A Glorious Weekend in Sète

sete canalPhotos by David Walker

We pushed on beyond Narbonne, up the coast of Languedoc to Sète, arriving on the Fourth of July.  There were no fireworks to greet us.  The locals were saving their festivities for the next day, when the blessing of the fishing fleet was celebrated with a day long nautical parade of flower bedecked boats. The flowers would later be scattered on the waters of the Mediterranean. On the streets along the canals we joined the celebrating crowds making their way from café to café, toasting the ships as they sailed past.

We had no idea when we booked two rooms at a quay side hotel a few days before that it was a local holiday, officially the festival of St. Pierre, the city’s patron saint and quite appropriate for a fishing center. Prof David, with his interest in urban affairs, had wanted to have a look at Sète, still a working port after more than 2000 years,  Tene the Terrific was up for it, Chef Ann and the Wine Chap (that would be me) are always down for destinations with excellent seafood and outstanding local wines.

So there we were and damn glad of it.

One of our favorite places turned out to be the Café Augusta, one of dozens of bars, cafes and restaurants fronting the Royal Canal on the Quai General Durand.   What sets the Augusta apart is the lively ambience with the pace set by the owner, Martine, a former teacher of Latin and Greek who knows how to keep the party spirit moving.  She suggested an apero cocktail, the pamplemousse, a blend of rosé wine and grapefruit juice. Refreshing and yummy, perfect for breakfast.

It just got better from there.  There was a parade—of course there was a parade—complete with bagpipes, an unexpected instrument to find on the shores of the Med.  We followed in the wake of the parade down the canal toward the sea and came upon  a pastis tasting in a canal-side bar. It was sponsored by Ricardand yet another parade, this one without the pipes.  As the day went on, we realized that although this was one of the major Sète fetes, the pace remained relaxed, like a large party of good friends, just happy to be together, hanging out and having fun.

Sète itself is wortha close look.  The city is built on sand dunes between the Mediterranean and the Etang de Thau. The etang, or lagoon, has been the site of oyster harvesting for 20 centuries. The canals add drama to the urban panorama with the constant to and fro of boats, reflecrtions in the swirling water of the canal side cafes. There is an unmistakable salt bite in the air, not only beside the canal but on the narrow streets leading up from the canal to the town center.

And then it was time for dinner. There was no doubt it would be seafood. The concierge at our hotel, the Orque Bleue, had recommended Les Goélands, only a few doors from Café Augusta, and had booked us a table for 10 pm. Turned out to be a very good suggestion.The star turn on the table was a superb bourride. The local version, bourride de baudroie, differs from the classic Marseille bouillabaisse.  In the Sète dish the fish is monkfish, baudroie in the local dialect.

bouride

 

 

 

 

 

Prof David made this bourride later at our food and wine center in Maury

The traditional Sètoise recipe begins with a fish stock made with filleted monkfish, onions, garlic and sliced leeks and potatoes. The fillets are steamed before being baked in a garlic and olive oil sauce, with all the vegetables and aromatic herbs. Some cooks in Languedoc add saffron or white wine to the stew, but rarely in Sète. The broth is served on its own as a starter, followed by the fish and veg.  You can count on a generous bowl of aioli on the table to spread on bread grilled in olive oil.

We finished the evening with a last glass at Café Augusta, agreeing that our two days in Sète was one of the best Fourth of July weekends ever.

 

Pamplemousse de Sète

 

Two parts rosé wine

One part fresh squeezed grapefruit juice

One part sparkling water (optional)

Stir and serve over ice

Repeat as needed.

—Larry Walker

 

 

Riots and Rosé—In the Market at Narbonne

rosé at market

Photo by Tene Nash

 

The bar at La Bodega des Halles was jammed with hungry people, jostling for space amid dozens of bottles of wine and tempting displays of ham. La Bodega is one of about 70 food stalls in the  bustling market of Narbonne, the ancient French port in Languedoc Roussillon, one of the oldest ports in the western Mediterranean.

Roman traders knew the port well more than 20 centuries ago.  They would have a hard time of it today because the harbor silted up and the city is now some ten miles from the sea.

One of the major items of trade was wine. That has not changed. Narbonne is still a center for the wines of Languedoc Roussillon, as was clear from all the bottles on display at La Bodega. But we were not there to just look at the wine and food. We were there to eat and drink.  And we did that.  We being Chef Ann, Prof David, Tene the Terrific and me, the Wine Chap.  We were on a brief French road trip from our home base at Maison Voltaire in Maury, on a constant quest to sample the food and wine of the region.

We started by sampling several wines, all local, before settling on two bottles, a moderate amount for four hungry and thirsty travelers. A bottle of Viognier was a good match with a plate of Beaufort cheese, a cow’s milk cheese from Savoie in the French Alps, that the Chef had foraged from a nearby cheese stand.

Then the ham. Oh, my. There was pata negra, jamon blanc, sobrassada ( a raw cured pork sausage, originally from the Balearic Islands) and others that didn’t make it into the notes.  With the ham came a delicious bottle of Chateau de Valflaunés rosé from Pic St. Loup.

The Pic St. Loup wine region is one of the mostly unknown treasures of the Languedoc-Roussillon. The vineyards are higher elevation and somewhat cooler than many area vineyards.  The wines are little known in the US, although Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley imports some Pic St. Loup wines.

After tidying up the last bit of rosé we did a walkabout in the plaza outside the market, where there is an mural depicting the wine protests and riots of the early years of the 20th century. Angry grape growers from all over southeastern France gathered in several cities, including Narbonne, to protest the importation of cheap and inferior wines from Algeria.

French farmers are still pissed off about inexpensive imports. In the news this morning there are reports of highway blockades and super market boycotts as farmers press the government for more support. The French are not shy about taking to the street

After all, for the French, eating and drinking locally is more than a trendy slogan. It is about enjoying and supporting a culturally rich and centuries old matrix based on the land and how humans live on it.

—Larry Walker

 

(One of a series of snapshots focused on food and wine in the Languedoc-Roussillon of southeast France)