Margaret and Dick   


September 2014: Into the Corbières

We’ve joked about French families who load up their cars to the rafters – maybe add a roof rack or trailer – to go off on vacation in a gîte (apartment that is rented by the week).  Now we are one.

The Corbières mountains, which cover the area from Limoux to the Mediterranean, are frequent subjects for our Limoux stories.  They are a perfect place to cycle, produce wine, get lost, or run out of gas.  Having discovered, last year, a great little restaurant in one of our favorite Corbières cycling areas, we went there for a glorious September week this year.  

Okay, we know nobody wants to read about somebody else’s vacation.  But stay with us to learn about the extraordinary little village of Villesèque-des-Corbières.

What I did on my summer vacation  
Passion for winemaking
Our home in the Corbières

We'll be adding another vignette in the coming days.


What I did on my summer vacation

  Last year we told you about a great little restaurant that had just opened in the middle of nowherePlace des Marchés.  The remote village initially seemed a strange choice for this gem, so further research was in order.  We packed up bicycles and cats and headed to a cute little gîte just outside of the village.

Can you really build a successful vacation around a restaurant and some little roads?  Oh yeah.  Villesèque is not only a freaking brilliant location for a restaurant but also a great vacation destination, and Eric Delalande is on our very short list of favorite chefs.  I have included the picture from last year’s story for the reading pleasure of my girlfriends.

We didn't eat there every day, but almost, and we worked our way through most of the menu.  It's mostly Spanish/Catalan (including the fabulous pata negra ham) and part Camarguais (featuring taureau, bull meat) thanks to chef Eric's history with Jean-Luc Rabanel (2*) in Arles.  Eric cleverly lured sous-chef Warwick Kidd away from Arles when he settled here. During our vacation week the chef was recovering from a broken arm, so it was Warwick working at warp speed in the kitchen.
Locavore?  You bet.  We recently enjoyed a salad in Oregon that was billed as "The 185-Mile Salad", with all ingredients sourced within 185 miles.  What do chefs in Villesèque think about that?
"185 miles?"  Eric laughed.  "Here it would be 185 meters."  He has contracted with two gardeners in Villesèque.  In the spring, he plans the year’s menus and tells the gardeners what to plant, then he buys their entire harvests.  
"But what if I want goat cheese on my salad?  Can you get that within 185 meters?"  ,
"No, but it's within ten kilometers," said Warwick.

The meats come from further afield in Narbonne and Spain; the seafood comes from just over the mountain (twenty miles away) on the Mediterranean coast.  Locals bring in rosemary and thyme that they have gathered in the garrigue surrounding Villesèque.  It makes them part of the restaurant scene.

And what a scene it is!  It's hard to describe the improbability.  Thursday night dinner, outside the peak tourist season, in a village of around four hundred people:  
"Did you reserve?"  Uh, no.  Server Sébastien relegated us to picnic tables adjacent to the restaurant that serve as expansion space.  
“We’re being punished,” we joked with other relégués.  
“Don’t take it personally.  We live here…but we forgot to reserve.”
Qualified help is hard to find in the outback, so for the moment Sébastien is the only waiter.  We watched in awe as he covered restaurant-and-overflow.  He has developed the ability to fly.

Groupies that we are, we set up a coffee date with Eric.  It’s an occupation hazard for a financial planner to analyze the business plan of every establishment she visits.  This one is solid.  Eric’s fifteen years in the States may have helped hone his business savvy:  he negotiated a nine-year lease on the restaurant space before turning it into a regional treasure.  The mayor happily helps engineer various expansion plans.  In the works is a wine bar equipped with a large farm table to (a) showcase the local Corbières wines and (b) cement ties in this community that is thriving thanks to its new café-bar-restaurant.  Also thanks to the éoliennes – but that’s the topic of another vignette.
  Prices reflect the relatively modest means of the locals, and the portions are generous to suit these “people of the land”.  The quality and value make the restaurant very much worth the drive from the coast (thirty minutes) or even from Limoux (an hour and a half).  It’s probably a good thing that we don’t live any closer.  

We celebrated the end of vacation with a heaping pile of pata negra and generous slabs of foie gras.  Life is very good indeed.  You need to come here; I'm not kidding.  Cycling or hunting attire is perfectly acceptable.

Just don't forget to reserve.  

Place des Marchés, Villesèque-des-Corbières, 04-68-70-09-13


Passion for winemaking

As server Sébastien uncorked and poured our wine, he said, "If you don't like it, you can complain to the winemaker.  He’s sitting at the next table."  We rotated the bottle so the label faced the winemaker, launched a conversation, and I arranged a tasting appointment at his winery in, er, downtown Villesèque.  This was our introduction to Rémi Jalliet, passionate winemaker. 

Upon arrival for our meeting, my first challenge was to find the winery.  "Uphill behind the church in the little square.  You will find it."  Looking around, I saw no winery.  Then, on the door of a small old building, I saw a card with his name and phone number.  Jalliet prefers to keep a low profile, or, according to a French friend, "He is discreet."  I phoned the number on the card and he joined me within minutes. 
   He opened the door into an unimposing jumble of big wine casks and wine plumbing.  The phrase “garage winemaker" would apply.  The setting is messy, but it functions.  He found two wineglasses and began pouring.  Rémi makes three wines.  We began with Clos d'Espinous, his entry-level Corbières blend that we had ordered at the restaurant (cherries, tobacco, soft tannins).  This was followed by Camp de Saulat, a wine of 100% Carignan (pepper, huge fruit, mineral, soft tannins) that is becoming popular with boutique winemakers of the Corbières.  Finally he poured le Montadou, predominantly Syrah (big fruit, finesse, long persistence).  The prices are more than reasonable: €7.5, €8.5, and €11 ($10, $11, and $14), respectively.  While these wines are not aged in oak barrels, they have enough fruit, acidity, and tannins to delight us now or in five years. 

Voluble as he is, I often got lost in his rapid descriptions of terroirs, vineyards, and wine-making techniques.  “The Montadou comes from a special parcel that benefits from cold air currents, which discourage mildew.”  “Earth upthrusts have brought older (metamorphic) schist layers next to sedimentary clay soils, so adjacent rows may be growing in quite different soil type.”  It was fascinating. 

"How do you commercialize your wines?" I asked.  Strictly by word of mouth, and he has a cult following.  He'll get a call from someone who tasted his wine somewhere, arrange a visit, and the stranger will buys sixty bottles.  This week, he shipped a pallet of 672 bottles to Poland.  I bought six of each of his wines (how could I not?), and I’ll be back.
With a high quality-to-price ratio and limited production, Rémi doesn’t want or need publicity; his wines sell out.  A garage winemaker’s costs are low.  It's a one-man show, except for harvest season when he leans on family and friends to help pick the grapes.  He’s seen too many winemakers get a big splash of PR and raise prices to astronomical levels that none of their old customers can afford.  That’s not an outcome he seeks. 
We walked down to his house so he could write up the receipt, and his wife joined the conversation.  "When we eat at Place des Marchés and we see one of our bottles at a table, we always look to see if anything is left over, to see if you liked our wine.  You liked it a lot."  Rémi added, "Another evening we were disappointed to see a half bottle left at someone's table.  Then Sébastien told us that this was their third bottle."

There probably aren’t many secrets in Villesèque.



What’s with all the new development in Villesèque?
The former wine co-op displays a new coat of paint on its classic 1932 façade (motto: l’Avenir, the Future).  The rooms surrounding its interior courtyard are newly painted in bright colors.  Civic leaders have converted it into a day-care center, preschool, community school kitchen, and town meeting space.  They’ve constructed a spiffy new water-treatment facility.  They restored the prime space that houses the café-bar-restaurant Place des Marchés, now the center of village life.  They’re starting development on a retirement home.  All this in a town with less than 400 inhabitants?

It’s thanks to the wind.  More specifically, it's thanks to the huge wind turbines on the hills above Villesèque.  For this little village, it’s a windfall.
Wind farms dot the hills all over the Mediterranean coast, but we’ve never observed such benefits to the community.  Here is a story of inspired civic leadership.

A single commercial two-megawatt wind turbine can generate enough power for a thousand French homes.  The national power company rents the land where the turbine stands for roughly fifty thousand euros per year per turbine.  Multiply that by the 22 turbines on the hills above Villesèque and you’ve got annual village revenue of over a million euros ($1.3M).
Wind turbines are controversial in France.  In our region, there’s been significant opposition by the ecology camp that protests the interruption of pristine landscapes, noise pollution, and threats to wildlife.  Never mind that the wind farms provide an alternative to nuclear energy, which currently provides 83% of French needs, interrupts pristine landscapes, and poses more severe ecological risks.  Two of twenty turbines in a wind park near Limoux were destroyed by gasoline and flaming tires a few years ago.  How did Villesèque leaders avoid such opposition?
In short:  Put the wind farm under the umbrella of a regional nature reserve, work tirelessly with all the local political powers, and pick a windy place in the middle of nowhere (e.g. in the Corbières).  It was an ingenious strategy and simply the right thing to do.

Map courtesy EDF Energies Nouvelles.
The 2008 Villesèque wind-farm inauguration was attended by three successive mayors who had worked together for a decade to see the project through. Pierre Vidal, the then newly-elected mayor, summed it up diplomatically, acknowledging the controversies, foreshadowing the future shortage of oil and uranium, pointing out the very strong local winds, and stressing the importance of protecting landscapes and biodiversity.  In other words, now let’s move forward together.  Thanks to the groundwork of these politicians, this wind farm is one of the most important in the south of the France – and one of the least controversial.

  Viewed from the our side of the Corbières, such vision is shocking.  We’ve got wind farms, but we don’t see any flourishing villages.  Why and how did Villesèque direct the income to civic projects?  I posed this question to former mayor Pierre Vidal.  “Perhaps in some other communities they just don’t want to discuss publically where the money goes.”  There have been some scandals after certain local leaders bought for themselves acreage that would soon be wind farms.  “We just did a lot of public discussion with all the local and regional powers, and the most needed projects emerged.”

Yes indeed.  What do you do with a windfall?  Bring power to the people.  That’s democracy in action in Villeseque.

Our home in the Corbières

We thank our hosts Rudi and Ann for their warm hospitality at their gîte Domaine de Nouguiès.  We stayed in the small Syrah unit; we'll return next year to the luxurious Grenache unit. We send a special shout-out for your Belgian beers!

Pictured:  Margaret’s office in the Corbières.

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