that dishes historically the preserve of the region’s poor are enjoying something of a renaissance. Whether it’s chestnut soup, vegetable hotpots or a simple omelette, fresh ingredients and time-proven recipes transform even the simplest of dishes into a gourmet experience. However, cassoulet is perhaps the best example of this. This richly flavoured casserole is a Languedocien classic with plenty of variations on a theme of pork sausages, goose and duck stewed with white beans.
In terms of French Catalan highlights, our favourites include such tapas fineries as gambas à la plancha – grilled prawns dressed in citrus flavours. For bigger appetites, consider richly flavoured fouets sausages (long and thin, named with the French word for ‘whip’) and meatballs, prepared in a mushroom sauce. Enthusiastic eaters will enjoy rounding off a meal with a crème brulée, as local versions tend to be flavoured with cinnamon and citrus zest.
Of course, this wouldn’t be France unless there was a strong love for cheese, and the goat farmers of the northern Cévennes region produce one of the country’s finest. The fruity, balanced flavour of the delightfully creamy pélardon has even won it a protected designation of origination, alongside the likes of Champagne and port. Roquefort, too, demands attention, and as one of the most famous cheeses from France, it certainly deserves it. Named for the natural caves it’s aged in, this sheep’s blue cheese is a crumbly delight, its tangy flavour owing to the mould produced in local soil and the fact that only milk from Lacaune sheep can be used. So proud are local people of their cheese that it has an AOC (Appellation d'origine contrôlée) designation, ensuring that only cheeses aged in the natural Cambalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon will carry the name.
Occitanie also has a rich oenological tradition, beginning with its 6th-century Greek settlers – the first to plant vines in the region. Since then, everyone from Benedictine monks to the Roman Empire have left their mark on its viticulture. It even became France’s leading wine-producing region – a title it holds to this day – after a plague of phylloxera devastated its competitors. Yet, starting in the 1980s, Occitanie returned to its small yield, high quality roots, swapping table wine for so-called ‘noble varieties’ that thrive in its sunny climes and perfect soils.
And, the result of this diverse influence – and range of terroir – can be keenly felt across the region’s wide spread of varietals. Whether it’s full-bodied reds and rich dessert wines that pique your interests or aromatic rosés and sparkling whites that take your fancy, there’s something for all tastes. In fact, nearly 60 types of grape have been approved for production in this protected region, split among three subdivisions – Occitanie’s west, the Languedoc-Roussillon, and the southwest bank of the Rhône Valley.
Defined more by terroir and region than grape varietal, there is plenty to distinguish these wines as the climatic variations here are so numerous. The Rhône wines are perhaps best defined by signature spicy reds. Highlights include aromatic Syrah, with its blueberry and blackcurrant notes, Carignan’s matured balance and Grenache’s complex bouquet of plum fruit, accented with liquorice and black pepper. For white wine drinkers, the Languedoc offers a more recognisable collection of names. Chardonnays make the most of the relatively cool climate in sparkling wine’s home, Limoux, to produce something delightfully crisp, while Grenache blancs are realised in a floral freshness – particularly good with seafood, and often mixed with other wines for a smooth blend.
Not to be outdone, Occitanie’s west features a range of big-name reds, with some innovative twists. Cahors wines, often produced with Malbec grapes, are inky, almost black in the bottle, and showcase a rich, deep blackberry and coffee flavour. Whites, on the other hand, often exhibit recognisably fruity cadences. Colombard is particularly known for this, with everything from citrus fruits to pineapple aromas represented. For a change of pace, consider sampling the Mauzac. Thanks to its late ripening, it promotes indulgently sweet-yet-dry sparkling wines.
To help you explore, here are two itineraries that highlight the best of the region: