Thursday, 9 July 2009

The joys of self-catering in France 1: Roussillon

For the past couple of years our family holidays have combined the hot, sunny Mediterranean coast with the lush and watery expanses of the Loire Valley. Quite frankly, this is the best of both worlds. Self-catering might sound a bit dreary (and hard work) but, for food obsessives like me, it's the perfect choice of holiday as it allows you to be in control of precisely what you eat (and drink) and when. It also gives you the excuse to a lot of food shopping - bliss! Furthermore, with a toddler in tow, once she has gone to bed, we can have a relaxing evening on our own terms, in our own space - something that's much more difficult in a hotel.

Both these locations have so much to offer foodies. St Cyprien is in Roussillon (Catalan France), where the local specialities encompass local fish and seafood (notably anchovies and sardines), mountain honey and cheese (from the nearby Pyrenees), *abundant fruit and vegetables (peaches, apricots, cherries - the local town of Ceret is the 'cherry capital' of France and has an annual cherry festival). What's more, this corner of France is currently one of the most exciting wine regions in Europe. You might have heard of the fortified sweet wines of Banyuls and Rivesaltes and the deep reds of Collioure, but this hot, dry region produces reds, whites and rosés from a broad palette of grape varieties. For easy drinking we buy from our most local producer, Domaine de l'Esparrou near Canet who produces prize-winning rich, spicy Côtes du Roussillon and Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalans reds and rosés and a delicious fragrant Muscat Sec (all of which we are continuing to enjoy back in London from the wine boxes 'fontaines à vin' we brought home with us). For more serious drinking, favourites include Gauby (Calce) and Le Clos des Paulilles (Port Vendres). Gauby is possibly the region's most exciting producer - extraordinary, intense, complex reds and whites (Côtes du Roussillon Villages and Vin de Pays des Coteaux Catalans). Clos des Paulilles makes powerful red and white Collioure and fortifieds labelled as Banyuls. They also have an charming outdoor restaurant where you can be soothed by the gentle lapping of the waves while you eat: they are right on the coast. Since we visited in 2008, they have converted some outbuildings into rather stylish looking accommodation. Delightful place.
* Farm shops are handy for local seasonal produce and are often well sign-posted. We use the one in nearby Taxo (which also has an impressive wine selection) and St Cyprien has a comprehensive market on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The house we use in St Cyprien has an outdoor kitchen with a large built-in barbecue. This is the perfect environment for my some of my favourite Mediterrean dishes, grilled fish and seafood, perhaps with a drizzle of olive oil and some lemon juice (and glass after glass of local wine). In this instance, sardines - always unbelievably good value, bread, salad, chilled rosé and great company. If we fancy something after all that, we might nibble some Pyrenean sheep's cheese (Ossau Iraty or Brébis) with some cherries. Heaven!

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