Posted by: acooksca | 07/31/2013

The Other South of France

Jeannie at home in St. Christol

Jeannie at home in St. Christol

It is like a scene from A Year In Provence, one of Peter Mayle’s books. Clustered at one end of the bar at The Café d’l’ Universe are the daily regulars: the affable self-proclaimed-unofficial mayor, the rotund baker, the transplanted Belgian who runs the Tabac shop, the retired teacher who drinks twenty high-proof Ricard pastis in an afternoon. Behind the bar stands the owner Raphael, 32, longing to travel the world but occupied by supporting his young family.

This is life on the square of St. Christol (population 1,700), 40 miles north of Montpelier in Southern France. We are in this village to spend time with friends Jeannie and Eric, who moved here from The Bay Area. By the end of the evening Jean-Pierre, the baker, declares he will make us the specialty of the town for our breakfast… a lattice work of flakey pastry made with lard and pork cracklings. We ask Raphael to join us back at the house for a late dinner which leads to his invitation to see his two Camargue horses in the morning.

The evening has the qualities of the slow and easy village life in line with our romantic vision of Peter Mayle’s South of France. But this is not Provence, the well-manicured-tourist-magnet Mayle writes of. St. Christol lies on the edge of the salt-marsh Camargue and hard-scrabble Languedoc… an open land hot as Hades in the summer and swept by a chilly wind in the winter.

In this part of rural France opportunities for work are scarce and making ends meet is a constant struggle. Families scrape by working a few hours at the local administrative office and a couple of days a week at a neighbor’s business. The kids have to be driven to and from school 10 km away and someone has to drive to another village for meat or fish or produce at $8 a gallon for fuel.

flakey pastry made with lard and pork cracklings.

flakey pastry made with lard and pork cracklings.

Jeannie is a resourceful American who is fluent in French. She barters computer work for a neighbor’s asparagus, is developing a small commercial organic garden and occasionally travels for a London-based company doing personal wine cellar management. Eric, a native of France, is an amiable, capable waiter and he pulls long shifts in several different restaurants 40 minutes drive away on the coast.

Just down from the village they show us a sprawling new wine center in the final build out stages. It is funded by the local departmental government which hopes to attract wine tourism and create badly needed jobs. We wonder aloud if it will succeed. This region’s vineyards aren’t as well known as other Southern French appellations. Jeannie points out that there are no 4 or 5-star hotels and few Michelin-starred restaurants, luxuries usually associated with eno-tourism. “ Visitors headed for The South turn left toward Provence, not right to the less refined Camargue” she tells us.

Raphael and his Camargue horses

Raphael and his Camargue horses

The next morning we join Raphael as he feeds his two Camargue horses in a field at the edge of the village. He tells us how important it is to bring his two young daughters here whenever he can. They play in this natural setting and he grabs a few moments of reflective quiet. He can get someone to watch the café and slip down here in a few minutes. From a rustic wooden table under the trees he offers us slices of herbed ham, pork rillettes, a superb local salami, baguettes, juice and a red St Christol wine. He hasn’t much time, he has to get back to the café. The “mayor”, baker, Tabac owner and teacher will be there helping keep alive the tradition of village life in the midst of modern France.

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