The region of Occitanie is home to many flavours and culinary traditions going back centuries
I am sitting at a suspended wooden table, staring at the silver shellfish in my hand, poised for the dreaded moment. “Whatever you do, if you can’t stand it, don’t force it. I’ve seen people swallow an oyster when they weren’t sure about it. It’s not a pretty sight. Just spit it out if you don’t like it,” Laurent says gravely. Three pairs of eyes watch as I lift the oyster to my lips and tip. It’s cold, it’s slimy but then I taste the salt, the sea, the lemon and pepper, and the tart but not unpleasant flesh of the oyster and swallow. A look of surprise and relief comes over Laurent’s face and we all laugh at my oyster christening.
Glass of chilled Picpoul de Pinet in hand, Laurent talked about his tasting bar, which he opened only last season. Here, the shellfish couldn’t be fresher. For Laurent Arcella is a third-generation oyster farmer on the Etang de Thau, the largest lagoon in the Hérault département. Upturned oyster baskets serve as hanging lamps, metal chairs are placed around sea-washed wooden tables, a raised bar hides the drinks and a blackboard announces the day’s tasting dishes. “It’s simple, sturdy, but it looks good,” says Laurent, shrugging. It certainly has one of the best views of the Thau lagoon, being set directly on Laurent’s oyster farm and looking out on to the waters and over to the port of Sète.
As my companions and I devoured fresh oysters and baked mussels, boats drifted past the pontoon, and it was hard to think of a better place to sample the AOC-protected Huîtres de Bouzigues. Just two days before, we had arrived in Collioure where the journey into Occitanie’s gastronomic culture along the southern coast of France had begun. Every day brought new surprises that delighted the senses.
Collioure is one of those fishing villages that appear frozen in time. The old stone church and its tower, the little pebbled beach dominated by the historic castle, and the traditional barques catalanes moored on the small pier on the seafront, all paint a picture of traditional French seaside life. It isn’t surprising that Collioure became such an important refuge for artists such as Henri Matisse in the early part of the 20th century.
Although the village is now quite small, it used to be a major anchovy-fishing port, with more than 150 barques catalanes plying their trade in the 17th century. Numbers dwindled to around 40 in the 1960s in the face of foreign competition and now just two of the traditional fishing boats are left.
Anchovy fishing is still engrained in the local community (two fish are carved in the stoup at the entrance to the church) and one indomitable producer still holds out against the tide. Maison Roque was founded in 1870 and is now demi-johns lined up outside in direct sunlight and facing the sea, thus enriching the aromas of figs and spices. As we sat outside, tucking into a delicious pissaladiere starter – a thin layer of puff pastry topped with anchovies and capers – and tasting the various wines, I turned my gaze towards the sea and the vines, and thought that the Catalan art de vivre was one that I could get used to.