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Foods of Narbonne, in the south of France

Riana Lagarde

Narbonne is a town of 48,000 in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France, west of the Cote d'azur.

When you conjurer up an image of "the south of France", you think of Nice, Cannes, or Monte Carlo, with fabulously suntanned natives driving their convertibles along the blue Mediterranean, through picture perfect streets lined with beautiful stone buildings and ornate facades, and a life of luxuries including pati, fois gras, and divine patisseries. And Nice kind of looks like that.

But Narbonne in the south west is a little bit different, more rustic, not so sophisticated and fabulous. It's more like my hometown of Shelton, Washington: population 8,442, home of the High Climbers (those are loggers, if you didn't know). If Shelton was Roman, it would be a lot like Narbonne: small town people and viewpoints, no one ever leaves, people marry their neighbors, everyone knows each others business, not much going on the surface, a typical little village with not much to offer.

But alas, poor Shelton is not Roman, it doesn't have the winding streets and eerie narrow stone passages of Narbonne from 118 BC on the via Domitia, the Roman road linking Italy to Roman Spain. Narbonne was a port, the first colony of Roman Gaul. Now it is a quiet provincial city with a population of 47,000.

Unlike Shelton, it has grown rapidly in the last ten years. The center of the old town of Narbonne is a circle encompassing a pretty, lush, green park. Bisecting cobblestone streets lead off into different directions, characteristically Roman with blind curves and dead end corridors. I don't know the name of the streets, just what is near them: so for me it's the alley of the Post Office, that crooked side lane that goes to the hospital, the petite rue that leads to that great Indian restaurant, "Le Taj Mahal". When asked where the fabric store was, I replied its on the same side as the Flambei restaurant.

That is my focus - food - my reference point. There is some great food in Narbonne, you just have to know which path to take. Near the hospital, and around the stone facade walled corner there is a jewel of Narbonne, a "Caviste". A Caviste is a wine merchant, with a wealth of wine information, a specialist who usually has a wine cellar shop where you may sample wine at a stand up bar and drink up his knowledge while you savor the wines and ultimately take a couple of bottles home!

There were five of us, we could barely fit in this small shop called "Les Cuisiniers Cavistes", filled with 52 different wines placed on curved glass shelves. On adjoining ledges were gourmet foods, spices and gifts in antique looking jars containing culinary delights like local honey, black olive and anchovy tapanade, patis de foie aux chpes, (a goose liver pate made with Cipes, an expensive seasonal mushroom), escargots 'la catalane, rich onion soups and hearty entrees like beef bourguignon. All packaged with handmade labels as if your grandmother had prepared them with ivory paper and calligraphy letters. The "cuisinier" actually is not an old auntie or grandmother, but a young up and coming Michelin starred chef and restaurateur, and a truffle specialist I am told. We lingered at the bar and tasted wines, a Rosi from near by Chateaux d' Hospitaliti and a deep rich red syrah, both from the Languedoc wine region. Narbonne is in the center of the Languedoc and wine is the reason why the town has been booming as of late.

While we tasted the wines, the Caviste cut big pieces of saussison sec and placed them on plates on the counter along with little dishes of lucques olives (my favorite, small, green, hard olives with firm flesh), black olive tapanade with local bread, fresh-cut sweet red bell peppers with a dip of aooli: a creamy garlicky spread, sun-dried tomato spicy dip, bowls of small red radishes, cuts of delectable sausages and rich chorizos. I was in heaven!

I turned to look at this big glass table that could easily seat ten that was taking up most of the center of the room and I thought that it was for decoration. It had a large wood carving board at each place setting, crystal wine glasses and water glasses, and rich thick vanilla colored napkins. I was informed that you could also eat here and that our Caviste would cook up some of the repas of our choosing. Of course, I agreed to this idea and we were seated for our feast: starting with Pbti de campagne "Minervois" (a delicate goose liver pati flavored with intense sweet Muscat), then thick velvety saucey "haricot blanc" (white beans, served with chicken with shrimp cream sauce), "cassoulet" (duck breast and sausages cooked in the duck fat), and lots of fluffy white homemade 'pain' was divided on the bread boards with gobs of butter and pati. Bottles of the red syrah and rosi wines flowed.

After coffee, two hours later, I thought that maybe Narbonne does have some of the aspects of the glamorous sides of the rest of the south of France, at least in the cuisine. It's available if you know where to look! Just like Shelton does have a couple of decent hidden restaurants as well.

"Les Cuisiniers Cavistes" is located at 1 place Lamourguir in Narbonne and their phone number is 04-68-65-04-43. Our lunch was 22 euros per person.

Riana Lagarde is an American living in France. frenchtoastfrance.blogspot.com

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