Languor in the Languedoc

I’m staying at a farm right now in the Languedoc-Roussillon area, and pretty much the only thing that the Languedoc has in common with Alsace is that both regions produce a lot of muscat, a white wine grape varietal that is most commonly made into a sweet wine, intended to be served as either a dessert wine or an aperitif. Even the languages in Alsace and the L-R are different. I mean, yes, they both speak French, but in Alsace, a large portion of the population—especially those distinguished citizens over sixty—speak Alsatian, a German-French combo dialect that combines the harsh angularity of the Deutsch people with the lyricism of the Français.

The difference in the landscape was the first, and most powerful, difference that I noticed upon my arrival in this new, foreign region. For starters, there’s a lot more rocks. I mean, really. Everywhere.

These vines have been treated with mauvaises chemicals to kill all the weeds, but it gives a striking show of how rocky and harsh the terroir is here. I love the contrasting greens in this photo; the greens in the vines, and the plethora of greens in the trees and shrubs in the background.

I mean, there’s giant chunky rocks in the vineyards. There’s gravel roads everywhere. There’s giant calcite cliffs looming around practically every viewpoint. There’s jutting semi-mountains off in the distance, barren but for vague shrubbery. The entire landscape looks like some unfinished carving by a giant from ages past, long abandoned, long forgotten. It’s a starkly beautiful place, but harsh and rough, and it feels much less welcoming than the gentle douceur of the Alsatian Vosges. Everything here is a bit more of a struggle to survive.

The human habitations, too, are rough-hewn stone, and the flowers, shrubs, and trees that grow here feel like an imposition to the stone, like they’re clinging onto whatever they can to hold on desperately to life.

And yet, it is beautiful. Imposing, yes. Harsh and unwelcoming, yes. But the land is vibrantly colorful, and everything feels as though it is slightly more in focus. And the sky, oh, that big, open sky….

Sunrise over the vines. What a sky.
I love how the sky in the distance is an aquamarine, sea-colored blue, but as you move closer, it morphs into a deeper, purer shade of blue.

And then, of course, the food is different. In Alsace, I felt like I was constantly in a competition to see how many different ways we could prepare and eat meat and fish dishes, frequently accompanied by pasta and potatoes, in various relatively boring forms. The meat was always the star of the show—and delicious, delicious meat it was. But here—oh, here! A vegetarian’s delight unfolds at every meal. We eat beans, vegetables, salads, fruits, rice, and only once have we prepared pasta in the week and a half since we got here. I haven’t even SEEN a potato since I got here. (And I’m not going to pretend to be unhappy about this fact, not even a little bit. I was bored to tears of potatoes and pasta, truth be told.) On top of that, my host mother is originally from Algeria (I think) and she absolutely adores epices, or spices, so our vegetable conglomerations include delicious seasonings from India, Africa, and the Far East as well. We might as well be a stop on Marco Polo’s spice route for as many spices as she has in her kitchen.

An aperitif of sliced cucumber and kohlrabi, puree of sweet potatoes and carrots, “hummus” aka puree of chickpeas with parsley, simple salad—and, of course, fromage.

We do still eat some meat. Mostly veal, which, though considered a delicacy in the U.S., is common here in France and eaten with about the same frequency, albeit in smaller quantities, as full-grown adult cow. But mostly what I’ve been eating, particularly when I eat by myself, is bread. I kid you not, this is some of the best bread I’ve ever had in my life. I mean, it’s like Elvish lembas (cheers to all of the Lord of the Rings nerds who know what I’m talking about), two slices with a little jam or peanut butter will do me in for the entire morning. It’s made with ancient whole grains, like spelt and others I haven’t heard of, and baked with yeast saved from the previous baking occasion. And best of all, it’s baked in a wood-fired oven. You haven’t had bread until you’ve had bread from a wood-fired oven.

The unbaked loaves, prepared to go into the oven.
The oven, all sealed up (sealed with an odd flour and water mixture that I originally thought was actually more bread) with four loaves of bread safely baking inside.
The expert baker, my host mother, masterfully maneuvers the dough without allowing it to lose its shape. What magic her tangled hands weave!

The other thing that’s different here is the collective work ethic. In Alsace, the German mentality combines expertly with the French love of relaxation to create a people who work hard during the working hours to earn their rights to relaxation at meal-times and in the evenings. In the Languedoc, par contre, the only reason people work is because, well, someone’s got to do it. But God forbid we rush ourselves, I mean, why bother, when it’s so hot outside? (Their idea of “too hot to work” is roughly around 80 degrees F. For someone who grew up baking in the St. Louis heat and humidity, their standards are positively Icelandic.) I’ve only been working four or five hours per day the last week—granted, pretty difficult work, essentially taking a pickaxe to the rocky soil to haul up the weeds that threaten to invade the vines—and then we break for lunch, and then we take a siesta, and then, if we feel like it, maybe we work an hour or two in the afternoon. More often, though, my host mom goes to work in the garden, protesting that she doesn’t need my help, and her son, who is preparing to take over the vineyards and the winery one day, goes off rock climbing or mountain biking or goes into town to buy new mountain bikes or new rock climbing equipment. For my part, I nap, read in the hammock, take little walks, and occasionally help in the garden myself.

And so I languor in the sun, passing the time in étudier le vin, studying wine, reading natural wine books and magazines, and of course, delving into literature. I’m reading E.E. Cummings’ “The Enormous Room” right now, and finding it fascinating, so hopefully there will be a review of that in coming days. I also just finished “The Gargoyle” by Andrew Davidson, a much more modern book, which I am debating whether or not to review. As a matter of fact, maybe we should take a vote on it, and I’ll review whichever book garners the most interest?