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  • Writer's pictureJanetJoanouWeiner

Foods of the Cévennes

France and outstanding cuisine are nearly synonymous. And for the most part, this is true––whether fine dining or enjoying homier local fare.

Each of the highly varied regions of France has their own specialities. Unique dishes reflect generations of tradition, plus what naturally grows in the area, both plant and animal.

Here in the Cévennes, we find the same––local products that arise from the land. I love the French word terroir, which means just that, the land, or even closer, the soil. Terroir doesn't have a succinct English translation as it also includes climate and sunlight. Vineyards are a good example of terroir, where these factors create distinct grapes and the resulting wines.

Our Mediterranean climate produces a bounty of delicious treats. Foremost, we have the chestnut. Growing in spiky pods at higher elevations, the Cevenols call this "the bread tree." In centuries past, especially during seasons of deprivation, the Cevenol people survived on chestnuts.

After removing the painfully spiny outer shell, there are several ways to prepare this abundant nut. Boiled and served whole, or pureed into soups. Dried, they can be ground into flour and baked into breads.

Chestnut in a split pod. Most of the time they're fully enclosed, making removal difficult.

Whole chestnuts and chestnut flour at my local supermarket.

What's the difference between marron and châtaigne? Both translate as chestnut in English, but there's a difference. Only one nut inside the shell, it's a marron. If two or more, it's a châtaigne.

I've collected chestnuts from the forest floor (thick gloves required) and removed the outer shells––did I mention how sharp they are? We then roasted and ground them into a puree, adding sugar and spices. The homemade crème de marron was delicious, but I don't plan to repeat the experience. So much work! Every grocery store in the area carries this spread to put on bread, to add to plain yogurt, or bake into cakes.

It wouldn't be France if this ubiquitous nut wasn't also turned into various forms of alcohol. Again, each region has their specialties. In the French Alps I've tasted génepi, made from an alpine plant similar to sage. Our host proudly told us that his brother and he had picked the shoots from a crevice in the mountains just after the first frost, but before the first snowfall, meaning the highest sugar levels. My one tiny sip of the resulting digestif burned all the way down. Certainly helped digest my food!

Here are a few of the Cévennes' offerings:

White wine flavored with chestnut

Crème de Châtaigne

Crème de Châtaigne is a liqueur that can be drunk by itself as a digestif, or even better, added to white sparkling wine for an apéritif, a before dinner drink. I call this a "Kir Cevenol" inspired by a restaurant in another region doing the same with their local liqueur.

The more well-known version is simply called "Kir," made with white wine, or "Kir Royal," made with champagne. Both include Crème de Cassis liqueur prepared from the delicious dark purple cassis berry.

Apéritif, more commonly called apéro, is an institution throughout the country. As a guest, we're always served apéro before lunch or dinner, and includes a variety of salty nibbles and something to drink. Olives, thinly sliced dried sausage, and nuts are common choices. I've also been served little canapes, such as pickled cucumbers and eggplant slices served on little toasts.

Just some of the many varieties of olives. The "Lucques" on the right are my favorite.

In the south of France, tapenade is often served for apéro. Made of crushed green or black olives, sometimes with a bit of anchovy paste (the less of that the better, in my opinion!) Spread on thin slices of bread or crackers, it's delicious.

Specialty tapenades made in Cé olive, black olive and eggplant, green olive and peppers. Yum!

The first time I tasted tapenade was at an outdoor country meal. Foot-wide wooden bowls of both green and black homemade tapenade were passed the length of the twenty person table, set under a huge shade tree. It felt like a scene from a movie!

Many parts of France have terrines, made of ground meat and spices. Another yummy apéro option, or even as a part of the meal. Spread on thin slices of bread, it's very good. Here in the Cévennes, it's often made with sanglier, wild boar, and can have, yes you guessed it, chestnuts in them.

Nothing is more French than cheese. Charles de Gaulle famously said, "How can anyone govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?" highlighting the independent nature of his countrymen. However, he vastly underestimated the number of cheese varieties. Reportedly, there are over 1000 types!

Goat cheese exists wherever there are goats (obviously!) Our local goat cheese has its own name, pélardon, and is delicious. Here's one of my favorite cheese makers at our weekly open market. From left to right, we have super-aged (4+ months), aged (2 weeks), and fresh, made within the day. All are delicious.

One of my favorite local dishes is "Salade Cevenol," a green salad with tiny bacon chunks, and a whole round of slightly melted pélardon goat cheese.

Prized for its delicate flavor, the Cévennes onion is sweet and juicy. Delicious raw or cooked, we enjoy them often. And this year, a friend blessed me with 300 Cévennes onion shoots to plant in my garden. One cannot buy them to grow in any form as they are a prized and protected food. Her brother is an onion farmer and I'm so grateful they shared their bounty with us. Mine didn't grow large, but they survived and are now drying in my basement.

My harvest smells wonderful!

Where there are onions, there are items made with onions. Confit d'oignon, is a delicious concoction. Simmer chopped onions, add vinegar and a little sugar to caramelize... oh my goodness! It's wonderful with meats, charcuterie boards, and pâtés. Or just as a spoonful out of the jar!

Sunshine-filled honeys, flavorful olive oils, and pungent truffles abound the local market. So good! While these items occur elsewhere, here they're infused with the local scents.

Are you hungry yet? I am!

The earth's bounty reflects the generosity of our Creator. Combined with the creativity of people, it never ceases to amaze me. As I garden and then work with the results, I'm constantly learning. For the rest, a stroll through the open market always results in a bagful of delicious foods.

La vie est belle!

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