The Languedoc, or langue d’oc, the land and language of Occitan, is hemmed in by the Pyrenees in the south-west, the Rhône in the east and the Mediterranean sea. The rich mixture of influences heard in the region’s language is echoed in its culinary traditions, as portrayed in Sud de France, Caroline Conran’s eminently readable cookbook. The region’s food, she explains, is determined by location: spanning mountain, river and sea, strung between neighbouring Provence and Catalonia, there is the Catalan pan amb tomát and salt cod; fromage de brebis from the mountains, Roquefort from the caves; octopus, lobster, mussels; salt from the Camargue. Olive oil and lard are combined in cooking. Practices of home charcuterie, hunting and foraging are widespread.
The recipes are preceded by a compelling seventy page essay on “The Tastes of Languedoc”. With knowledge of produits du terroir, la cueillette and la chasse, Conran expounds the varieties of garlic, onions and the best cheeses of the region. She describes hunting wild boar and picking mushrooms, and how to prepare snails: purge for two to three days, feeding on “bunches of thyme or dill, to perfume their flesh”, fast for two to three weeks, cook, soak in brine, gut. She initiates the reader into “pig-killing day” or the more poetic “les noces du cochon”, when the family pig is slaughtered and butchered. “Charcuterie is essential to everyday life in the midi” and Conran herself doesn’t falter: “There is something thrilling about making your own sausages” even if it comes to “wrestling with a funnel and a wooden spoon”. At moments her enthusiasm wavers: “One taste I have very nearly acquired is […] for feche” (salted pig’s liver), and as to le sac d’os, the Languedocien answer to haggis, “I have never seen it or tried it, and probably that is a good decision.”
Sud de France is as much a guide to the region as it is a cookbook. It contains an index, a glossary, a table of the names of wild herbs in French, Latin and English and details of the regional markets and food festivals. Engaging and erudite, Conran revivifies the sort of cookery once championed by Elizabeth David, not haute cuisine but the food of wayside inns and provincial homes.
SUD DE FRANCE by Caroline Conran
The food and cooking of Languedoc
330 pp. Prospect Books.
978 1 903018 90 3
This review was published in the TLS November 30th 2012.