Canal du Midi adventures II: Aude and Herault
More Herault and a little Aude. Here's what we ate before: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/851501
Back to Beziers: We had been disappointed so far in the ice cream choices of our trip--every cafe we had seen sold the same widely distributed brand that none of us liked very much. Finally in Beziers I happened upon the Marc Cheillan shop in the dead heat of 2 p.m., and the mint glace was very welcome. More ice-y than cream-y, but I don't think I would have welcomed too much richness in the heat. It tasted perfect to me. They also sold banana, pistachio, and "cookie" flavors, but the heat demanded mint.
Also in Beziers, I stopped into Bistrot L'Orangerie late in the morning for a restorative cold drink and saw the cooks inside taking an early lunch of salad; after scanning other cafe tables during lunchtime a few hours later, I concluded that the Orangerie salads were the best things I'd seen, so I returned. The "Matisse" salad with a fist-sized hunk of salmon, black olives and oily strips of pepper over butter lettuce was itself a restorative on a boiling day.
We planned one fancy dinner at Auberge de Vieux Puits/Restaurant Gilles Goujon, a Michelin 3 star only about a 45 minute drive from where we were staying. We took the long route, winding through tiny villages where we followed signs to enjoy petites degustations in the homes of independent vignerons. In Orbieres we tried a few Carignan blends at the home of one winemaker who descended from field workers ("vrai travailleurs" his wife said) and decided he needed to own his own field and be his own boss; on the way out of that town, we stopped very briefly at the surprisingly slick Celliers d'Orfee, where I didn't like the wine very much.
There are no shops or services in Fontjoncouse, the town of Vieux Puits, but you can walk up to the old eglise to take in a view over the valleys and hills of the Aude, with a donkey pasture, shiny-leaved fig trees and a source to see on the way up. We took the amuses bouches outside the dining room, in a small lounge with a transparent floor panel that showcased a well, and red walls knit with hay. These themes of local-ness, naturalness and Aude-ness were echoed throughout the meal, in the presentation (like a glass bowl with hay suspended inside), preparation and selection of producers.
Highlights of the meal were an entree of egg with a truffle interior substituted for the yolk and a truffle "cappuccino" alongside; the deep, rich and almost musty (in a good way) mullet with mullet liver; and a giant oyster with a smoke-filled pearl that each diner cracked open with a tiny golden hammer in order to bathe the table in the scent of sea salt. Oh wait, none of that was the best: the best was the cheese chariot: a giant wheeled contraption (pushed by two people) that managed to provide 7 cheese tastes to each of us (that's 21 total for our table) with no repeats. I liked the cheese so much that the steward gave me the names and locations of their producers so that I could arrange visits during our stay.
Service was warm, welcoming, and very funny. ("You haven't heard of this type of lemon? This is the Aston Martin of lemons.") Humor also shown in a giant sculpture of a naked woman's gravity-defying breasts erupting from a banana. The one thing that I found surprising (in a bad way) was the aperitif champagne: it was both very common (in America) and very expensive--I think I expected one or the other but not both. Overall, it was a memorable experience and one that I highly recommend.