Margaret and Dick   


May '04: Perfect bouillabaisse

We awoke at

We dashed from the Malepere hills to Sète at the Mediterranean coast.  Why today?  We went to see the finale of the cycling race Tour de Languedoc-Roussillon.  Considered good preparation for the Tour de France, this 5-day tour attracted all the major European and American teams, including US Postal.  We went with our “GO POSTAL” banner in hopes of getting a few more signatures from the team. 

The town of Sète is special for me:  one of the first cities in the South of France that I got attached to.  Called the Venice of France, Sète is a real fishing town like GloucesterMassachusettsof my youth.  There are miles of canals with hundreds of fishing boats docked along them.  And there are scores of fish restaurants lining the canal roads.

The final Tour de Languedoc stage along the coast looked like it might be flat.  People laughed when we said that.  “Don’t forget Mt St Clair.”  Mt St Clair is a significant bump in the flat coastal plain. 

We had our bikes in the car, but after a strenuous morning we were neither anxious nor capable of tackling a steep climb, so we hiked up the mountain along with hundreds of other spectators.  It was a brutal climb, with a slope of at least 18% on the switchbacks.  Half that slope is a serious climb. 

We reached the top and chose a spot at the finish line where we could stretch out our GO POSTAL banner and cheer on the USPS team.  A mammoth digital TV screen stretching across the road gave us an unusual perspective to watch the teams attack the mountain from below.  The crowd grew dense. 

The US Postal team came to this race for practice, not necessarily to win.  But team member Ekimov (who shares his name with our cat) had been riding very well, ranking in the top

As the teams rode into Sète , USPostal had pushed up near the front.  The French call Postal the “blue train,” since their director urges them to ride as a group up towards the front to protect Lance Armstrong from the occasional mass crashes. 

Imagine our surprise, as the pack of riders tipped up the slopes of Mt St Clair, to see Lance in the lead with a Spanish rider from another team.  Ekimov looked in pain somewhat further behind.  And then the magic moment:  Lance took off in a solo breakaway.  He made the steep hill look flat, as riders behind were left far behind in his dust, and won that final stage.  The 5-day race win went fittingly to French hero Christophe Moreau.  Watching Lance suffering the hillside attack with steely determination, he looked like a real contender for a sixth Tour de France win in July. 

After hiking up and down Mt St Clair and three hours of cycling, we were famished.  Where to eat in mid-afternoon?  With scores of fish restaurants in Sète there should be no problem.  But this is France.  There are conventional mid-day hours for lunch, and conventional evening hours for dinner.  In mid-afternoon one may drink, but not eat. 

Ask a local cop, we thought, watching the gendarmes direct the post-race traffic jam.  It worked.   “Walk down the Quai de la Marine and look for ‘la Calanque’ restaurant,” he recommended.  We followed his advice, passing at least 30 restaurants closed for the afternoon.  At ‘la Calanque’ service is non-stop.  That same gendarme drove by soon after as we settled into our sidewalk table, and we gave him our thanks. 

During several previous visits I have tried numerous quai-side fish restaurants, in search of the perfect bouillabaisse:  small rockfish simmered in a fragrant broth.  Accompanied by a crisp white Picpoul de Pinet from the region, it can be a perfect moment of happiness. 

The waiter brought out our half-dozen fish displayed whole on a tray for us to admire before he filleted them into our bowls of steaming broth.  It was a protein overload.  Yes, there were vegetables:  a half potato and the memory of onions and celery that had simmered in making the broth.  Each type of fish tasted unique.  The bouillabaisse was copious but not a total calorie bomb, until you add the rouille (garlic mayonnaise) that we spread on toast and floated on the broth.   A bottle of Picpoul de Pinet washed it all down.  As this meal was Dick’s birthday gift from Margaret’s mother, Margaret agreed to be our designated driver as we headed happily back to Limoux. 

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