My brother-in-law, Peter, and I recently visited a few vineyards in the region. We tasted well – but we also ate well. In particular we had an excellent lunch in the wine village of Montpeyroux.
We chose ‘La Terrasse du Mimosa’ because it was round the corner from the caves where we had been buying wine. And we were hungry. We didn’t expect much, as the tables were plonked in an area surrounded by roads and seemed without pretention. We were wrong: the food was excellent, the service good, and the wine recommended by the waitress a new discovery. We sat in the mid-day sun, feeling all was right with the world.
That is perhaps many people’s image of the south of France – a village centre, the sun, watching people walk by, and enjoying good food and wine. But Montpeyroux is 50 km south of here, in the prosperous wine belt of the up and coming Terrasses du Larzac. There is more money around.
When friends and family come to stay, they often say “Let’s go out for a meal”. But where? Or if they go for a walk over the hills and arrive in a village, they are thirsty, and look for a local cafe or bar. In vein. The truth is that the network of bars, cafes, bistros, brasseries, restaurants, auberges…..that one dreams of finding is not there. Maybe it was never there, though there is evidence in local history of village bars, once serving the more modest needs of the locals.
When Chris and I first came here, Bréau had an auberge, where Alain offered outstanding food (though not to the taste of the locals). The auberge is now a chambre d’hôtes, and the bar above the baker’s is open for short hours, doing a good job, but really a meeting place for locals such as the hunters. The nearby village of Aulas had a restaurant (for a time very good) and a cafe. Both are now closed. Le Vigan, our local ‘metropolis’ has half a dozen places where you can eat lunch (mainly bars) and even fewer where you can eat in the evening. The main restaurant with gastronomic aspirations closed two years ago. There are one or two other places with better food, but a fair trek from le Vigan.
Why? I suppose the lack of restaurants can partly be explained by the strong Protestant tradition of the Cévennes. That is what a friend, from a Catholic Breton background said to us in our early years here. I sometimes forget that this is one of the very few Protestant areas of France – not that many people go to church, but there is a sense of belonging to a huguenot past, a puritan culture. People meet, celebrate, eat and drink, but more so in the family or within the social structures of a village do (like the one I’m about to go to in five minutes).
For me the reasons for the lack of restaurants are more fundamentally economic. Our region until recently was called Languedoc Roussillon and finds itself near the bottom of the national wealth table: 20% of households in Languedoc Roussillon, Corsica and Pas de Calais live below the poverty line. Within the region the département of the Gard is not as poor as its more northern neighbour, Lozère. But the western part, including the pays viganais, is far poorer than further east, towards the Rhone. Even those with jobs are often low paid and have little money to spare for going out – apart from Saturday, when people go to the market as much to sit having a drink with friends as to buy food.
For two months of the year there is a dramatic influx of tourists and an evident demand for restaurants and cafés. But the tourist season here is ridiculously short and it is hard to sustain a business on a few months of sunshine in summer.
Luckily all is not gloom. On Peter’s last evening here we returned to a local restaurant in Aumessas (15 km away is regarded as local round here): La Filature. Here at last was some classy food.