Sud de France, By Caroline Conran

Christopher Hirst
Saturday 05 January 2013 01:00
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Amid the torrent of glossy blockbusters and TV tie-ins, significant new culinary works are liable to be swept aside. Caroline Conran's relishable account of Languedoc cuisine is that extreme rarity, a cookbook that you can sit down and read. She explores the cultural and agricultural background to the robust food of this somewhat reluctant region of France. Seasonality, foraging and a passion for offal are part of life rather than fashionable shibboleths.

Conran's suggestion that "in the Languedoc everyone enjoys life" may be somewhat sweeping – it didn't apply to the local who barged into me in a Perpignan supermarché ("Pah! Un rosbif!"). But it certainly has an impressive number of gastronomic celebrations. The killing of the household pig, "often called 'the minister'" (the region is notably irreverent), was "the biggest family fete of the year" - celebrated with a pork and offal slurry called fréginat. In the Gard, "a wedding was not complete unless the brothers and sisters of the bride and groom ate raw onions". Not such a hardship since the region boasts "the most delicate and delicious sweet onions".

Right now it's peak time for black truffle fairs, "chaotic, competitive and exciting". At the opposite end of the price spectrum, she recommends the turnips of Paidailhan, "treasured for their dense, frost-white flesh and sweet flavour". A farmer gave her an intriguing recipe for "sweet and salty turnips" but said she had to wait for three days "so they could imbibe the rain that had fallen, to plump themselves up."

You should also postpone cooking cassoulet if it's stormy ("There seems to be some sort of sympathetic magic going on between beans and low atmospheric pressure, and they may turn on you"). A dish called cowhand's oxtail reveals that Camargue cowpokes enjoy far superior catering to their counterparts on the US range, while mariner's sauce is an onion and anchovy reduction that "works wonderfully" with steak. As this book demonstrates, pretty much everything is better in Languedoc.

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