Margaret and Dick   


September 2013: Middle of nowhere

Truth be told, most restaurants in Limoux are modest or overpriced or worse.  There are some exceptions that prove the rule, but a tourist town like Limoux provides strong temptation for restaurateurs to aim low.  French locals don’t dine out very much, foreign tourists are not very discriminating, at the central place is sufficiently pleasant that people will fill the seats irrespective of the quality of the food.  The food sold in the markets and specialty food stores (butcher, cheese merchant, fishmonger, produce, bakeries, …) is top-notch, however, so we eat at home most of the time.  But when TripAdvisor alerts us to a brand new restaurant with high aspirations in the middle of nowhere in the Corbières mountains, we snap to attention.

We’ve been mourning the (apparent?) closure of our favorite Corbières restaurant in Vignevielle.  (If anybody has information about chef Alain and his restaurant, please bring us up to date.)  For about a week we tried to come up with an excuse to check out the bistro Place des Marchés in the village Villesèque-des-Corbières (population 396).  As the crow flies, Villesèque is about 55km (33mi) away, but the quickest route –skirting around much of the Corbières mountains – is an hour and a half.  My favorite route would be by bicycle, 53 miles across the mountains, but the logistics just weren’t falling into place.  We decided that the bistro itself was excuse enough to spend a day of bliss in the Corbières. 

Villesèque isn’t quite in the middle of nowhere, but almost.  Chef Eric has trained and worked all over, including 15 years in the US, but he’s come back here, near home, to set up his own bistro.  It may be a very clever choice:  we remember chef Gilles Goujon opening a little restaurant nearby in the nearby village Fontjoncouse (population 134), and he’s now the only chef in the region with three Michelin stars.  Around here, if you serve great food at an honest price, you’ll develop a loyal clientele, no matter the location. 

Place des Marchés is a small place.  Just inside the entrance is a café-bar that is open all day and probably filled with locals most of the time.  In walking toward the small dining room, you pass the open kitchen where chef Eric is moving at warp speed.  Among diners, orange shirts and camouflage pants seem to be the uniform of the day, as it’s hunting season.  The resident dog makes the rounds, visiting each table in turn to check for leftovers. 

Richard chose the menu du jour, which is possibly the best deal in the Corbières if not in the entire Aude.  Today’s offering was a starter of shellfish with aioli, main course of meatloaf (the traditional rousole of the area), and glass of wine for 13.50€.  I ordered the 20€ menu that included an amazing selection of cold cuts,  salmon with purple artichokes, and ice cream from a nearby goat farm.  Not a false note in the entire meal.  Since we were just across the hill from Fitou (bustling with population 840), we drank an organic Fitou wine, 13€.  We enjoyed meeting chef Eric, who was hanging out with patrons on the terrace after lunch, and thanked him for giving a serious dining option in the mountains. 

When you go – and you need to go – it will be best to reserve.  Our recipe for this perfect day in the Corbières was to take a hike in the morning, enjoy a leisurely lunch at Place des Marchés, head over the hill to the wine co-op in Embres-et-Castelmaure (population 149), and use co-op’s parking lot for a nap before heading home.

The Castelmaure wine cooperative had been on our to-do list all summer.  Unlike most co-ops, which make a large amount of modest wine and complain when it doesn’t sell, the Castelmaure co-op has for two decades followed the lead of a forceful president and a gifted winemaker in choosing the path of low production and high quality.  They charge a premium and customers happily pay the price.  You need to go there too.

We’re cooking up a future trip that includes at least one overnight in Villesèque, lots of cycling, great eats, wine-tasting, and a trip to the beach.  Oh, did I mention that the coastal towns of Sigean and Port-la-Nouvelle are just over the mountain? 

I’m thinking Villesèque is a brilliant choice for a destination restaurant.

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