Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Languedoc-Roussillon

As we have 5 wines from the Languedoc Roussillon at the Wine Shop (the newest being a Syrah Rosé) I thought it would be a good idea to have a look at the regional fayre and cuisine of the region.

Languedoc-Roussillon is made up of 5 departments: Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère and Pyrénées-Orientales. Montpellier is the region’s capital and Languedoc-Roussillon is bordered by the region of Auvergne, to the north, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, to the east, the Mediterranean to the south east, Spain to the south, and the region of Midi-Pyrénées to the west.

Ancient Roussillon is a small region of Languedoc, forming the Pyrénées Orientales département. Prior to the Treaty of the Pyrénées in 1659, most of the present department was part of the former Principality of Catalonia, under Spanish control within the Crown of Aragon, so the majority of it has historically been Catalan-speaking, and it is still sometimes referred to as Northern Catalonia.

Roussillon derived its name from Ruscino, a small fortified place near modern-day Perpignan where Gaulish chieftains met to consider Hannibal's request for a conference. In 218 BC Hannibal assembled a Carthaginian army with 12,000 horse and 37 elephants, to attack the Romans on their own Territory. Despite losing vast numbers of his men he crossed the Pyrénées and marched through what is now the Languedoc, recruiting reinforcements from Celtic tribes as he went.

The Languedoc-Roussillon is rich in history and its countryside is full of mountains, rivers and lakes, ancient cities, thermal springs (Perrier Water comes from this area), abbeys, and cathedrals, châteaux and castles, notably the famous mountain fortresses popularly known as Cathar Castles.
You can't miss the mark the Romans made on the region, the Via Domitia (the road built in 118 BC to connect Spain with Italy) runs through the countryside. You can see part of it in Narbonne, a major port in Roman Gaul before the town's harbour silted up in the 14th century.

Nîmes has a splendid Roman amphitheatre which is in better condition than the one in nearby Arles, and is the setting for bullfighting and open-air concerts. An impressive feat of Roman engineering is the Pont du Gard, the three-tiered aqueduct that spans the Gardon river in the east of the region, near Uzès. Although much of it had to be restored during the 18th and 19th centuries, there is enough of the original Roman construction for it to be a Unesco World Heritage Site, and one of France's top-five tourist attractions.

The food and cuisine of the Languedoc-Roussillon, as you can imagine, has Catalan influences from Spain and the Middle East as well as the Mediterranean and Provence. Languedoc cuisine relies heavily on local produce: olive oil, tomato sauces, herbs from the wild garrigue landscapes of the region such as thyme, rosemary and sorrel – with spices from the East such as cinnamon and saffron.

If you’re expecting rich sauces laden with cream and calories then think again. It’s rare to find sheep and cattle grazing in the fields in this part of France, hence dairy products are often absent from menus. The Languedoc is the olive capital of France and they are used in countless dishes. It's well known for its tomatoes, apricots, oysters from the Etangs, beef and rice from the Camargue, figs, fish from the coast – especially anchovies, snails, cheeses, Pardailhan turnips and wild mushrooms from the mountains such as girolles. Generally the phrase à la Languedocienne means garnished with garlic, tomatoes, aubergines and cèpes (mushrooms), à la Catalan indicates a rich tomato sauce!

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