Constrained by the pandemic, we have to turn our hunger for travel to plain old hunger — in our neighborhood. Here are tales of two recent lunch escapes.
La Taverne à Bacchus, Limoux
Only for carnivores. We think that, as far as the chef is concerned, chicken is a vegetable. Grilled, roasted, sausaged, smoked, cured – it’s all about the meat. Which works fine for us. (Sorry, dear vegetarian readers.)
Our friend Vibeke introduced us to this country restaurant last year. The leader of the Club Prosper Montagné had invited her to their annual induction ceremony, that year at La Taverne à Bacchus.
Prosper Montagné was a celebrated, Carcassonne-born chef and culinary writer.
“Cooking is my life,” proclaimed Prosper Montagné. Considered one of the greatest French chefs, he was also a key figure in French culinary literature and gastronomy.
Born in 1865, in Carcassonne, this son of a hotelier studied to be a cook at the Hôtel des Quatre-Saisons in Toulouse, which his father owned.
He then worked as an apprentice at the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Cauterets, where he was entrusted to one of the best cooks of the time, Alphonse Meillon.
Brilliant and talented, Prosper Montagné quickly joined the brigades of large establishments: Le Grand Hôtel and Le Pavillon d´Armenonville in Paris, L’Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo as well as hotels in San Remo, Italy.
In 1907, Prosper Montagné decided to devote himself fully to food criticism. A scholarly food columnist, he wrote numerous articles on food, cuisine and gastronomy for the most famous magazines and newspapers of the time. His experience and knowledge led him to become editor-in-chief of the Revue Culinaire but also General Commissioner of Culinary Exhibitions of Paris, Food Inspector of Public Assistance Hospitals, Professor at the Business School and at the Women’s Hotel School. A great teacher, Prosper Montagné traveled and gave lectures all over France.
During the 1914-18 war, he was responsible for feeding the troops. He developed the French version of the “roulantes” [mobile food-service carts], which allowed soldiers to enjoy a hot meal.
Writer and visionary, Prosper Montagné was the author of a dozen celebrated culinary works : La Grande Cuisine Illustrée, Le Grand Livre de la Cuisine – which he wrote with Pierre Salles – and the first Larousse Gastronomique in 1938, prefaced by Auguste Escoffier and Philéas Gilbert.
In 1920, he opened his own restaurant in Paris, the “Montagné Traiteur”. In a chef whites, the master prepared the most exquisite dishes himself.
He received the highest French honor, that of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
The mission of the Club Prosper Montagné is to acknowledge and celebrate leaders in the world of local gastronomy, from chefs and restauranteurs to food producers and hospitality patrons.
After the ceremony, we joined the large group around a single long communal table for charcuterie, soups, beef, pork, potatoes, and just a little local wine.
That was last year. This is this (exceptional) year. A few weeks after the lifting of the quarantine requirements, we were chomping at the bit to enjoy some good food, preferably away from city crowds. The terrace and wood-fired grill of La Taverne was perfect.
A few years ago, the owners / chefs, Céline et Éric Bénédan, relocated their already successful restaurant to a new home, the château de la Monèze, just outside of Limoux. The impressive Vineyard Master house sits atop a wooded hill.
Fruit and flowering trees fill the gardens. Vineyards and farm fields surround the estate. Limoux is famous for its delicious, and very affordable, sparkling wines.
The owners transformed half of the main floor of the rustic grand residence into the open-fireplace kitchen. The aroma of grilling meats fills the space.
On this day, we chose a table outside on the terrace. Best way to stay appropriately separate from other diners, as well as to enjoy the summer day. To our surprise, there were not many customers on this day in June. The reasons were a mixture of post-quarantine skittishness, local people starting to go on vacation, and the dearth of foreign visitors.
But on to the food! Beautiful starters, nice local rosé, and simple meaty main courses.
Not long after moving to Carcassonne, we discovered the local English-language news site, Languedoc Living. It has been a useful resource for events, restaurants, wine domaines, and more in our southern part of France. One article quite a while ago highlighted a restaurant in the tiny mountain town of Axat, about an hour from Carcassonne: Restaurant Aux Quatre Saisons. We signed up for the restaurant newsletter; we are regularly tempted by their menus. At last, we created the opportunity to try it out. Our friends Vibeke and Jeff joined us.
The drive to Axat is attractive and dramatic, especially the passage through the Gorge of Saint Georges. (There are more information and images in this recent blog post.) Axat lies just past the gorge, along the upper Aude river. This was a Sunday in early August. Canoes and kayaks dotted the river alongside the road.
AXAT has always lived under the sign of water, that of the river that crosses it, the Aude, the ancient Atax. Axat is the anagram of the word ATAX, the original name of the Aude river. In the Middle Ages, the river lost its Gallic name “Atacine”, meaning “daring river” to be called ALDAE. The village of Axat then took the name of ALDESATUS.
As we were turning off the main road of Axat into the tiny parking area of the restaurant, Paul, the chef dashed up to the entrance gate. He stood authoritatively in chef’s whites and toque. Assured that we had a reservation, he proceeded to walk us to where he wanted us to park. First sign that this is a family-owned hands-on operation.
The owners / chefs / hosts / servers / you-name-it are Val and Paul. British, they settled in Axat over 10 years ago. They bought a property that needed a few year’s worth of repair and renovation. At last they opened a B&B. The second B developed into a restaurant. Four years ago, they decided to concentrate on the restaurant and to stop providing accommodations — it was just too much work. They told us that, during first two years of this phase of the restaurant, they operated in the red; last year, they started reaching their stride, and they anticipated 2020 to be their break-out year. Then Covid.
We were happy to see a couple large tour groups arrive. They filled all the terrace spaces other than our table. French, Belgian and Dutch tourists are doing a pretty good job compensating for the lack of British, American and Asian visitors.
Val and Paul are gregarious and full of good humor. After lunch, we stood with them between terrace and parking area, chatting and laughing. Paul announced that he is passionate about American politics. Oh no, we thought, here comes the T%@*& discussion. He straight-out asked us who we were going to vote for in November. We said, Biden. Looking relieved, he said, “If you had said T%@*&, I’d have said politely I respect everyone’s choice. But now we can really talk! So, who do you think Biden will select for VP?!….” Standing outside in a tiny mountain town, talking with a British expat couple about tense American politics. Gotta love it!
As we wound down our politics chat, Paul said that he wanted to throw a party on the night of the American election, and he hoped we’d come. We loved his concept: It will be a Champagne and Hemlock party. You drink what you want depending on the election outcome.
Enough politics. The food!