Exploring the Gard Region of Southern France

My family comes from the Gard region of Languedoc Roussillon, a stunningly beautiful, but comparatively little known area of Southern France. While many visitors to France head over to the more famous Provence and Cote D’Azur regions (just bordering Languedoc Roussillon), they miss out on a stunning area of France filled with medieval villages, vineyards, dramatic mountains, rivers, ravines, castles, and gorgeous coastline.

I could write for hours on all of the things to do or see in the region, but for now I will focus specifically on the Gard, the eastern-most province of Languedoc Roussillon. The Gard is characterized by a landscape of rolling hills and rivers that build into the grand Massif-Central Cevennes mountain range. The area is predominantly agricultural, meaning that between the quaint villages, your drives around the Gard will be filled with gorgeous panoramas of vineyards, sunflower fields, and iconic tree lined avenues. 

The agricultural nature of the Gard also means that the area still preserves many strong food and food-making traditions. You can turn down nearly any gravel road and find yourself at an independent winery or a farm selling house-made goat cheese, pâté, honey, and more.

 To the south, the Gard does offer a small spit of coastline, but frankly, it is not as nice as many of the beaches that can be found to the east and the west. If you want to go for a swim in the Gard area, do as the locals do and head to a river. Mountain rivers score the landscape, often cutting through deep ravines and spanned by gorgeous Medieval bridges and aqueducts. Grab your swim gear and water shoes and you are sure to find a well-beaten foot path leading down to the water’s edge.

To the north, the Gard is hedged with dramatic mountain ranges, sweeping panoramas, and enough lovely mountain villages to get lost in for months at a time. There is so much to see and explore in the Cevennes mountains that you may just find yourself packing a picnic and driving up the first mountain road you find. Regardless of which one you take, you are bound to find yourself somewhere beautiful.  

The pace of life is slow in the Gard, and can best be enjoyed by allowing yourself the time to relax, enjoy long, leisurely meals, and take sunset walks. There is certainly enough to do in the Gard that you could pack your visit full of activities, but to get the most out of the local culture, I would recommend purposefully slowing down – even if that means doing less.

That being said however, let’s get to the list of things you won’t want to miss in the Gard.

Finding the Heart of France

After years of visiting my family home in Southern France, this has become my favorite sight:

A closed gate. This gate means the afternoon is winding down and you are home to stay. This gate means that the day's excursions are done - everyone has returned to the nest and nothing else is needed. 

This is my second favorite sight: 

From the edge of the terrace you can look over the pool, the mountains as they change color in the setting sun, and the barbecue - usually tended by a small group of people, all with their glasses of wine. 

This is what you see when you turn around: 

People bustling in and out of the kitchen, listening to music, setting the table, and putting the final touches on dinner.

Food has always been my way of connecting with France. This may not come as a surprise to you - I mean, it is me after all. You already know that I really love food. And then, of course it is France, the land of baguettes, cheese (more than 365 different types!), and wine.

It goes deeper than that however. Everywhere you look, you can see people folding the rituals of food, food making, and eating into their lives. 

You can see it in how an elderly neighbor and long-time family friend stops by to present us with a bottle of his homemade Cartagen, a sweet regional liquor made from freshly pressed grapes.

Or how his wife still keeps my Grandmother's old books on identifying mushrooms, and knows all the right places to forage.

You can see it in the bee keeper, a friend from church, who takes his bee hives "up to pasture" to the aromatic hilltops of the Ardeche so his bees produce a richer honey.

Or how the little old man at the weekly market in Uzes sets up a small card table displaying two plastic boxes filled with goat cheese. He only has two kinds: Less dry and more dry, and it is the most complex and flavorful goat cheese you could ever hope to try. 

One of our favorite days came as a tip from my cousin - a talented wine maker with a thriving business. He told us of a wine festival taking place in nearby Anduze, a picturesque town situated along a river on the edge of the mountains. The festival would feature over 25 local, independent wine-makers - my cousin being one of them. 

The next day Jacob and I drove over to Anduze, and walked into the festival. The park was pleasantly busy - not crowded, but bustling with people tasting wine, having picnics, children riding mini horses, and buskers playing old-fashioned French vaudeville music. 

We paid the 4 Euro entry fee that granted us a wine glass and booklet for taking notes, and the tasting began. The vintners were set up in a semi-circle, each with 2-3 wines on display. All you had to do was approach a winemaker, let them know which wine you would like to try (we chose to stick with the reds - there were a lot of wines to try and we weren't planning on getting wasted), make small talk and take notes as desired, then thank them and move on. If you decided to purchase a bottle that would be handled at another tent separate from the tasting area. 

As someone who loves samples, but always feels guilty taking one without buying anything...I'm not alone in this, am I? Anyways, having an entire wine festival dedicated to pressure-free sampling made me giddy with joy (the wine helped too). Why don't more festivals do it this way? You could have easily spent the entire day there, drinking over 60 wines, for a grand total of 4 Euros - and you get to keep the glass.

In all these things I saw a common thread: a love for a life that finds pleasure in community, beauty in the simple things, and refuses to be hurried or pressured along. You could see it in the fact that the festival's entry fee was €4, as opposed to $50.00 as it could have easily been elsewhere. I realized it with a jolt when trying to run errands and finding all of the department stores closed for lunch between noon and 2 pm.  

It is difficult, as a visitor, to enter into the same slow stream that characterizes the south of France. It takes time for your heart to start beating slower, for your mind to stop racing, to let yourself relax into the beauty of simply being

So Jacob and I (and the rest of my family as well - we were in good company), hit the brakes and forced ourselves to wind down the fastest way we knew how: through cooking.

This year in France was a special one. It had been 12 years since this much of my family had been together in France at once. It was also the first time that we all really cooked together. My brother taught me recipes he created for the restaurant he is opening in Sydney. I taught him how to make green beans taste better than he thought possible. We brainstormed dishes to challenge each other and show off our skills, then had 6 sets of willing hands ready to act as sous-chefs.  

Over a week and a half we made lemon-stuffed trout, lavender-smoked artichokes, fried chicken and collard-style green beans, flank steak with chimichurri sauce, ricotta and olive stuffed peppers, American-style ribs and truffle macaroni and cheese, and much more. Not every experiment was a blazing success, but everything tasted amazing.

This is the beating heart of what I love about France. "My France" is slow mornings, lazy hot days, afternoon naps, and long, long evenings spent around the dinner table. My France is food shopping, wine tasting, bursts of activity before dinner, and star-gazing late into the night. 

I have always found the romance of France to be an elusive one to capture. In some places, you can find a city's pulse by simply strolling its streets and feeling its vibrancy. But walking France's markets and cobblestoned villages only left me skimming the surface of what I've always known to be a deeper pool. Finding that connection this year (in food, what else?) filled me with enough ideas and thoughts to fill a book - and so, I am starting to write one. It may take years to finish, but it will be full of stories of the people, the food, and the stories that cut straight to the heart of southern France.

But while you wait, I will give you some recipes. Stay tuned. :) 

 

 

A Week in Southern France

In early June Jacob and I took our first vacation in years. You may not have seen us for a while, so here is a picture of us: 

I have been putting off writing this blog post because, to be quite honest, perfect and amazing trips don't make for good stories. So if you are reading this post, it is likely because you know us, you a dreaming of the south of France, you are supremely bored, or a combination of the three. 

We were headed to the south of France to meet my parents and spend a week unwinding in the countryside. As most of you already know, my mother is French, and we still have a good deal of family in the area of Languedoc-Roussillion. My mother inherited the house that my grandfather built, a home which has been the setting of my childhood summers for the majority of my life. Jacob and I spent a month at that house three years ago during our six-month adventure around Europe, and frankly, it was a difficult time. 

As excited as I was to show Jacob the places of my childhood, we realized upon arriving that it simply wasn't the same without family. The house was too large for the two of us. We felt aimless and isolated. We were excited to leave the house behind. 

This time however, would be different. We would be joining my parents there, and Jacob was looking forward to experiencing the house and that area of France through my parent's eyes. It was a chance for France to redeem itself to Jacob. A chance for him to get a taste of the France that I know and love. 

It was also a change to unplug and take a real vacation - a very different experience than taking a whirlwind trip to Barcelona or other exotic destinations. I have found as I travel that there is a very distinctive separation between "travel" and "vacation". A vacation presupposes relaxation. Walking so far that your toes bleed is not relaxation. That's travel. 

Anyways, we landed in Nice, France after a short, uneventful flight from Vienna. Not having seen a sea or ocean in nearly a year, this sight was especially welcome: 

My parents picked us up in Nice and we went for a drive along the coast, stopping at a small cove to have a picnic and go for a swim in the gloriously warm water. I could have simply floated in that water all day. 

We arrived back to the house in the evening in time to catch the evening light setting over the mountains. With dinner I was reminded of something which, for me, set the tone of the entire week: I love French food. 

Ok, now before you go "well duh, you and the rest of the world", let me frame that statement for you a bit further. Yes, French cooking is delicious - but that isn't what I love so much. What makes French food truly magnificent is the ingredients. The cheese, the bread, the salami, the tomatoes, the peaches, the cuts of meat in the butcher shop, and even the tins of prepared foods like cassoulet and duck confit. For me, a quintessential French lunch is a hodgepodge of little bites - black olive tapenade, pate, salami, tomato salad, cheese, bread, and whatever else we choose to dig from the refrigerator. The thing that makes it so good is not our cooking method (as there is none), it is the remarkable quality of each item itself. 

The next day we went to one of the large grocery stores nearby and I felt like one of the gluttonous kids in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. I wanted to try everything. And there was so much available. Fresh oysters and fish, veal, rabbit, ten different kinds of tomatoes, fava beans, endive, etc. In the freezer section I was coming across seafood I had only ever heard of before (like razor clams), along with the ubiquitous French frog-legs and escargots, stuffed in their shells with the garlic parsley butter and ready to be thrown in the oven. (We may or may not have purchased a 48-pack of escargot for a shockingly inexpensive 7 Euros and spent the whole week eating them). 

Well before you get bored of my talking about food, I will get to the point. Being surrounded by such remarkable ingredients is inspiring - especially to someone who is marginally (hah) food obsessed as I am. I immediately asked my mother if I could take over planning dinners for the week. She agreed, bless her. She knows how to make me happy. 

Before I wax poetic over the food I made, here are some more pictures of things we did in France: 

Visited ridiculously picturesque little towns in the countryside:

Met my Uncle Olivier in the tiny village of Roquefort (where the Roquefort blue cheese comes from) for a picnic and tour of the cheese making caves. 

Went to the farmers market and purchased more beautiful food, including French salami (called Saucisson, though as a child I ate so much of it my family took to calling it "Chelseasson").

Visited the gorgeous area of Grizac, tucked high away in the mountains. Though it was my first time there (that I could remember), the area holds a special place in my family's heart: it is where my mother grew up attending summer camps, the place where she went to pray (at the cross, pictured below) and ask God if she should marry my dad, and the place where my eldest brother proposed to his wife, Tiffany. 

Smoked fresh oysters on the grill:

And finally, came back with a suitcase worth of goodies - wine, salami, cheese, homemade jams, and a treasure trove of items we had squirreled away in the house 3 years before when we traveled Europe:

And now, as promised, the food we made. The food that made me realize (again) that if I could spend my entire day around food, I would be one very happy Chelsea. Endless amounts of Escargots (but of course!), Mussels in a roquefort white wine sauce with French fries, grilled rabbit and root vegetables, Shellfish linguine, Smoked oysters on the half-shell, and my favorite of all: homemade lasagna stuffed with duck confit. I have discovered the joys of making lasagna and I am a changed woman. 

Now we are back in Vienna, enjoying the heat after a long winter and indecisive spring. Though it feels a bit truncated I am going to wrap this post up here simply for the sake of getting it out. It has been too long since the last post, I will try and make the next one more timely!