In a tiny square in the hill town of Magalas, north-west of Béziers, a jumble of wooden dining tables and chairs - enough to seat 30 people or so - is set out under the sky as the church clock loudly chimes six and the intense late-summer heat diminishes. Checked linen cloths are smoothed over and clipped into place; salt, pepper and mustard pots set out; the pavements briskly swept. Dusk is ready to fall, and the lights strung up around the square and across the gaudy red front doors of La Boucherie are illuminated. It's dinner time.
The three of us have come here to Languedoc to explore some of its hundreds of vineyards, in a region of France once called the cradle of plonk but lately garnering a reputation for producing some rather good - and very affordable - wine. Our plan is to take turns at driving each day through the vine-carpeted landscape, enabling the two passengers to sample and buy local appellations from small producers, researched to a modest extent by the most knowledgeable oenophile in our party. It's true that we haven't devoted quite as much planning to the food that we might also enjoy along the way, but the collective (if rather dismissive) opinion is that we can't possibly go hungry in a region which has the legendarily hearty cassoulet as its signature dish.
We have read about La Boucherie in a file of notes left for us by the owner of the villa we are staying in at nearby St Genies de Fontedit. It doesn't go into great detail about the restaurant, but having hinted at something rather special it has successfully fed our curiosity by the first evening of the holiday. You can drive to, and park quite easily in, the centre of Magalas, but La Boucherie can only be reached on foot, hidden as it is in the Place de l'Eglise at the top of a steep, narrow network of lanes. By day, La Boucherie is exactly what it says on the sign: a supplier of good quality, fresh cuts of meat for the town's residents. So fond of Monsieur Lefevre's artfully prepared lamb cutlets, steak and pork loin are the locals, however, that several years ago those who had tasted his home-cooking persuaded this artisan - who was once a circus performer - to open and run a restaurant out of his shop. If you're thinking it sounds like the stuff of a Joanne Harris novel, you're absolutely right: the mise-en-scène transcends even the most romantic notion of rustic French dining your imagination can conjure up.
As we sit and wait for our soupe au pistou and blanquette de veau, listening to the traditional jazz music that's playing in the restaurant, I watch a party of nine chatting and eating at the table beside us. The youngest of them must be at least 80, and she is energetically polishing off a great heap of steak tartare, complete with its perfect golden crown of gleaming raw egg yolk. Here is living proof of the famous French paradox. I bet she has jam and butter on her croissant every morning, too.
The next day, having made it to the local boulangerie just in time to bag three fresh croissants for ourselves (if you think you can get a lazy 10.30 breakfast round here, think again - this is a community that goes to work early and lunches at 12 on the dot), we're plotting the first day of the wine trail with a large road map and a comprehensive guide to regional domaines (wine-producing estates), which was downloaded from the internet prior to our trip.
Driving through the vast-spreading, deep-green patchwork of vineyards, whose boundaries are marked by endless rows of cypresses, it becomes clear that there's no shortage of choice - or variety. Red wine production is overshadowing the traditional whites and rosés in this region, and recent years have seen an increase in white vins de pays d'Oc sauvignons and chardonnays. The wines to look out for are Corbières, Coteaux du Languedoc, Côtes du Roussillon, Saint Chinian and Costières de Nimes.
The clearly signposted domaines, at which you can sample and buy local wines, range from highly organised commercial estates with purpose-built shops staffed by knowledgeable (and invariably English-speaking) sales staff, to family-run farms with small but well-stocked caves, and remote stone houses where you'll be greeted by large, barking dogs and an owner who may well be carrying a loaded and cocked rifle. But in such cases a polite greeting in French and a request to try the wine usually gets you through the gate without further threat of injury.
Domaine du Rouge Gorge, close to Magalas, is very accessible to passing tourists, with information printed in French, English and German. We sample the AOC Faugeres red (rather robust, enjoyably powerful and said to age well) and rosé (young, lively) but decide to press on and see more before we start spending our wine budget.
While some are more obviously geared up to benefit from the influx of tourists and second-home-owners, most of these places provide their owners with a modest income. Many of the small vignerons, producers and bottlers of their own appellation controlée, run maybe 30 acres or even less. At Château Coujan in Murviel-lès- Béziers we have a more rewarding encounter - and not just because the wines here taste better than those at the previous domaine. The elderly, granite-faced proprietor, Monsieur Guy, and his sweet, ancient dog casually escort us into the vast, dank sheds in which the wines are aged and stored. Here he gives us florid French-English descriptions of the complexities and origins of his produce; which ones are named after his grand-daughters; which bottles will mature well and which are best drunk young. Bottles start a €3.50 (£2.40) for a 2001 vin de pays and rise to €28 (£19) for a 1997 merlot cabernet, though typical prices are around €6 (£4) or €28 for a half-case. He also manages to sell us a couple of bottles of his estate-bottled olive oil on our way out. The money side is handled by his three snappily efficient daughters, who give us the address of a London-based importer of the wines we have bought, should we be inclined to stock up on more of it before our next visit to France.
Having spent several days meandering along deserted country lanes, we now have an appointment that takes us on to the busy Route Minervoise linking Béziers to Carcassonne. An ancient stone inn beside the Canal du Midi, Le Relais de Pigasse is an organic vineyard and Michelin-starred restaurant. The owner, Robert Eden, is passionate about preserving the local eco-system in the production of his well- respected Comte Cathare wines, with 50p from each bottle sold going to the Rainforest Foundation. He makes wines based on chardonnay, cabernet, and two syrah blends, but before any planting, harvesting or cultivating is done, the position of the sun, moon and planets are taken into consideration. A bit of a character he may be, but Eden was brought up knowing about wine and has made his own here for the past 11 years. His unorthodox, elegant viticulture produces deliciously light results.
The restaurant interior is no hokey, rustic affair, either. It's a cool symphony of neutral shades, natural fibres and elegant furniture designed to complement the pale, exposed stone walls.
As for the Michelin-starred food, it's often as exciting, innovative and beautiful to look at as that which comes from the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay or Heston Blumenthal. Millefeuilles of beef with artichokes; selle d'agneau en crepinette; foie gras de canard with jus viande à la truffe; apricots in muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois served with basil glacé; tobacco-flavoured ice cream made in the shape of a Havana cigar. It's not cheap compared with the rustic food we have been eating all week, but the same standard of food in Britain would probably cost twice as much. The fantastic four-course set menu seems a bargain at €39 (£27) a head, excluding wines. It's the kind of meal that lingers in the mind, as well as on the palate, throughout the long drive home. We never did get round to eating any of that cassoulet, you know.
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The writer travelled as a guest of Meon Villas (0870-850 0585; www.meonvillas.co.uk) and stayed at the villa Les Trois Oliviers, in the village of St Genies de Fontedit. A seven-night self-catering holiday at the villa costs from £1,442 throughout October, including ferry to Calais, cleaning service and welcome food-hamper.
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