[by Rowena Koh]
To be welcomed into someone’s home in France is to be taken on a journey. After a long and arduous flight, this kind of journey is most welcome, as it is experienced not by getting on yet another bus or car or train, but by sharing stories – stories told through words, to be sure, but mostly, through food.
The De Graves led me on an expedition through personal histories consisting of flavours that ranged from the soft sweetness of muscat wines to the intense saltiness of brined anchovies, and tastes that brought me from the earth to the sea and back again.
French Food Roadtrip 4 – Roussillon and the Sea
This epic voyage took place in and around Fitou, a small town near the Mediterranean Sea, known for its endless number of vineyards and caves (it has its own appellation d’origine contrôlée, a French certification granted to certain regions that produce wines and other agricultural products) and neighbouring oyster farms. The wines are mostly of the Carignan variety, which must constitute 40% of any blend that come from this region, and are blended with Grenache, Lladoner Pelut, Mourvèdre and Syrah. The variety of sweet muscat known as Rivesaltes, also come from around these parts. The velvety, rich liquid of literally every single bottle we tasted fell effortlessly, tenderly down my throat, telling their own stories of where they came from through their subtle aromas of fruitiness and woodiness. The only infuriating part of the whole experience is knowing that the most aged and expensive of these bottles cost less than the cheapest, most harshly acidic bottle found in a Canadian liquor store. Sigh.
For me, the smoothness of these wines was eclipsed by the silky softness of the oysters grown in the adjacent Étang de Leucate. The water here is rich in plankton and other elements that make it an ideal spot for erecting poles upon which are draped ropes of growing oysters. Like an old sailor hardened by the harshness of the sea, these creatures are rather severe looking initially, its rough surface not exactly inviting you in, but once you manage to open them up, they become their own pretty little iridescent dishes, happily presenting you with a luxurious morsel that upon consumption, immediately transports you to the middle of the sun-drenched Mediterranean, moving slowly, calmly, in time with the rhythm of the sea.
It is the homecooked meal, though, that transports us from the present to the past. We were treated to the Pomme de terres farcies, a comforting stuffed potato dish brought to Fitou from the north, where Mme De Grave spent her childhood, and Sauce tomates aux anchoives, a delicious, salty but surprising subtle, traditional Italian dish that our host recently learned to make as a way to reconnect with her Italian heritage. Like much homecooking, both dishes are simple, but take time, where choosing the freshest ingredients is as important as the time it takes for them to stew – long enough for them to mingle and merge, until their individually discordant flavours of salt, fat, acidity, and sweetness unify and relent to perfect harmony.
These homecooked meals are always created with local ingredients, of course, from the neighbouring sea, from nearby farms, from our neighbour’s backyards. This keeps us grounded in the present and helps us create new stories without ever losing sight of where we came from.
Pomme de terres farcies (stuffed potatoes)
- 6 potatoes
- 2 tomatoes
- about 250g chair à saucisse (a kind of seasoned ground pork sausage)
- parsley, chopped
- about ¼ cup water
- olive oil
Prepare the filling by mixing the sausage, parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Peel the potatoes and cut the tomatoes in half. Using a spoon, scoop out a chapeau on the side of each potato and remove the seeds from the inside of the tomatoes. Fill the holes with the meat mixture and replace the chapeau on the potatoes. Add a bit of oil to the bottom of a cast iron pot and arrange the stuffed potatoes and tomatoes on top. Add water and let cook on low heat until potatoes are tender, about an hour.
Sauce tomates aux anchois (anchovy tomato sauce)
- 1 jar brined anchovies (about 12 anchovies)
- 1 clove garlic
- Sprig fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
Clean anchovies under running water until the salt is removed, but not entirely. Heat oil in a medium-sized saucepan. Add garlic, parsley and anchovies and briefly sauté. Add the tomato paste and water, and stir. Let simmer on low heat for at least two hours. Add pepper to taste. Serve with pasta. Pommes de terre et tomates farcies, ready to be eaten.
Read the Entire French Food Roadtrip
After a couple of train rides we will arrive at our second stop: Txot Sidreria in Figueras, city of Salvator Dalí for the ones amongst you readership with a fancy for psychedelic painting. To be noted that this rather small Catalan town sports the world famous Dalí museum (yes, the one with the bathroom sculpted on the ceiling of some room, go figure…) However we were there to catch a car ride to the South of France but not before stopping for some new-school tapas and Basque Cider! Basque Country cider in Catalunya, you got to be kidding me!
After dragging ourselves out of the Cider-induced madhouse of Dali’s Figueres,we venture to the third stop on the French Food Roadtrip: a small house in the Pyrénées.
What could be better than that – A small house in the mountains? Oh yes, stop 4 on the French Food Roadtrip: Roussillon and the Sea.
After refreshing ourselves at Roussillon and the seaside, now it is time to move on and jump in the mix of French Food Roadtrip 5 – Center of la France!
Once you have a taste of the city, nothing but the best will do. This is where we take the French Food Roadtrip 6 – to Lyon & Grenoble.
This is getting intense people & I think you can feel it. Now that we survived Lyon by protecting ourselves with some of the best local cuisine, wine and beer we venture to French Food Roadtrip 7 – le Buget and Montbéliard in le Jura.
What is Choucroute? Come with us and find out on the French Food Roadtrip 8 – La Maison de la Choucroute in Strasbourg
And finally–though this is not the end–we must finish our French Food Roadtrip 9 – En passant par la Lorraine.