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Restaurants and
Enjoy the traditional cuisine of southern France

The French famously like to eat. They like to eat the best, freshest food they can get their hands on. They want it to be lovingly and painstakingly prepared, and they are more than willing, in fact would demand to, take such pains in their own kitchens. They eat slowly, carefully, and sitting down. They talk, laugh, joke, argue and sometimes hold forth loudly before and after meals and between courses, but they eat silently and with intense concentration. Every bite is a tasty pleasure, and is fully expected to be perfect. They don't call it gastronomie for nothing.

French people also know their food. They want to know where everything is from and who grew or made it. Every vegetable in every store is labelled, often down to the village of origin. Most people shop at community markets, and would prefer to buy everything directly from its producteur. Food is, after politics, the most common topic of conversation - and often the two are intertwined. Our neighbors and people we run into casually not only know about the area's restaurants and markets - and are delighted to hear reports on a new one - they know the subtleties of the different vintages of our area's wines, and the distinct flavors of dozens of cheeses. They are openly hostile to bureaucratic meddling, like recent European Union efforts to require milk pasturization. They are happy to eat their meats very, very rare.

In an atmosphere like this, you might think it would be hard to be a restauranteur. It might be, but that doesn't seem to be a deterrent. Every village seems to have at least one good restaurant. Villages in the middle of nowhere have restaurants that people drive miles to get to.

Two common myths about French restaurants need exploding:

  • "French restaurants are expensive." Maybe fancy or tourist-oriented places in Paris and other cities are, but that's not the countryside. All around our area, 10 - 15 € gets you a lunch menu that starts with a generous salad or a substantial and varied plate of charcuterie, a main course of grilled steak or duck breast or some other hearty regional specialty, usually with more salad and frites, and a choice of desserts. A half-liter of good local wine is often included in the price. You'll pay a bit more at dinner, but dinner is a ceremony, and you'll have your table all evening.
  • "French portions are small." Maybe in snooty expensive places they are, but that's not the kind of restaurant we're likely to find. We prefer places like Chez Françoise in tiny Corsavy, the first restaurant we came across one rainy noontime after a morning's hiking. There was no menu, so we just waited. Soon the hostess - also, as we discovered, the owner - appeared with bread, water, and red wine. Then she brought a huge plate of sausages, pâtes and cured hams. We devoured them, and were rewarded with wild-mushroom omelets. After those, we each received a whole grilled trout, and we knew that we were in trouble. No kidding - the next course was a whole roasted pintade (guinea hen) and a big bowl of carrots in butter. And then a mixing bowl full of salad. Bread and water and wine were refilled; we can't recall how often. Finally came dessert, a crème Catalàn the size of a dinner plate. We staggered out of Chez Françoise almost three hours later, vowing to return. And we have.

  • It's possible to get a bad meal in France, and it's certainly possible to pay too much, but if you stick to small towns and villages and ask the locals for advice, it's also easy to avoid such troubles. The French eat well. Eat where they're eating.

    Some of our favorite restaurants ...

    In Caunes Minervois:

    Hotel D'Alibert: This beautiful Renaissance hotel particulier, once home of Caunes' most famous abbot, has been in Frederic's family for generations. The traditional Languedoc menu has never changed. Try the rouille camarguese (potatoes and baby octupus in an amazing sauce) or the pintade Christopher Hope. Not to be missed. Reservations required: 0468-78-00-54

    La Grande Fountaine: Bar, café and nighttime restaurant, this is the place to meet your neighbors, spend the afternoon over a beer or pastis, and eat good local fare for not much at all. 0468-78-00-63

    A few minutes drive from Caunes:

    Auberge de Clamoux (Villeneuve Minervois): A traditional family restaurant in a neighboring little town, with good, dependable, unassuming fare, always followed by an enormous and tasty dessert. 0468-26-15-69

    Logis du Merinville (Rieux Minervois): Another family operation, with monsieur cooking and madame greeting, serving, and doing everything else. There are several menus with increasing complexity and numbers of courses; we've never gotten past the basic ones, but they've always been excellent. A lovely outdoor patio is open in the summer and early fall. 0468-78-12-49

    Hotel Minervois (Pepieux): Madame cooks and monsieur tends bar at our after-yoga-class favorite, where almost everything you'll be served - including the sausages, the roast pintade, and the amazing rabbit in mustard sauce, as been raised, grown, or made by the proprietors and their family. One menu daily; absolutely informal. 0468-91-41-28

    La Rivassel (La Redorte): Right on the Canal du Midi, a fine place to end a hike or a bike ride with a bucket of steamed moules (mussels) and a pile of frites or fresh duck or lamb from the grill. 0468-91-53-09

    Chez Fred (Carcassonne): Carcassonne is full of restaurants, and we haven't begun to try them all. Chez Fred has a covered courtyard patio, a hint of urban edge, and a great lunchtime menu. 0468-72-02-03

    Lo Cagarol (Aigne): Elegant but not expensive, this is where our friend Jim from Costa Rica realized that yes indeed, roasted duck hearts were just the thing to put on a salad. 0468-27-84-22

    Further afield:

    La Cranquette (Gruisson): You'll spend the first few minutes of lunch drinking your wine and eating this morning's oysters or fresh tuna tartare while watching one fisherman after another come in with the day's catch on ice. Then you'll have that catch, prepared in the most artful ways. Make a reservation, as there's one sitting and only a handful of tables. 0468-75-12-07

    Le Dalí (Coullioure): Catalàn-style seafood, Basque meatballs and a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. You'll think you weren't in a tourist town after all. 0468-83-93-01

    Chez Françoise (Corsavy): It's a bit of a trek to get to Corsavy, but you'll never forget this lunch. A morning's hiking in the woods and canyons of the Canigou is good preparation. Don't plan anything too demanding for the afternoon. 0468-39-12-04

    Auberge de Cucugnan (Cucugnan): What better repast after a day of exploring medieval castles in the cold and wet than a stew of wild boar and a thick red Corbières wine? Reserve ahead. 0468-45-40-84.

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