Women do the fiddly job of deboning and filleting the anchovies, and placing them on the paper. ‘Men don’t have the patience,’ said Florent run by Florent Roque, the fifth generation of his family to do so. We arrived at the small workshop when the anchovies were being laid out to dry between sheets of absorbent paper after marinating for three months in salt. It is traditional for women to do the fiddly job of deboning and filleting the fish, and placing them in neat rows on the paper. “You need to be delicate and have thin fingers,” Florent admitted with embarrassment. “We men can’t do it; we don’t have the patience.”
From Collioure, the road south to the Spanish border goes past Port-Vendres and towards Banyuls-sur-Mer, taking in the beauty of the Cote Vermeille. The next stop was at Les Clos de Paulilles, a wine estate belonging to the family-owned Maison Cazes, which was founded in 1895 at Rivesaltes.
The vineyards at Les Clos de Paulilles extend over 65 hectares, laid out on brown schist terraces, where the vines dip their roots into the Mediterranean in the Baie de Paulilles. Such a maritime setting has an obvious influence on the wines produced, which demonstrate mineral and saline notes on the palate.
Another clear influence on this estate is the region’s Catalan heritage, visible in the restaurant which is designed to let diners catch glimpses of the vines and the sea through large slits in the stone walls surrounding the shaded terrace. The menu mingles French and Spanish cuisine and always uses local products. One of the estate’s specialties is Banyuls, a natural sweet wine made primarily from the grenache noir grape. The traditional vintage is matured in glass 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 pissaladière 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.
From the Côte Vermeille the gastronomic journey headed north towards Montpellier, which is how I came to be at Laurent Arcella’s tasting bar, Atelier & Co, on the banks of the Thau lagoon. Oyster farming in the south of France is an incredibly difficult trade and I couldn’t help but admire Laurent’s determination as he listed the huge numbers of oysters he loses to disease or bad weather. We boarded Laurent’s own flat-bottomed boat and visited his ‘tables’ – where oysters are plunged into the water as they hang on a line attached to a horizontal pole. Laurent must be doing something right because he has received 15 medals for his oysters, including Gold in the Ministry of Agriculture competition in Paris in 2015.
As Atelier & Co got gradually busier at lunchtime, we left and made our way to Marseillan, another small port clinging to the banks of the lagoon. A light lunch of grilled fish was enjoyed at a restaurant overlooking the harbour, which was occupied by boats of different shapes and sizes. Marseillan links the Thau lagoon, and ultimately the Mediterranean, with the Canal du Midi, so it is not unusual to find tall sailing vessels moored beside small river boats.