It's the annual festival of Lord Clive's mince pies. To the lilt of troubadours' Languedocien airs, the Mince Pie Brotherhood's procession – La Trés Noble et Trés Gourmande Confrérie du Petit Pâté de Pézenas – winds majestically through the medieval lanes. The participants are robed in blue gowns. Dangling proudly from their necks are replicas of Albion's festive comestible, Britain's most enduring gift to France.
If it all seems a trifle bizarre to strangers, the natives, the Piscenois, care not a local fig. It is not a tourist spectacle. Although only mid-morning, the bonhomie is flowing as profusely as the wine in Pézenas. This small town, just inland from Cap d'Agde on the southern coast of France, is a maze of ancient alleys and cobbled squares with fountains. What Pézenas is famous for – in Pézenas, at least – is having guarded the secret of Old England's authentic mince pies for 233 years.
The original version with mincemeat made from real meat never recovered popularity after Cromwell banned it, and has long been extinct in its native land. Yet the mince pie not only flourished in this far corner of a foreign field, but became the town's trademark. Lord Robert Clive, Market Drayton schoolboy hoodlum dunce, later Clive of India, father of the Raj, was responsible. He convalesced in Pézenas in 1768, 12 years after avenging the Black Hole and six years before his suicide aged 49. Ruthless, ambitious, cunning and avaricious (the ideal 18th-century British national hero), the once penniless clerk arrived in Pézenas flush with Indian loot, one of the world's wealthiest men.
The town's library is the former Three Pigeons Inn where Lord and Lady Clive rested after three months travelling from England. A plaque outside it records the Baron presenting his pies to Pézenas in gratitude for a happy sojourn. Not only is this scene hard to imagine – the ennobled town bully with floury hands – but it is, alas, of doubtful authority.
Baker Daniel Lallemand swears his family's recipe (minced mutton, sugar, lemon zest), came directly from Clive, although exactly how is lost in mists of flour dust. Local English-born historian Jane Lloret, a Confrérie member, believes the clues lie in Lady Clive's letters home. The Clives rented the Château Saint Martin de Grave, set like a palace in an ocean of vines. Pézenas's wonderful climate had fostered a colony of ailing nobility. Forced to entertain themselves, they formed something called the Picnic Club, to which members contributed favourite dishes. The Clives loathed French cooking, "nasty, garlicky stuff". They had an English cook, Carrington, who made curries for the club – possibly France's first Indian takeaways. Jane Lloret surmises that the pies also came via the club, commissioned by Carrington from a baker who discerned that such exotic titbits would sell like hot cakes.
While their precise provenance remains a culinary conundrum, two centuries on Lord Clive's mince pies are still going strong. Traditionally eaten as an aperitif, they make dainty morsels any time. Buy some warm from a baker, find a shaded café table and savour with a dry white wine that custom dictates must be Picpoul de Pinet. To look like a local, turn them upside down, nibbling with deference, for you are tasting English history.
With or without pies, Pézenas is a gem of southern France. Its medieval heart is a confusion of flower-decked houses and ancient vaulted courtyards. The "modern" parts of the town date from the prosperous 17th and 18th centuries. The elegant mansions may look familiar: the town is a favourite location for French period films.
The Piscenois are also proud of their Molière associations. His company's 17th-century visits are celebrated biennially with music and drama pageants. The old Hotel Molière, with its elaborate façade of theatrical frescos, overlooks his monument on the bank of the usually dry River Peyne. It is the place to stay in Pézenas. But Pézenas is no museum. Though cosily sized, its cornucopian Saturday market packs every square. It has remained Languedoc's biggest since the 13th century. The town's enviable lifestyle may soon have you studying estate agents' windows, but while you dream it makes a fine home-from-home for sampling the region.
For a start, there is that Picpoul wine. The Piscenois get theirs from the hilltop village of Castelnau de Guers across the Hérault River, but the Picpoul de Pinet district extends to the vast l'étang de Thau lagoon. At shellfish-breeding villages such as Bouzigues or Marseillan, oyster addicts can satiate their lust for £4 a dozen. Marseillan is also the home of Noilly Prat vermouth, where hundreds of barrels of James Bond's favourite mixer lie maturing in the sun. Nearby is ancient Agde, a town founded by Greeks where the Hérault meets the sea. Miles-long beaches girdle the lagoon.
Back in Pézenas, the Brotherhood reaches the old people's home with its annual treat of mince pies and Picpoul. A centenarian recalls pies on childhood birthdays – Pézenas is famed for longevity. In the market-place hubbub, glasses are brimming and pies are being consumed. But the noble Confrérie still has important business – the new candidates' investiture, today including Market Drayton's past and present mayors. Swearing solemn oaths to defend the pies' integrity, they are eligible henceforth to wear them round their necks.
The festival lunch is in the cavernous old stables of Lord Clive's château. First come platters of mince pies, followed by five courses and countless bottles of Picpoul. Fuelled by wine, the troubadours seem indefatigable. Lunch will last all afternoon.
Then several people rise. In the sudden silence the kind of haunting song that puts a lump in your throat rings out. It is, someone whispers, La Coupo Santo (The Holy Cup), the ancient Languedoc anthem sung in the southern French tongue of Occitan. The day has been fun, yet you sense this is serious; surrounded by moist eyes, a glimpse of the glue of traditions and old loyalties that for centuries has kept Pézenas intact and of which Lord Clive's petits patés, whatever their true origin, are now also an ingredient.
In India, Clive was France's greatest enemy. He quashed its Indian ambitions and paved the way for the Raj. For this, he was not only made a peer but received that rarest of accolades, a whole sub-continent appended to his name. As toasts to his pies resume, there seems poetic irony that a hero neglected in the land of his birth should, in this town in a nation he thwarted, be regarded as history's greatest Englishman because of mince pies.
Yet munching a final oven-warm pie, the thought does occur that he served Pézenas better than India. And mince pies surely make a more tasteful memorial than a statue white with pigeon droppings celebrating war. It could all be, of course, a vengeful Gallic joke, but more likely it's further evidence that in France food is always what matters most. In a Pézenas as charming as when the noble nabob graced it, wine shops sell you their cuvée Lord Clive and his pies are honoured even on postcards.
Ray Kershaw reports from Pézenas for the Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 at 12.30pm tomorrow and 4pm on Monday
Getting there: the closest airport to Pézenas is Beziers, served only by Air Littoral from Paris Orly. Montpellier is served from Gatwick by GB Airways on behalf of BA (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com). This flight stops en route at Nantes, extending the journey to three hours. It may be quicker to fly non-stop from Stansted to either Nimes or Carcassonne on Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com).
By rail, the nearest convenient station is Beziers, accessible in 11 hours from London Waterloo with a change in Lille or Paris. If you book two weeks in advance with Rail Europe (08705 848 848, www.raileurope.co.uk), you should qualify for a fare of £114 return from London to Montpellier. You may need to buy a separate ticket from there to Beziers. A better plan is to book a £114 ticket to Perpignan, but hop off the train at Beziers. (First class is also a good deal at £175 return.) Buses link Beziers with Pézenas.
By car, the A9 autoroute passes close by, and Pézenas has its own junction. Reckon on about 12 hours driving from one of the Channel ports.
Staying there: the Hotel Molière, Place du 14 Juillet, Pézenas (00 33 4 67 98 14 00) charges a very reasonable Fr340 (£32) for a double room, including breakfast.
More information: Syndicat d'Initiative, 1 Place Gambetta, Pézenas (00 33 4 67 98 36 40). A useful website is www.paysdepezenas.net/english. French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1J 9AL (09068 244 123, 60p per min; www.franceguide.com)Reuse content