Gastronomic delight in the Pyrenees
Gourmet highlights of the region
Stretching east to west, from the Mediterranean coast to the Atlantic waters pounding the coast around Biarritz, the Pyrenees form a 430 km serrated crest, a natural border between France and Spain.
The mountains run through the southernmost stretch of Aquitaine, then through the Midi-Pyrénées, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Pyrénées Orientales, a huge area known since 2016’s geo-political shakeup as Occitanie. The mountains form a rugged wilderness from which the landscape drops into some of France’s most stunning scenery – a region of ancient towns, sunflower fields and vast vineyards.
Centred around Toulouse, the Midi-Pyrénées is renowned for its gastronomy, as well as for the flamboyant d’Artagnan, one of the three Gascon musketeers immortalised by Alexandre Dumas. The Midi Pyrénées is comprised of eight départements: Ariège, Aveyron, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées, Lot, Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne.
There’s scenic drama aplenty. From the wooded valleys of Aveyron, the hills of the Dordogne, through the peaceful towns of Albi (home of Toulouse Lautrec), Auch and Toulouse, to the sublime Pyrenees National Park, captivating and full of contrast.
The landscape is littered with picturesque bastide towns, their once austere, harsh walls now soft and mellowing with the passing of time. You pass quaint Romanesque churches and historic castles, and everywhere you travel the rich patina of history in all its colourful, often brutal, glory is captivating.
Part of the southern Languedoc and bordering the Med, this region has a distinct Catalan influence. The Pyrénées Orientales stretches from the mountains to the Mediterranean coast, with Perpignan its main city, so beloved by Salvador Dalí.
The beach at Collioure offers spectacular sands, its scintillating light ensuring its popularity with anyone with painterly aspirations while for some the ascent of Mount Canigou is a near-religious occasion.
An open air playground
The Pyrenees have long been a favourite of lovers of the great outdoors. Keen skiers head to the snowy peaks (Aix-Les-Thermes, Barage La Mongie, Piau Engaly), while walkers and cyclists of all levels and abilities find routes to suit along the paths and trails of the foothills or in the Pyrenees National Park, home to fabulous wildlife including eagles, vultures and endangered brown bears.
Food not fads
With a gastronomic tradition that effortlessly celebrates the authentic and unfussy, there is real culinary magic to be found here. The cuisine is not faddish, instead built around the excellence of local produce and staple ingredients: the fine breads or the conical gâteau à la broche, the black pig hams of Bayonne, the Gascon beef, the Barèges Gavarnie lamb, the multitude of mushrooms, the chestnut honey. Even the humble haricot bean, brought back from the New World by Columbus and which has thrived around Tarbes ever since.
Stop by at a market on your travels and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Juicy, red tomatoes, fragrant melons, strawberries and peaches, wonderful pink Lautrec garlic, maybe a slice of irresistible Pavé de Quercy cake, decorated with nuts, raisins and cherries. Assembling a picnic was never easier than at these markets: a simple loaf, slice or two of ham, a hunk of cheese, tomatoes and some fruit. Bon appetit.
Food with flair
This iconic, hearty stew epitomises the rustic excellence of simple ingredients and belly filling sustenance traditionally required after a hard day’s work in rigorous conditions. Involving pork, sausage, bacon, goose confit, haricot beans and more, there are many variations, often passionately argued over for generations.
Magret de canard
Widely found and with an internationally acclaimed reputation, magret de canard is a French classic in whatever version you find it. Typically it is served with a fruit based sauce (perhaps berries or figs), sharpened with balsamic vinegar and sweetened with honey.
Croustade aux Pommes
Showcasing the best of the region’s fruit, apples usually, but also Armagnac-soaked prunes smothered in puff pastry and caramelised sugar.
An iconic dish, plain and hearty – and frugal (it was associated with the simple fare eaten by pilgrims in their way to Santiago de Compostela). Based on pureed potato and the local Tomme de Laguiole cheese, it’s served with a variety of dishes, perhaps most typically roast pork.
A thick, hearty stew or soup based around cabbage, or other root vegetables, white beans and usually small chunks of meat or sausage.
Best of the rest
Look out for some of France’s finest foie gras, along with the elusive, mysterious black truffles.
Cheeses come in many different forms. Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is the source of world-famous Roquefort ewes milk cheese. Ripened in dark caves, the process is mostly the same as it was in the Middle Ages. Alternatives include Ossau-Iraty sheep’s milk cheese, creamy Tomme or tangy goats’ cheese from Ariège. Also Bleu de Causses, also matured underground, and Rocamadour goats cheese.
Wines with wow
There are plenty of appellation controlée vineyards worth checking out, and all offering tremendous value. Look out for Fronton and Gaillac wines, the red with its distinct strawberry notes. Chunky darker reds comes from Cahors (the famous ‘black’ wine), Côteaux de Quercy, Fitou and Corbières and there are plenty of Languedoc wines which are generally a lot more interesting than they were a decade or so ago.
The red Madiran wine, first made by Benedictine monks at Madiran Abbey in the 12th century, is believed to have been popular with pilgrims heading to Compostela. Yet another wine worth seeking out, it’s packed with richness and flavour and is hefty enough to improve with age.
The sparkling Blanquette of Limoux is fresh and lively enough to bring a celebratory touch to any soirée at the end of a decent day’s walking or cycling. And after a delicious meal what better than a glass of Armagnac; the lighter, more delicate - some say more ‘feminine’ - cousin of Cognac and a wonderful way to end the evening.
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