It can be difficult to find fresh herbs for sale in the supermarket and even the markets. In the south of France, flavourings in the regional cuisine is defined by the herbs that grow wild and free in the fields and wild lands: thyme, rosemary, savoury, bay, even lavender.

So although there is demand for these herbs, if you can forage these ingredients for free, or can effortlessly grow them outside your kitchen door, why would you pay for them?

Bay (laurel)

Last visit, I resorted to harvesting a handful of bay leaves from bushes growing in the precinct gardens of the abbay at Caunes-Minervois, and parsimoniously eked out their use through the following weeks.

L'Abbaye de Caunes Minervois

The cloisters at l’abbaye de Caunes Minervois

Behind the abbaye, with bay laurel growing in the precinct

Behind the abbaye, with bay laurel growing in the precinct



















This visit, I noticed—a sign perhaps of my improving mental health—a massive bay hedge across from the Mairie in Belloc. Right next to the bottle and paper recycling bins. And it’s not as if we didn’t have reason or opportunity to notice said hedge when we were unloading our glass-ware and paper last time around…. However, there we are: a boundless source of fresh bay, of which I availed myself a number of times for the purposes of making soups and other savoury dishes.

Oregano (0rigan)

This herb grows wild on the approach to, and within the confines of, the ruins of Roquefixade fortress. Culling the herb was a reason to stop and catch my breath on the way up.

Fennel (fenouilh)

The Aude Departement of France has many towns named for this aromatic herb. I found fennel going to seed along hiking trails leading out of the village of Hounoux in the Razès region and along a seldom-used road west of Fanjeaux.

Rosemary (romarin)

I didn’t need to forage for this herb, as there is a pot of it growing on the terrace in front of the house we are renting. However, I did find it growing wild on the hillsides west of Fanjeaux.

Fanjeaux barely visible on the hilltop

Fanjeaux barely visible on the hilltop

Thyme (thym)

Wild thyme is stronger and more distinctively flavourful than domesticated thyme, and is a key addition to herbes de Provence. Even though the Aude and Ariège regions are hundreds of kilometres from Provence, and lack the “garrigue” or limestone-hilltop scrubland that Provence is known for, the Aude does have terrains de genêts: similar, and similarly aromatic, scrubland.  This herb grows in great perfumed profusion along the westerly Crêtes d’Hounoux (Hounoux ridges) hiking trail, and the most-western slopes of the Boucle de la Hille (La Hille circle) trail out of Fanjeaux.

Savoury (sarriette)

My will broke when I saw live savoury plants for sale at the Esperaza market. With Victoria’s cool summer nights and the multitude of insect pests that the area’s mild winters don’t kill, I haven’t been able to grow savoury since I left Drumheller.

I bought a plant and inserted it into one of the planters at Mirepoix. Now that autumn has arrived—bringing intermittent rainy days—it might even survive until next summer. Regardless, I tipped the branches and was able to season my sauces with the leaves from this particular plant throughout September.

The dining room of le Ciel d'Or restaurant, Mirepoix, FranceI’ve frequently enjoyed soups and sauces made from mirepoix stock, but this was the first time I’d had the actual mixture of chopped celery, carrots and onion that is called mirepoix explicitly showcased on my plate.

Gaston and I were enjoying the Friday fixed lunch at le Ciel d’Or, the restaurant at the Relais Royal hotel in Mirepoix, France. Chef Rogier van den Biggelaar, here in Mirepoix-the-town, clearly is proud of his position’s occupational, geographic and historical connections to mirepoix-the-food. The aromatic mixture, which forms the flavour base of many stocks, soups, stews and sauces, is named for Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duke of Lévis-Mirepoix, whose family had ruled the area since the 11th century. Mirepoix-the-lord employed the cook credited with establishing and codifying mirepoix-the-cooking-technique within the canon of French cuisine in the 18th century.

Our meal in present-day Mirepoix-the-town was both simple and simply delightful.

It started with a salad featuring a few leaves of crisp oak-leaf lettuce that cupped a generous spoonful of pink foam redolent of tomato roasted just long enough to concentrate the fruit’s sugars. Slices of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, a drizzle of bright olive oil, and a lick of balsamic reduction lifted the dish into art, both visually and gastronomically.

But the main course was, of course, the main attraction. The menu provided just one offering: roast pork with brunoise.

Brunoise consists of a small-dice mirepoix cooked with diced ham or pork belly.

In other words, we were going to lunch on mirepoix in Mirepoix.

The chef had highlighted the natural flavours within the mirepoix, and as soon as the plates were brought into the dining room, the aromatics filled the high-ceilinged room. Steeped in a rich, savoury sauce made from the reduced juices of the pork and the vegetables, this mirepoix consisted of orange, and translucent green and golden flavour jewels that seduced the senses and silenced Gaston and I. The tiny cubes had cooked only briefly and remained satisfyingly firm in texture. This dish, so commonly relegated to the background of everyday cooking, was both revelatory and familiar, pleasantly astounding us with the fullness of its flavour on the one hand and soothing us with the comfort of an old friend on the other.

The four generous slices of roasted pork loin we were each served were tender, flavorful, and moist, with a thin, slightly chewy, slightly caramelized crust, and were perfectly set off by the brunoise.

We both would have been content if the meal had ended with this main course. Being a weekday in September, the restaurant was quiet. The staff allowed us time to sip our wine and appreciate the lingering taste-memories before presenting the sweet course—a trio of small taste treats that pleased the palate without burdening the belly. Gaston particularly enjoyed the berry smoothie that was served in a shot glass, while I appreciated the tiny tiramisu.

Coffee, of course, completed the meal.

As Gaston and Mimi are unlikely to be in a city that is home to a Joël Robuchon restaurant with enough cash in their bank account to splurge on a meal planned, if not actually cooked, by the many-starred Robuchon, they recently resorted to the pauper’s experience of the Gault Millau‘s Chef of the (Last) Century.

French chefs who make the three-star Michelin grade on French soil frequently expand and diversify. They open additional restaurants in Tokyo, New York, Las Vegas, and other well-heeled metropoles. They create specialty and ordinary food product lines for specialty and ordinary people, respectively. They publish cookbooks or star in reality T.V. shows on the Food Network. They capitalize, generally, on any means of branding and production in the food, cuisine, and cooking domaine.

Because, apparently, succeeding in the restaurant business is a precarious enterprise for even the best. Even in the country that reveres its top chefs and idolizes them more than movie stars.

So, in addition to opening a dozen restaurants in eight cities around the world, publishing multiple cookbooks, and managing the expectations that a total of 28 Michelin stars inspire, M. Robuchon teamed up with a producer of frozen foods to recreate T.V. dinner, French-style.

After a long day’s hike, Gaston and Mimi pulled two packages out of the frigo, threw them in the oven, and subsequently sampled confit de canard parmentier (butter-laden shepherd’s pie with duck) and pâtes à la basilique et poulet (pesto linguine with chicken). The food was pretty good, for frozen dinners. Certainly tastier than anything they’d find in the supermarket freezer section at home.

But, then, the French would require that.

And M. Robuchon does have a reputation to consider.

“Who comes to France to make soup?” asks Gaston.

“What more French thing to do than to boil up a carcass with some mirepoix to make potage?” Mimi responds.

Making soup is part of our Monday ritual at Montplaisir. First, visit the Monday morning Mirepoix market and purchase produce for the week. Next, go to the bakery and stock up on baguettes and other breads to last the next 36 hours. Last stop on the excursion: go by the rotisserie wagon to pick up lunch: one whole chicken and a carton of potatoes roasted in a pan under the turning chickens to catch all their jus (and fat).

Back to Montplaisir, where Gaston debones the bird and sets the skeletal bits to boil in a potful of water on the stove. Mimi makes a green salad and slices bread. They eat; the carcass simmers; they sip blanquette; the carcass simmers; they clean up; the carcass simmers; they find their current reading material and lounge on the terrace; the carcass simmers. At last, Mimi strains the stock and sets it to cool, and Gaston brings the resulting chicken trash up to the dustbins at the top of the road.

Then, the creative part: consolidating and taking care of many of the bits in the frigo—that last carrot from the previous week’s trip to the market, the lonely, withering stalk of celery, the handful of leek leaves and half an onion, the leftover potatoes and bits of meat from lunch, the rice from the previous night’s supper, and the herbs harvested from fields and trailsides during the week’s hikes.

Different each time. Satisfying every time.

roast-chicken wagon at the market

Roast-chicken wagon at the market

Other kitchen adventures include:

  • Duck, cooked lightly with coat of fresh-ground pepper, then served with steamed spinach and apricot-and-onion confit. That was yummy;
  • A green salad dressed with peaches stewed in balsamic vinegar and strips of dry ham.
  • Pasta in a ham, wine, eggplant and tomato sauce, with field herbs;
  • Onion tart with Dijon-mustard seasoning;
  • Onion and tomato tart;
  • Mimi’s signature fennel-apple-hazelnut salad with Dijon vinaigrette—the real French dressing;
  • Stacks of roasted eggplant, roasted red pepper, roasted tomato and fresh cheese, with balsamic syrup and figs;
  • and Cédric Diant’s pastries from Mirepoix.

Last time, Mimi tried cooking rabbit stew, but ended up with stewed leather instead.

Blanquette de Limoux
In the midst of pre-supper aperitifs, she turns and pours half of a glass of blanquette of Limoux into a tumbler on the table.

“We must keep some for the gravy,” she whispers conspiratorially, in response to his raised eyebrows.

He giggles.


An hour later, when he is preparing the evening’s salad, she notices that he is trying to peel the carrots with the non-blade side of the veggie-peeler.


Chicken marinated in balsamic vinegar with fresh herbs, served with a Dijon and blanquette sauce, herbed rice and a green salad of (at last!) carrot curls and tomatoes.

So Day 2 in Paradise wound down.