The Camargue—that wide strip of land between sky and sea that stretches across arms of the Rhône—is not just a paradise for birds and white horses. Its marshes are put to work producing crystalline salt, its broad flatlands produce some of the world’s finest rice, and its grassy fields are home to black cattle whose lean, delicious meat is recognized for its healthful properties.
Life is harsh in the Camargue. The delta isn’t the most hospitable place—the soil is poor and corroded by salt, and the mistral, that famous wind from the north, gaining strength as it races down the Rhône, has nothing to stop it as it sweeps glacially over the flat land. Sometimes it blows hard enough to take your breath away, and, they say, it can rage for three, six or nine days straight. The marshes are a perfect habitat for mosquitoes and in summer, when the wind lets up, they take over, especially at sunrise and sundown. But the beauty of the landscapes and the singular “end of the world” atmosphere make you forget the inconveniences that—as the Camarguais say— also protect them from mass tourism.
The gastronomy here resembles the terroir: it gets right down to basics. The region’s products are so elemental that their simplicity becomes their richness; there’s no way to cheat here. Rice, beef, salt, wild fish and the tiny shellfish called tellines are the stars; among processed foods, the saucisson d’Arles made by the Maison Genin leads the way, closely followed by the beef sausage of Diego Gimenez, the tapenade of Jean Martin and the fougasse of Aigues-Mortes— especially those made by Alain Olmeda and Laurent Poitavin.
Camargue rice IGP
Camargue rice was granted the status of IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) a dozen years ago, the first time the official label was granted to a grain. It has a strictly limited geographic territory, and a very precise list of regulations governs, among other things, mandatory leveling of the soil, irrigation and drainage. Irrigation water must be pumped from the Rhône and only used once, and crop rotation is obligatory every two or three years, mainly alternating with wheat and potatoes. This mosaic pattern of agriculture around the Vaccarès pond, combined with livestock and other crops, served fora long time as a natural corrective for soil laden with salt. It was originally an idea of the Duc de Sully, minister of Henri IV. Initially the rice served only as a curative for the soil—it wasn’t edible, because varieties suited to the region had not yet been found.
In the early 20th century, farmers were inspired by the example of Italian rice growers, and finally, during the Marshall Plan period after WWII, rice cultivation really boomed—but only after a largely unknown and not very glorious incident. During the Nazi Occupation, Indochinese workers were forced by the Vichy government to work in the rice fields. Their know-how helped to improve production, a fact that was never mentioned until 2009, when the mayor of Arles finally gave them long-overdue credit. Today the entire Camargue is classified as a Natura 2000 site, and it’s on the official Tentative List to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. That means the territory is bound by strict, non-negotiable regulations— and the environmental constraints are enormous. Some 250 rice growers in the Camargue now produce 110,000 tons of rice a year, in fields spread over nearly 50,000 acres, about 6 percent of which is devoted to organic agriculture. Research onrice varieties is ongoing and 40 varieties are currently grown. White, brown, red, black, perfumed, long, very long or round, Camargue rice is mostly grown on small parcels of land and accounts for 30 percent of France’s rice consumption. Every Saturday morning a colorful Camargue character named Robert Bon can be found at the famed outdoor market in Arles, where he sets up his immense rice cooker and urges passing shoppers to sample his newest recipe du jour. He’s so convincing it’s almost impossible not to buy his organic rice. If you have the time, go ahead and tackle him in conversation—he’s unstoppable once he starts expounding on the subject of Camarguais rice.
Le taureau de Camargue
Taureau de Camargue, or raço di bioù in Provençal, is an ancient bovine race indigenous to the Camargue, still semi-wild, that now has an AOP designation (Appellation d’Origine Protégée). Contrary to popular belief, Camargue bulls were not originally kept for meat but for Camarguais bullfights, in which the bull is not killed, just taunted by teams of unarmed young bullfighters as they try to snatch a rosette strung between its horns, then sprint away and leap out of the arena as the bull charges—a sport not unlike the games depicted on ancient Greek and Roman vases. The sport requires bulls almost as agile as the bullfighters and, above all, undomesticated. Because the bulls spend their lives outdoors in spacious pastures on ranches called manades, ranchers (manadiers) came up with the idea of commercializing the meat from the part of the herd not headed for the bullring. They created a set of strict standards and obtained an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in 1996, the first for bovines, which became an AOP (the European equivalent of the AOC) in 2001.
Certified Camargue cattle can only come from a certain area within three départements—Gard, Hérault and Bouches du Rhône. The animals must be born, raised and slaughtered in the area, which is divided into the humid zone for summer pastures and what is called les terres hautes (high pastures) the rest of the year. The designation is relative, though, because the entire area lies more or less at sea level. In addition, for six months of the year no additional forage may be given to the animals, and what is supplied in the remaining months must come from the same geographic area. The livestock area is enormous—all year long the bulls remain outside, in huge fenced pastures. The first objective is to produce bulls for sport and thus, above all, not to fatten them—they are semi-wild animals whose very lean, tender meat has fabulous flavor. Florence Pidou-Clauzel is a good example of a Camarguais manadière, sharing the passion for a way of life in harmony with nature. She, her father and her brother spend most of their time on horseback—the horses also are born on the manade—tending the herd, which averages 200 head, and overseeing 30 to 35 births a year, all naturally conceived. The liveliest males are destined for the bullfights, which they might enter several times, depending on their talent. About 70 percent of the remaining herd is headed for the table, at three, four or five years of age. The manade, Mas des Grandes Cabanes du Vaccarès, now has three gîtes (guest cottages), and a stay at this lovely place will let you experience Camarguais life first-hand.
The town of Aigues-Mortes, built by Louis IX in the 13th century to establish a Mediterranean port and still enclosed within spectacular medieval walls, is surrounded by nearly 250,000 acres of salt marshes, open to sun and wind. The salt fields here have been exploited since Roman times, and the salt farmers, called saulniers, are the heirs to a savoir faire more than 2,000 years old. Salt from the Salin d’Aigues-Mortes is naturally white, thanks to the soil on which it is deposited. Salt crystals form in summer, when the mistral stops blowing, and the delicately perfumed fleur de sel—the top of the crop—is harvested very carefully, by hand. The coarse, untreated salt that remains is ideal for recipes that call for cooking in a salt crust, and the salts to which organic herbs and pepper are added are culinary treasures that belong in every pantry. Those produced at Aigues-Mortes, under the label Le Saunier de Camargue, are found throughout France.
One of the most emblematic foods of the Camargue is the telline, a small, flat, pearly shellfish, pale yellow and violet inside, found in estuaries providing a mix of salt and fresh water. According to tradition, these delicious mollusks were first fished and eaten right here, so long ago that no one remembers when. They were traditionally found buried two to three inches down in the sand and gathered by workers walking backwards, dragging baskets with built-in rakes. Harvesting tellines is not only backbreaking, but also more and
Only a decade ago a tellinier could gather some 90 pounds a day; today he can hardly find half that amount, and because there are almost no more of them along the shoreline, he must swim out into the sea and search off sandbanks. Depending on the season, sometimes the tellinier is waist-deep in the water, sometimes up to his neck, working with a snorkel. Knowing how difficult they are to harvest makes it a privilege as well as a pleasure to eat these delicate shellfish. They can be found in regional markets, washed and cleaned of sand, and on the menus of many restaurants. They’re often served as a nibble with aperitifs, or as a starter, with an olive-oil mayonnaise thinned with a little of the cooking water. Unforgettable.
The famous saucisson d’Arles, a traditional dried sausage, is made by many bouchers/charcutiers in the region, but one of them, quicker off the mark than the others, registered the name, meaning that the Maison Genin is the only one officially authorized to call his the “véritable saucisson d’Arles”. Half beef and half pork, Genin’s saucisson is made with red wine, spices and peppercorns. Dark red in color, it has a strong, unique flavor and many devotees. Another variation is the saucisson made by Diego Gimenez—everything he sells he makes himself, and his sausage, half Camargue beef, half pork, is more classic but no less delicious.
In Provence, every village claims to have the only authentic fougasse recipe, whether it’s the savory variety with bits of bacon or the sweet style flavored with orange-blossom water. But there’s general agreement that two bakers in Aigues-Mortes are among the very best, and each is defended by fans ready to fight for their favorite. Both make sweet fougasse with a highly perfumed brioche dough, covered with sugar and melted butter. After a recent sampling of several from each of them in a comparative tasting, the verdict was unanimous: neither was better than the other, and both are completely addictive. One piece of advice, though, would be to choose the one that’s most bien cuit, baked to a golden brown.
If you have time for only one restaurant in the Camargue, it should be Armand Arnal’s La Chassagnette. Seemingly out in the middle of nowhere, the tall, quiet chef presides over a restaurant both simple and sophisticated. Simple, because he uses only fruits and vegetables from his own organic garden, no matter the season. His immense potager, which inspires rapt admiration in most visitors, produces treasures he transforms into the most elegant of dishes. For Arnal, vegetables are not an accompaniment but a noble product, worthy of all his attention, and ours. It’s sophisticated, because he knows how to take a fish, caught that morning or the night before, and use it to compose a dish that seems quite unpretentious but is the result of some fairly profound thought. Take the marinated lisette, a small mackerel that he serves with a broccoli purée, black sesame and preserved lemon; or the duck raised in the rice fields, served with ribbons of root vegetables in a sweet-and-sour sauce and a sprinkling of caramelized pine nuts; or the dessert of fennel sorbet, vanilla granité and fennel confit. Born in Montpellier, Arnal formerly worked with Alain Ducasse, notably in his New York restaurant for several years. Arriving at La Chassagnette in 2006, he won a Michelin star in 2009. Although he’s proud of it, he says a star was not his primary motivation— what he likes is creating cuisine tied to its locality, and in the Camargue he has found his niche. Route de Sambuc (betwee Arles and Le Sambuc)04.90.97.26.96 www.chassagnette.fr
L’Estrambord is a real country restaurant, the kind you just don’t find much anymore. The welcome is the warmest possible, and the cuisine, solidly and enthusiastically based on regional products, is simple and delicious. Don’t miss the house specialty, Camarguais beef cheeks braised in red wine. 7 rue de l’Abrivado, Le Sambuc 04.90.97.20.10 www.lestrambord.fr
where to stay
Le Mas de la Fouque
Luxury hotel with contemporary rooms and oldfashioned gypsy caravans, spa and swimming pool.
Route du Petit Rhône, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. 04.90.97.81.02. www.masdelafouque.com
Hôtel de l’Amphithéâtre
A delightful, reasonably priced small hotel next to the 1st-century Roman arena. 5–7 rue Diderot, Arles.
Mas des Grandes Cabanes du Vaccarès
06.03.67.72.80. A working manade with 3 guest cottages. www.masdesgrandescabanes.com
11 rue des Porcelets, Arles, 04.90.96.01.12.
Gimenez et Fils
In his truck at weekly markets: Tue: Tarascon, Thu:
Saint-Gilles, Sat: Arles, 04.66.74.57.21
Maison Jean Martin
A family enterprise producing olive products of all kinds, tapenade, eggplant purée, ratatouille and many othermarvels.9 rue Charloun Rieu, Maussane-les-Alpilles, 04.90.54.30.04. www.jeanmartin.fr
19 ave de la Liberté, Aigues-Mortes, 04.66.53.66.77 www.patisserie-olmeda-30.com
8 Grand’Rue Jean Jaurès, Aigues-Mortes, 04.66.53.73.15
Maison Méditerranéenne des Vins
An immense selection of regional wines and gourmet groceries at reasonable prices. Domaine de l’Espiguette, Le Grau-du-Roi, 04.66.53.07.52 www.maisondesvins-lespiguette.com
Didier Taxi A charming driver with a mini-van for up to nin people. 06.26.17.88.88
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of France Today