Travel

A taste of the Camargue, France

Shaped by its location in France’s Rhône delta, the Camargue’s food scene is driven by a thriving community of passionate artisans.Monday, 16 September 2019

By Ben Olsen
Historic centre of Arles.

Keep it fresh: Arles Market

The Roman legacy and Van Gogh connections are what usually draw visitors to Arles, but it’s the Saturday market that’s attracted me. After a swift espresso in the thronging Bar du Marché, I weave between traders wielding rotisserie chickens, Arlesian grandmothers doing their morning shop, and piles of produce being stacked on the tree-lined Boulevard des Lices. 

I’m with British chef Alex Jackson, who’s come to Arles to research Provençal dishes for his London restaurant, Sardine. “The French are excellent at creating market stalls — there’s definitely an art to it,” he says. “Traders compete to have the best display, and both the sheer quantity of produce and artful arrangement make people want to stop.” 

Alex tells me he always seeks out the vegetables at a market. “As vegetables don’t travel too well, when they’ve come from nearby they’re so much more vibrant. Here you get vivid veg with loads of flavour as they’re exposed to so much sun.”

Arles sits in the middle of a biodiversity ‘golden triangle’, with the verdant Alpilles hills to the north, Europe’s only steppe landscape to the east and, to the south, the wild, 360sq-mile sweep of wetlands, lakes and beaches that make up the Camargue. So, the town’s weekly market, the largest in the region, has become something of a culinary beacon. In among the rows of garlic, piles of blood-red tomates anciennes, bottles of olive oil from Le Baux-de-Provence and foie gras from Grenoble, a vendor is preparing a garlicky rouille as the ubiquitous gardiane de taureau (bull stew) bubbles away on a hob. 

Further on, I spy another of the Camargue’s star attractions, under Graulou Coquillage’s royal-blue awning: tellines. These small clams are served throughout the region and — according to stallholders Noëlla and Valèrie, whose wares were raked up from the sand yesterday — they’re best cooked with olive oil, garlic and parsley.  

“Camargue is very much part of Provence but it has a character that makes it stands apart,” says Alex. “There are a few local specialities, tellines being one, that are completely delicious. There’s also the saucisson d’Arles, a sausage that used to be made with donkey but they’ve since changed it to beef and pork, which gives it a bit of softness.”

We spot plenty strung up throughout the market, including at the lively Jimenez & Fils stall. Its owner, Diego, hands me a slice before offering up saucisse de taureau (bull sausage), insisting his is the best in town. “We eat bull for breakfast,” he says, explaining that his parents moved from Majorca and set up as butchers in Arles in the 1970s. As we talk, his son bags up quantities of andoillettes (pork sausage), sobrasada (raw, cured sausage) and tripe for a queue of customers.

While Provence’s peerless goat’s cheese is well represented, it’s Le Mas du Trident’s stall that stands out, offering a spectrum of products made from ewe’s milk. Stallholder Stefan’s family started making cheese after the Second World War and he now looks after a flock of 250 sheep. He’s the Camargue’s last remaining sheep’s cheese producer — the others having all switched to more profitable endeavours. Stefan recommends the Tome d’Arles, a soft cheese decorated with a laurel leaf and herbes de Provence that he made just yesterday. Having just spied piles of freshly baked fougasse (a crusty, golden focaccia) at a neighbouring stall that look like the perfect pairing, it’s advice I’m more than happy to follow. 

Garlic at Arles Market.

Chef’s special: La Chassagnette

When we meet in the garden at his restaurant, La Chassagnette, chef Armand Arnal is enthusing about his meeting with a local rice producer. Using ducks to control pests and distribute seeds, this would-be supplier promises a high-quality yield, and Arnal’s excited about its potential uses. His infectious enthusiasm increases further as he shows me around. This garden is the sole source of fruit and vegetables at the Michelin-starred restaurant, and Armand changes the menu according to what it provides. 

“Throughout the season, nature gives me things that work well together,” he tells me. “The hardest thing is cooking. When I try the produce, I think ‘This is amazing — how can I make it better than it is?’” 

To prove this, Armand urges me to try a leaf of salty, sturdy spinach and a tangy sprig of pineapple sage (“crazy flavour, eh?”), while elsewhere we admire tomatoes, chillies, quinces and pomegranates. “I love the products that grow here; the natural salinity  in Camargue gives a very particular taste,” he says. Armand came to the region after stints in Paris and New York, and La Chassagnette stands in stark contrast to the sleek fine dining restaurants in those cosmopolitan cities, with its dining room in a (smartened-up) former sheep shed. As for the food, freshness pops from the bitter herb velouté, while Camargue rice gives texture to a mirepoix served with ruby-red pigeon.

Almost everything is sourced from within a 25-mile radius, including pike from Lake Vaccarès and sea bream from the Mediterranean. Bread and pastries are made using flour from Camargue red rice, a product of which Armand is particularly enamoured. “The region has the right balance between the wild side and the hand of man,” he says. 

Read Armand's thai-style red rice with vegetables recipe.

On the vine: Mas De Valériole

I’m greeted at the gates of Mas de Valériole by Gitou, an enthusiastic labrador, and his owner, Maxime Michel, whose family is helping put Camarguaise wine on the map. Positioned between Lake Vaccarès and the Rhône, their vines now produce 170,000 litres of wine a year. As we step into the cellar, Maxime tells me success hasn’t come easy. 

“After the Second World War, the government replaced vineyards with rice fields, and a lot of small producers were lost,” he says. “The reputation of wine here has been bad, thanks to a few huge producers with low-quality output. We’ve tried to raise the bar.”

Luckily, the grapes Maxime’s father, Patrick, planted in 1990 — including merlot, chardonnay and vermentino — have excelled on the Rhône delta’s saline terroir. “Within 500 metres, we pass from clay soil to sand,” says Maxime. “We try to express the terroir in the wines and to have that salty touch.” It seems to be working, with several bottles picking up awards. Cham Cham, a peachy, zesty vermentino blend, is a dream partner for seafood, while the liquoricey Les Rièges pairs well with the ubiquitous bull dishes. 

Wild horses of the Camargue near Aigues-Mortes.

Local favourite: L’Estrambord

With its rough-hewn, cave-like walls and ceilings covered with psychedelic pink, ochre and purple blobs, L’Estrambord, in the village of Sambuc, feels like a time warp — an impression owner Eric Lacanaud is in no rush to address. “The decor hasn’t changed much in the 40 years since we opened,” he says. “People find it comforting and keep coming back.”

That sense of tradition extends to the menu too, with a generous bowl of aioli-coated tellines from nearby Beauduc arriving with a flourish — a hit of garlic instantly permeating the nostrils. As Eric returns to deliver a basket of crusty bread and top up my glass with vermentino, he explains what makes the Camargue unique. “The strength of our region is that it’s not changed too much, and that attracts people in search of authenticity,” he says, proudly.

Originally opened as a bar in 1975, L’Estrambord has evolved into a popular lunch spot. Among the most-requested dishes on the chalkboard menu of Camarguaise specials is braised Camargue bull cheeks, a bouillabaisse using fish from the surrounding lakes and — for the strong of stomach — pieds et paquets, sheep’s foot and stuffed tripe in a rich stew. 

The rice paddy: Maison du Riz

Sipping on a rice beer at the Maison du Riz visitor centre, Marine Roziere outlines the division of labour on her family’s Mas de la Vigne organic rice farm. “I drive the tractor, I do the communications and act as mechanic — and bartender,” she says with a smile. Surrounded by piles of bagged red rice, she tells me the Maison du Riz was created so that visitors (over 15,000 of them last year) could learn about the importance of rice to the region.

As the rain lashes the paddies, Marine explains how rice production controls the land’s salinity and prevents desertification. In the second half of the last century, a network of new canals brought water from the Rhône, allowing for increased rice production, helping to give rise to a gastronomic icon. The result of a cross-pollination between white rice and wild red rice in the 1980s, Camargue red rice is popular with chefs for its nutty taste and chewy texture.

It’s a tough gig, though, with Roziere claiming the French are only just starting to appreciate the outstanding product grown on their doorstep, and the unpredictable weather presenting difficulties of its own. But with the Rozieres branching out into rice beer, they’ve at least got something to toast with at the end of the season. 

Roman amphitheatre, Arles.

Oil it up: Domaine de la Commanderie

I weave past fields of apples and peaches to Domaine de la Commanderie, on the banks of the Rhône, where Bernard Lafforgue shows me around his olive groves. Originally an apple and peach farmer, in the 1990s he started planting olive cultivars. In 2018, Bernard’s groves produced 5,000 litres of high-grade organic oil.

I try three blends, from fruity to peppery, that Bernard sells to local restaurants, warming each sample in my hands before swilling. Aiming to differentiate his product from those produced in olive oil capital Le Baux-de-Provence, Bernard harvests earlier in the season when the fruit is greener, giving a light flavour. And all the olives are pressed within 24 hours. It’s a technique that’s earned him Michelin-starred admirers — Armand Arnal at La Chassagnette and Jean-Luc Rabanel at L’Atelier, in Arles, no less.

Only in the Camargue

Fleur de sel
Characterised by expanses of pink salt marsh populated by flamingos, Camargue’s setting in the Rhône river delta places it at the heart of France’s fleur de sel (sea salt) production. Hand-raked from the surface of the sea brine, fleur de sel — whose name stems from the aroma of violets as the salt dries — is rich in minerals, giving the crystals a complex flavour that’s immediately imparted to the taste buds. 

Gardiane de Taureau
At the heart of Camargaise identity is the Raço di Biòu bull, which roams semi-wild across the wetlands and is the star of the Course Camarguaise, a bloodless bullfight held each summer. Its meat received Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status in 1996 and is most frequently used in charcuterie or gardiane de taureau — a rich ranchers’ stew slow-cooked with a full-bodied red wine, chosen to match the meat’s strong flavour.

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
British Airways, Ryanair and easyJet all fly from the UK to Marseille Provence Airport (an hour’s drive from Arles).   

Staying there
Le Cloître hotel is a short walk from the Saturday market. Doubles from €95 (£82) a night, room only. 

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food

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