The first time I visited this region, I paid little attention to the flora around the house. It was green.

The second time I came, I noticed that, lining the long driveway to Montplaisir, were hundreds—thousands—of bright green heather shrubs. All native. Many more than a metre tall. It being September, none were in bloom, as had been the case before.

This visit to France, we went first to the Tarn, where heathers were in bloom. Being slightly further north and with a slightly different climate made the difference.

When we moved on to the Mirepoix area, heathers, again, everywhere. This time, I was able to identify that at least two varieties grow around here: the bright green, tall kind, and a lower, leggy, dark kind. On one trail, the tall variety was blooming: greeny–yellowy–white flowers, rather typical of the heath-tree flowers one can see in Victoria.

Then we too a day trip down into the Pyrenées to Axe-les-Thèrmes. The hillsides above Axe and below the fresh-snow–covered peaks were aflame with fall colours and bloomin’ heather.

bread and thyme. Photo © Moyan Brenn
If you ask Gaston what he considers to be the defining qualities of good French bread, his eyes lose focus and a dreamy expression comes over his face.

You may prompt him: “Crusty? Fluffy?”

That snaps him back into the moment. “No! Absolutely not.”

I agree with his disagreement.

The best French bread bears little resemblance to the loaves and sticks we find in most North American supermarkets.

Good French bread has a slightly tough, crunchy, chewy crust. The bread’s flesh is very springy and slightly chewy—with substance, yet also with measurable, sometimes even large-ish air pockets. The texture tells you whether the dough was adequately worked before set to rise, activating and harnessing the long protein chains of gluten in the wheat, or wheat, rye, even barley or oat, flour combination.

The French take their bread seriously. No fluff-puffs or tasteless roll-into-doughballs for them. Bread, after all, is part of French heritage, and figures prominently in the history of the country. For instance, when told that peasants and workers were marching on Paris in 1789 because they had no bread to eat, Marie Antoinettes is said to have suggested, “Let them eat cake” (or brioche, more likely, given what she ate instead of peasant bread). The story is apocryphal; regardless, a lack of flour for bread was a trigger for the storming of the Bastille in July, 1789.
boule of country bread. Photo © by Brett Neilson

And we all know where that led.

Yet, in recent years, bakeries across France have been closing. And, yes, it is now possible to get a baguette or loaf in France that just doesn’t measure up.

A baker’s life is difficult, and the returns are low. A baker’s long hours preclude much of a social or even family life. Working conditions are uncomfortable, and rents and fuel costs are high.

Then there are the regulations. These regulations dictate, on one hand, staff wages and hours, and require immense amounts of paperwork. The regulations also limit how much a baguette can be sold for and how much time a baker and his family can take for vacation each year.

Further, the French are eating less bread in a collective effort to reduce waistline creep. Unfortunately, this also reduces bakers’ profit margins.

It’s little wonder few young people choose the trade.

Syndicates and corporations have stepped up over the last few decades to provide solutions. These organizations source and negotiate  lower prices for flour and other essential ingredients. The buying power comes with being able to purchase in bulk for thousands of member–bakers directly from producers. The syndicates and corporations also handle warehousing and shipping of ingredients across France, reducing individual bakers’ hassles immeasurably.

As you drive through towns and villages, bakeries display signs and logos for these organizations. They announce to passersby which of the organizations enables a baker to continue working his trade. Few independent bakeries now exist in France, although rare exceptions continue.

The organizations have changed baking in France in other ways, providing a number of optional services their member–bakers can subscribe to. One of these services is regular provision of ready-made starter, or leavening, for more traditional, sour-dough-type bread recipes.

The corporations can also supply bakers with factory-made pre-mixes or even frozen dough shaped into loaves, buns, sticks, and even croissants and sweet breakfast pastries. Bakers need only order a month’s supply. They can keep the goods frozen until needed, defrost the number of items needed for a morning’s bake, then pop them into the ovens.

These options have improved bakers’ lives considerably, but  at a cost to bread quality.

The pre-made loaves are sold as basic, or regular, baguettes or loaves. The state sets the price of these basic offerings, ensuring that the French will always be able to afford bread for breakfast, lunch and supper.

These baguettes and loaves are usually disappointing, with crusts that explode into crumbs as soon as you break the loaf, and a light, disappear-into-nothing crumb inside. That said, it’s still better than most supermarket bread we find at home.

Many French bakers, fortunately, provide alternatives. A 1998 law prevents businesses that use only pre-mixed dough and frozen-ready loaves from calling themselves “bakers.” As a result, any baker who wishes to be recognized as a baker must provide some product made from scratch. Some are true craftspeople. I recommend you bypass regular bread in all French bakeries except those on the Best Baguette of the Year list, and choose instead traditional options—called traditionnela l’ancien or d’antan. These are made more in the old-fashioned way, with sour-dough starter and blends of flour the baker can adjust.

Truly artisanal bakers create and nurture their own starter over months and years, imparting a distinct (and very satisfying) taste to their loaves and sticks. Some create taste–art by incorporating seasonal fruits or produce into specialty breads. I remember enjoying baker Cédric Diant’s exceptional pain aux figues (fig bread) and pain aux noix (walnut bread) during one fall vacation to the Mirepoix area. Both loaves were heavier than Diant’s traditional pain or boules, but they were so, so good.

French artisan bakers are becoming a rarity. When you stumble across one, return often, and buy from them. Help keep them in business, and enjoy the bread they clearly are passionate about making.

Boulangerie/Patissierie de Cédric Diant, Mirepoix. Photo © Scott Mair 2012
It took Gaston and I a week to find Diant’s bakery in Mirepoix. Now it is one of the many reasons why we keep returning to the region. Sadly, the rigours of running a bakery has changed even Diant’s business. He no longer offers the range of bread available even a few years ago. The menu is usually whittled down to everyday varieties sure to sell.

He was also closed for the first three weeks of this visit. Given that two bakeries on the town’s more-frequented central square have closed since we last visited, Gaston and I feel fortunate that the door to Diant’s establishment was locked only temporarily.

For his bread remains outstanding—the best bread in the region.

A French bread glossary

Baguette: a long, very thin loaf of bread

Pain: a loaf that is similar in shape and size to what North Americans call French bread

Boule: a round loaf of bread.

Pain traditionnel: country bread—often sourdough and made with rye, barley and even oat flour, in addition to wheat flour.

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.

“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.

Two years on, and we’re finding not even rural France remains frozen in time. C’est dommage, mais, ça, c’est la vie. The commune of Mirepoix is extracting value from its forests this past summer: stands throughout the area have been harvested, and the logs are piled alongside the highways awaiting trucks with Big Claws to cart them away. The village of Camon has ripped out its poplar plantations and replaced them with vines.

The bakery in Chalabre has closed and is for sale. This is of particular sadness to us, as it was a regular morning croissant stop for us last time we were in the area and were en route to points south and east. Now the tabac—the French version of the convenience store—next door has taken on the role of dépôt boulangerie to serve the needs of the community, but, really, it just ain’t the same as bread fresh from the oven.

Further, our favourite baker in Mirepoix, Cédric Diant, across the laneway from le Relai hôtel, has timed his annual vacation to coincide with our vacation. We have to wait almost half of our holiday to experience once again his fabulous pain d’autan (traditional bread), pastries and chocolates. Fortunately, the “Sweet Sin” (la Péché Mignonne) bakery on the other side of the ring road around the city’s historic centre is open. Not quite as amazing, but amply adequate. We particularly enjoy their photo album of the reconstruction of Saint-Basil’s cathédral au chocolat: fait du 70 kg du chocolat, 120 heures du travail, et one tonne de la passion (made with 70 kg of chocolate, 120 hours of work, and one tonne of passion).

fish stand, marchéveg stand, marché

Sadly, the musical-instrument man no longer sells at the Sunday Esparaza market, to Gaston’s dismay. No further access to croaking frog-drums or wooden-clatter birdsong makers. And the herb-and-spice seller at the Monday Mirepoix market has also moved on. In fact, finding herbes de Provence has become something of a challenge.

And the cheese-and-saucisson seller with the blond highlights at the weekly Esperaza/Mirepoix markets has passed the torch—at least temporarily—to a young Basque woman.

chateaux lastours

Of further tristesse, is the old, old bouvier de Flandres dog owned by Madame Vènes at our favourite Minervoix winery was hit by a car last December, and no longer welcomes us or anyone with a wag of the tail and a flop-down nearby, followed shortly thereafter by the appearance of madame. “He was my doorbell, my claxon,” she told me. “Even before anybody drove up or rang the bell to take a tasting or anybody knew a customer had arrived, he would search me out and bark to alert me that someone was coming.”

Now madame has to make do with a young South Korean woman interning at the winery for the next six months to guard the office and let her know when customers have arrived to sample the fabulous nectar produced by the estate. In 2005, Massamier-la mignarde produced the “best wine in the world” in the Syrah–grenache–mourvedre category, according to the vignerons of France. Having sampled that vintage the last time we were in the area, I must say, it was very fine.

On the evening before we left our rental near Mirepoix, as Gaston and I had supper on the terrace in front of the cottage, I watched the clouds drift from west to east across the southern horizon, picking up the blues and violets from the forest-shrouded hills. We hadn’t seen the Pyrenees since the evening we arrived: first the tramontane-driven rain socked in the valleys, and once that passed and the sun shone, humidity veiled the mountains. Occasionally you could make out dim outlines.

We got nice ganders at the midi-Pyrénées the morning we were in Tarascon-sur-Ariège. We were visiting the Grotte de Niaux, the only cave in France with Magdelena-era cave paintings (12,000 to 14,000 years) that the public is still permitted to see in the original. There are about 10 caves with artifacts or traces in the Tarascon area. The entrance to the Grotte de Niaux is at ~1000 feet above the valley, with views to the west. Sheer white limestone cliffs studded with conifers and hardwoods. And the air there: crisp and clear at mid-morning.

The cave paintings included some impressive, expressive bison, but were not nearly the colourful works of art that images from Lascaux in the Dordogne have created expectations of. The guide mystified us more than enlightened us: she had a canned talk and any questions from the group that delved deeper and required that she explain her statements—well, forget it: you were just going to be even more confused. The bison were nice though. And that the guide had the waxen, transparently pallid appearance of one who rarely sees daylight also led to some entertaining but quiet speculation. We decided, given our disappointing experiences in getting more information from her on other questions about cave dwellers, that we wouldn’t bring the subject up.

Perhaps she had been coated with her own layer of limestone slip. Mineral-based physical sunblocks are the new thing, after all. And certainly the water here in le sud de France contains sufficient lime to scale anybody nicely after a few weeks. The water at St-Gély was the hardest we’ve encountered: I couldn’t even get a lather up with that. It was less hard at Mirepoix. In Nézignan-l’Evèque, soap lathered, but more sediment was left behind. Paris leaves its own special imprint after a couple of showers. I suppose if we lived in southern Alberta, we wouldn’t even notice, but – oh – for the dulcet washes of west coast water.


And last week, I hauled Gaston on a 15.5-kilometre circuit of four picturesque villages and settlements around where we’re staying.

The hiking guide I picked up at the tourist office in Mirepoix is without question the worst I have ever encountered. And we made route finding on this day even more challenging by going in the direction opposite from how the route was described. We did this because, after 40 minutes wandering through our 17-house village, looking for trailmarkers and way finders, that was the only trail route out of the village we could find.

View of Camon

Looking down on Camon and its former Benedictine abbey

We made it to Camon—yet another of France’s prettiest villages (yawn?), and covered in rose bushes abloom—where we had lunch outside the former abbey and next to the graveyard. And the route from Camon to Lagarde was straightforward once I insisted to Gaston that the rails-to-trail route we were supposed to take didn’t follow the river Hers, but crossed it on that many-arched stone bridge.

chateau Lagarde

Ruins of chateau Lagarde, once the Versailles of southwest France

But getting out of the Lagarde was a trial.

First because Gaston had an attack of the crabbies as soon as we ducked back out through the chained chateau gates. Okay, it was hot. The cool weather had passed, and a misty morning had given away to the full blaze of the Mediterranean sun. And the trail out of Lagarde in the direction of home was, as mentioned, not clear. The only blazes we could find there for the Grand Route 7, which would lead us to Mirepoix, 8 km away.

Road to the chateau Lagarde

Plane-tree–lined road to Chateau Lagarde

But when you’re at the halfway point in a loop, options are limited. Retrace every footstep you’ve taken; forge ahead in the spirit of adventure (at that moment at an ebb); or brave the narrow, shoulderless road that twists along the valley bottoms and the trucks and cars traveling at 90 kph along it.

“Which would you prefer, Gaston?”

“I just don’t want a 4-km detour that we have to retrace because we’ve gone the wrong way.”

“I don’t want that either. You hated the rail-trail: do you really want to go back that way. It’ll be even hotter now.”

“I don’t want to go that way.”

“Then there’s the road or forward. Which would you prefer?”

”They’re equally long. Which do you want to do?”

”What I want isn’t the issue. I’m in better shape than you. We have to get you home.”

“I’ll go whatever way you want, but I’m not going on a wild goose chase. If you want to go forward, we’ll go forward. Is that what you want to do?”

Response not uttered.

“Do you want to take the trail?”

“Let’s see if this person can help us find the route.”

Fortunately midi was well past, and people were out and about. Un gentilhomme was passing by. I asked him for directions.

We were way off.

Vous voulez l’autre chateau, pas celui-ci,” he said. “Il y a un autre a l’autre cote du grand chemin. Vous le verriez du village.” And he gave us step-by-step directions on how to get through Lagarde and to the grand chemin to the other chateau (Sibra)—most details of which I forgot by the time I turned to Scott and started to translate. However, I had enough—or would have if the trial signage in Lagarde made any sense. So, about 1 km from our encounter with le gentilhomme, j’ai demande encore des directionsof two ladies sitting beside the boules pitch. That got us to the next route direction-change,

Bovine gals, Belloc

Moo, mui bellas, a Belloc

where another madame taking her garden waste to the dechets bin directed us around one more corner, and then all of a sudden the directions given by le gentilhomme, les deux dame au boulodrome, and la jardinière made sense.

The route from Sibra (with a minor detour around the estate’s entire curtain wall—pregnant silence from Gaston…) to Belloc was the nicest part of the route. Well, except for the last kilometer above Belloc, a road through the middle of in intensive cattle-farm operation. But the ladies there mooed us along.

We both appreciated long hot soaks that evening.



Now, in case you were thinking Gaston is having a really unpleasant time on his vacation:

Gaston, post-Olympian hike

The long-suffering Gaston continues to have a hard time.

From October 2009

Gaston and I have had further, positive revelations on the question of la nourriture: French public markets. Les marchés are nothing like Granville Island’s sanitized vegetable warehouse outlet. Here, local or at least regional producers selling their specialties of the season predominate.

Our first market was on a rainy day in Gourdagues. It didn’t really prepare us, as there were only maybe eight vendors, and we were still leery of unidentifiable animal bits stuffed inside retained bowels and of course the overwhelming question of cheese (i.e., where to start?). Then, a few days later we visited Uzès during their mega Saturday market: the usual food suspects × 20, produce, wines of the region and spirits made by little old monks and nuns, honey, jam, candy, crafts, toys, clothing (made in N. Africa or SE Asia), carpets, tableware and bedroom linen, fabric, notions, lotions and potions. There was so much market we couldn’t see the town’s bastide at all. I’m told Uzès is a jewel of a town, but who could tell? There were so many people, we country colts just whinnied and shied away, thinking, “What’s so great about these French marchés anyway?”

Uzes marché

Then we encountered the Monday market at Mirepoix: enough vendors and purveyors to keep it interesting and varied; not so crazy you have to keep your hand on your wallet.

That’s when Gaston and I discovered that would never survive as trout in a fishing stream: give us a nibble and you’ve hooked us. Some stinky goat cheese made high in the Pyrenees: hmm, yum—nous voudrions 250 milligrams, svp. Oh, you must try the same thing made with cow’s milk—much milder. D’accord, some of that, too.

saucissons, Mirepoix marché Some saucisson made with herbes de provence? Oh, also try this, avec cèpes (a mushroom), and oh, this, avec tomates secs: and before you know it, we’re proud parents of a lumpy ring that looks uncomfortably like a third of a metre of stuffed intestine. Mm-mmm. And that’s the one we bring home.

Today, with me translating between him and the vender at the market in Bessans, Gaston bought some green olives in fresh minced and whole garlic, some new kalamatas, and a couple of big fistfuls of green olives pickled with pimentos. This was after he sampled all of the eight varieties on offer, so obviously he was exercising restraint.

The nice thing about mid-size markets (50–100 vendors) is that it’s big enough to have all the good stuff from miles around, but neither are you so busy keeping track of each other that you miss the local characters.

Now we’re on our way to becoming market junkies. When we come into a strange village/town on market day, with no idea where to find the goods, now we know to look for and follow the people with empty baskets and to go against the flow through the streets of people with full baskets. It’s a sure way to find market-central anywhere.

It’s just possible that if you planned your week around visiting the larger food markets in a region, you could just maybe get away without buying any groceries for the week. But what’s the fun in that?

Besides, how could you possibly pass up bringing home enough seductively-scented paella, scooped fresh from the cooking pot, for lunch? Or maybe you should have the couscous with sauce instead? Or the bouillabaisse, loaded with fresh seafood from Perpignan. And then, for supper, the roast farm chicken, with roasted potatoes and green peppers, with a nice green salad on the side for your own sausage-making mechanism.

Bon appetit,