It’s 28C and rising on the towpath of the Canal du Rhône à Sète, near Montpellier, and the tyres of my mountain bike are kicking up dust and smelling of hot rubber. “Flamingoes,” I shout. I crunch to a halt in the gravel as the ungainly fuchsia-pink birds — their oversized beaks angled like the nose of Concorde — drift down out of a cloudless blue sky. They land on the Étang de Pérols — one of a necklace of saltwater lakes stretching from Banyuls-sur-Mer, on the Spanish border, to the city of Marseilles, the gateway to the French Riviera.
In between is a fascinating water world of canals, saltmarshes, lagoons, spits and headlands including the Camargue — a labyrinth of brine ponds in the Rhône Delta, famous for its red rice (championed by Yotam Ottolenghi) and raço di bio, a hardy breed of cattle whose meat is marketed as ‘Taureau de Camargue’ and has appelation d’origine contrôlée status (French certification for certain wines and agricultural products).
While many regard Provence, with its sun-drenched fruit, vegetables and herbs, as the gastronomic heartland of the South of France, I beg to differ. This coastal stretch of Languedoc-Roussillon has its own unique culinary idiom, with riches ranging from Bouzigues oysters, mussels, crabs and seiche (cuttlefish) from the shallow lagoons, to bourride (the fish stew of Sète, served with garlicky aioli), duck confit and gardianne, a ragout of bull meat.
Today, I’m heading to Palavas-les-Flots, a few miles from Le Lac des Rêves, the French-owned Siblu campsite where I’m staying in a smart mobile home. The joy of the holiday is that I can cycle everywhere, notably along the Canal du Rhône à Sète, an oddity because its parallel banks lance out across the étangs (lakes) on a thread of land running 14 miles from Carnon-Plage to Sète. It’s like cycling across a very long bridge a foot or so above the water.
At Palavas, I stop for a snack at one of the cafes lining Quai Paul Cunq, ordering tielle sètoise — a wondrous tart with a crust of olive-oil bread, filled with squid, cuttlefish, pimento and tomato — followed by ice cream from Glacier Catalan.
The kiosk’s name reminds me how close I am to Catalonia, home to a former holder of the ‘world’s best restaurant’ title, elBulli.
Back on the road — or rather the dirt track — I pedal towards Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone, then leave the cycleway for a grassy peninsula crowned by the Cathédrale St-Pierre de Maguelone, a fortified Romanesque building. Surrounded by brackish ponds teeming with waterfowl, it’s a twitcher’s paradise. But I’m here for the beach — a stretch of sand flanking the Mediterranean with scarcely a soul in sight.
I have lunch at Carré Mer, a Nikki Beach-style restaurant with stark white sunloungers, parasols, chill-out zones and ambient music to rival anything in St Tropez. Some of Montpellier’s restaurants, too, are contemporary shrines of the kind you might expect in Nice or Cannes. At Carré Mer, there are skewers of lotte (monkfish), magret de canard (duck breast), beef and chicken, plus tuna, steaks, burgers and Asian fusion dishes — but I could be anywhere, really. On the way back, I pass canal barges, bird-watchers’ hides and rustic cabanes (fishermen’s dwellings), returning to Le Lac des Rêves for dinner — unusually good for a campsite, with shredded crab, cuttlefish and fine wine on the menu.
To understand local produce, I cycle the following day to the market in Lattes. There are up to 100 stalls, including Huitres de Bouzigues Direct Producteur, selling violets (the strong muscled ‘feet’ of sea fig, a type of shellfish), tellines (clams the size of a fingernail), palourdes (marbled Manilla clams) and sea snails. One stall is devoted to olives, another to coquillages (shellfish), including farmed oysters from the Étang de Thau, net bags of live crabs and shrimps graded into various sizes.
Around the market are air-conditioned shops, including a fishmonger selling lobsters, hampers heavy with oysters and pots of aioli, plus a takeaway selling hot meals such as paella and zarzuela (a Catalan stew containing up to eight types of seafood, pepped up with pastis, Spanish brandy or sherry).
For a crash course in horticulture and viniculture, I take a taxi to Mas de Saporta, outside Lattes, which has an evening market to avoid the daytime heat. As the sun sets over the Étang de Méjean, I buy chunky, ribbed, variegated tomatoes from Eric Pedebas, who calls himself a ‘tomatologue’, and a lime-green frisée lettuce the size of a basketball. At Cahuzac, an artisan charcuterie stall, I pick up pork sausages flavoured with Roquefort, duck sausages, spicy merguez (sausage) and rosette de Lyon, a sausage spangled with white fat.
On the same site as the market is a restaurant, Les Cuisiniers Vignerons, and a wine warehouse where you can taste and buy Languedoc AOC wines. These include floral, citrusy Picpoul de Pinet, a perfect accompaniment to oysters, and fresh, elegant La Méjanelle, with its notes of white peach, white flowers and honey. Nowhere is the style better executed than at Château de Flaugergues, a country pile surrounded by palms, statuary and topiary, and home to Comte Henri de Colbert. The most gracious of aristocrats, he shows me round the garden before a winery tour and tasting. Carry on camping, I say.
Five Languedoc food finds
01 Le Lac des Reves
Lush, relatively quiet campsite on the Étang de Pérols, with smart mobile homes, a decent restaurant and staff who can steer you to local food highlights. siblu.com/france/languedoc/le_lac_des_reves.php
02 Glacier Catalan
Quayside ice cream parlour in Palavas-les-Flots, selling cakes and lavish desserts of fruit, chocolate and cream, as well as homemade glaces.
03 Carré Mer
Beach club and restaurant with banks of sunloungers on Maguelone Beach, for ‘international cuisine’ and seafood skewers. carre-mer.fr
04 Lattes market
Get your culinary bearings at this vast marché selling local wines, cheeses, olives, charcuterie, coquillage, and fruit and vegetables. Wednesday and Sunday mornings only. Esplanade d’Aragon, Lattes.
05 Mas de Saporta
A farmers’ market (Tue and Fri, 6-10pm, July and August only), a tasting at La Maison des Vins, then lunch or dinner at Les Cuisiniers Vignerons. coteaux-languedoc.com
Four places for a taste of the Languedoc
Château de Flaugergues
This estate and winery, owned by the Colbert family, is a living museum. Inside are tapestries and a viniculture library. Restaurant Folia serves simple seasonal dishes such as mussel soup with ginger, duck sausages and marinaded salmon.
■ How much: Two-hour tour and tasting, €127.50 (£109); tasting €90 (£77) — fixed prices for up to 15 people. Two-course set menu, €17.50 (£15); three courses, €19.70 (£16). T: 00 33 4 99 52 66 37.
Le Jardin des Sens
Twins Jacques and Laurent Pourcel put Montpellier on the Michelin map with their modern Mediterranean cuisine. Prime produce (lamb, duck, Charolais beef) is made dazzlingly cosmopolitan with exotic fruits and spices. The dining room, a glass cube, opens onto a herb garden.
■ How much: Three-course lunch with wine, €49 (£41); starters, €40-€62 (£34-£53); mains, €40-€84 (£34-£72). jardindessens.com
Les Cuisiniers Vignerons
The restaurant of the adjoining Maison des Vins, where visitors can taste and buy Languedoc AOC wines, has an arched courtyard with gargoyles and Tuscan-style columns. I had tartare of salmon, scallops and John Dory, followed by prawns flambéed in Pernod with tomato and chorizo — but the grilled cuttlefish with aioli was the standout.
■ How much: Three-course set menu, from €13.90 (£11.90) with wine. Starters €7.50-€19 (£6-£16), mains €13.50-€18.50 (£11-£15). Lunch only, Mon-Fri; dinner, Fri-Sat. lescuisiniersvignerons.com
Philippe Chapon, a master pâtissier who worked with Gordon Ramsay, brings charm, innovation and modernity to this central Montpellier location next to the historic flower market. Appropriately, his menu is based around fruit and flowers: dishes include a risotto of baby grilled cuttlefish with saffron buds, and roast lamb with lavender.
■ How much: Set menus €38-€80 (£32-£68), tasting menu €90 (£77). Starters €12 (£10), salads €14 (£11), mains €18 (£15). tamarillos.biz
Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)