Going to market
Shopping at the weekly outdoor market is one of the great simple pleasures of France. The food is fresh and local, and it’s great fun to wander, sampling new cheeses and unusual sausages, buying melons that are perfectly ripe, filling our string bags to bursting with vegetables picked that dawn. The nearest market is a few minutes away in Pézenas, held every Saturday morning, year round. It’s lively, it’s friendly, and the whole town turns out. You’ll find cloth shopping bags at the house.

Your daily bread
The French bread experience is very different from the American bread experience. Fresh French bread is incredibly delicious, soft and nutty sweet, with a thin crunchy crust. But, more to the point, bread in France has no preservatives. So it lasts just one day. Bakeries open early in the morning, close for lunch, then reopen in the afternoon. Buy early, buy often is our rule. Valros has two bakers.

Specialties of the region
With Sète, France’s #2 fishing port, and huge shellfish farms just 15 miles away, it’s safe to say that seafood tops the region’s list of specialties. But Languedoc-Roussillon is also known for its peaches, cherries, apricots and extra-sweet onions. Duck is a menu staple. And not too far away is the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, famous for its blue sheep’s cheese. Look for roquefort from the Cave de Baragnaude, a premium variety that is very, very creamy and very, very good.

The casual lunch
Most of our lunches are modest affairs but immensely satisfying: a couple of interesting cheeses, some sliced hard sausage, fruit, bread and a glass of wine. As you drive around, you will frequently see cars pulled off the road, an impromptu picnic in progress. Note that in most of France, virtually everything closes from noon until at least 2 p.m., sometimes 3 p.m., except restaurants and a few major retailers. We like to drive during lunch: the roads are virtually empty.
Spanish-style fare like tapas top the menu in Collioure, in Catalan country an hour’s drive south of Valros, where the Pyrenees meet the sea.

The restaurants
First, let’s explain the Michelin rating system for restaurants. The vast majority of restaurants earn no Michelin stars. The Auberge de la Tour, Valros’ only restaurant, is judged "adequate" by Michelin; most Americans would find this hardworking little restaurant far above delightful (we do). But the Michelin Co. only awards its one-, two- and three-star ratings to the very cream. A Michelin star lifts a restaurant from the mass and puts it on a pedestal, for all to admire...and flock to. In Béziers, there’s the one-star Le Framboisier (intimate and divine). And in Montpellier, there’s a three-star (haven’t gotten there yet).

Go with an empty tummy. French meals tend to be a bit overwhelming for the novice: course after rich course, all under sauce. Appe
tizer, first course, second course, cheese cart (pick as many as you’d like), and dessert. A three-hour encounter. You will be delighted with the service, incidentally. French waiters in good restaurants are trained to a level hardly known in the States. Still, for all their reverence toward food, the restaurants in this relaxed part of France are not formal at all. Jacket, no tie for men is fine. Dress ranges from business to casual. Dinner service usually starts at 8 p.m.     

Want something less daunting? The Languedoc-Roussillon is pizza country, too. Driving through Pézenas, look for pizza vans with wood-fired ovens inside parked along the road.

One last note for health-obsessed Americans: the French smoke cigarettes. A lot. You’ll think you’re in a 1950s' film. Restaurants do not have "no smoking" sections. And even if they did, the French would be sitting in them, lighting up. Bottom-line: if you absolutely can’t stand someone at the next table smoking, don’t go out to eat in France.

The supermarché
Locally, the biggest is the Auchan store, in Béziers. In one immense space, Auchan sells everything from computers to shoes to groceries. The wine selection is huge; there’s even a wine specialist usually hovering to help the undecided. Don’t parlez vous? English-only visitors need never utter a word of French, except to greet the check-out clerk: "Bonjour, madame," "Au revoir," and you’re done. Auchan opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. All-night supermarkets are unknown.


This web page is from Our House In France, ( ) Posted: Tue, Feb 28, 2006 - 12:00am