Gourmet Escapade in the Boonies Beyond Saint-Rémy-Provence

Finding Félines-Minervois on a map might require a magnifying glass. This speck of a village, about 30 kilometers northeast of the medieval marvel of Carcassonne, is home to fewer than five hundred residents, but I knew Ralph and I were going there—and bientôt too! After reading food writer Tim Hayward’s gushing review (Financial Times, 9/10 July 2022) of the Grand Café Occitan in this tiny country enclave, I immediately launched into researching the establishment. The dazzling menu with approachable prices prompted me to strategize how soon we could enjoy a meal created by the acclaimed young English chef Tristram Bowden.

It wasn’t practical to travel the three hours to Félines-Minervois in July or August—peak tourist season—but after a sweltering, mostly stay-at-home summer, a destination dining jaunt in autumn had great appeal. Perfect timing for this low key getaway would be after the rentrée. This is the marvelous time of year when kids return to school (1 September this fall) and the bulk of tourists vanish from the autoroutes.

We wouldn’t merely dine, however. There would be riding along the Canal du Midi on our foldable bikes, catching up with buddies who live in the area, exploring the vast wine-growing region—arguably among the most extensive in the world. And birding, of course. Our feathered friends are everywhere and we’d keep our binoculars at the ready to see what we could see.

The trip to our holiday rental Eloi Merle in Olonzac—fun Tuesday market—was a snap. From there, it was a short bike ride to Homps on the Canal du Midi. With friends based in Carcassonne, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the canal-side Auberge de la Croisade, and had another yummy meal with amis living near Toulouse. We met halfway in the quaint outpost of Montolieu, nicknamed le village du livre. The moniker is apt considering the population is a mere 821, yet boasts a dozen second hand book stores!

And then there was the Grand Café Occitan—utterly delightful from the exceptionally warm welcome to the wistful waves good-bye. But what transpired in between was show-stopping though in a very unassuming manner. Take the humble beet. Even if you’re not a fan, I’d wager Chef Bowden’s zesty-creamy beet and goat cheese starter would set your taste buds aflutter. And the grilled fish. Oh, goodness, sheer perfection, and served with the most yummy braised endives and roasted cherry tomatoes ever. The textures and ultra fresh flavors were astonishing—full stop. Surely some culinary magic was happening in the cuisine. A return visit is definitely on our radar.

The last two days were spent moseying around popular Capestang, with its slow stream of canal-cruisers, and exploring the adorable village of Assignan, where many buildings are accented with eye-popping pinks and purples. In Minerve, one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, Ralph spotted a swarm of House Martins under an arch of the grand stone bridge spanning the gorge of the Cesse River. They flew around helter skelter for about fifteen minutes and then vanished.

But in the wine town of St. Chinian, a single snow-white Little Egret with its bright yellow feet waded slowly in the shallow Vernazobre river flowing through the center of town. The graceful bird was in no hurry at all, posing graciously for photos. I could have lingered longer watching the elegant bird with its sleek body, slender beak, long legs, and strands of plumage trailing behind its delicately-shaped head, but I too yearned for a dip. After all the trekking around, a leisurely swim in the heated pool at our apartment beckoned and would end this day on a blissful note.

On the way home, we stopped at the wine co-op, Domaine de L’Ormarine, in the village of Pinet of Picpoul de Pinet fame. This delightfully drinkable crisp white wine has long been a staple in our household, but we’d never sought out its namesake town, even though we’d been going to nearby Mèze for years. There was no doubt the vendange was in full swing. Massive trucks loaded with mounds of freshly picked grapes trundled in, deposited the fruit, and dutifully returned to the vineyards to tackle another hectare. It’s a large scale operation to be sure, but the resulting product is what the wine writer Dan Keeling describes as a “friendly session wine,”* which often is exactly what fits the bill. To the hard-working harvesters after my own heart, merci and bon courage!

Stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

Salute to Mas du Capoun–we’ll miss you!

PS

On 16 September, after nearly twenty years, our beloved restaurant Mas du Capoun, in the tiny enclave of Mollégès—twenty minutes from St. Rémy—closed its doors indefinitely. We will always treasure the exceptional memories we made over many years at this superb establishment. Michèle’s exuberant welcome, the capable and friendly staff, refined décor, convivial ambiance, and of course, the extraordinary cuisine—thanks to Chef Michaël—made it uniquely marvelous. How we will miss them! But there’s some happy news too. In the near future, the pair is planning to open another—smaller—restaurant in the neighborhood. In the meantime, we wish them all the very, very best in realizing their new endeavor. Stay tuned!

*Dan Keeling’s article, Sourcing a good house wine is a restaurant’s holiest of grails,” which appeared in the weekend edition of the Financial Times, 6/7 August 2022, refers to the 2021 Cave de L’Ormarine Picpoul de Pinet.

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