Harvest Season Delights: Indulging in the Flavors of Occitanie
Originally posted on & updated on 16th November, 2023
Here is the latest write-up from Beth in Occitanie who shares a few heart-warming autumnal dishes and traditions, with a couple of secret tips from her yoga friends, Martine and Arlette. At this time of the year, it's all about keeping warm using the variety of produce from the terroir, including wine!
“It’s November, and life is busy in our rural part of southwest France. While it’s a transition period for many country folks as they prepare for winter, some cereal farmers are still combining popcorn maize. The last of the winter wheat is also being sown. There’s activity of a different kind for the fruit producers.
Orchards still echo with the sounds of banter as Spanish teams pick the late apple varieties. Similar chatter can be heard in the kiwi plantations. It’s their harvest time, too. Meanwhile, we’re in the middle of the sweet chestnut season. Roast, pureed, sugar-coated, conserved, and even ground into flour, the French love their sweet chestnuts.
Originally reputed to be peasant’s fodder because poverty-stricken folks used ground sweet chestnuts for bread making, the fruit is now considered a healthy option. And I’m not surprised. After all, it’s gluten-free, rich in minerals, vitamins and carbohydrates, and low in fat. It has earned its place alongside other, better-known health foods.
For carnivores, this is the season of bounty. From October to March, notably in Gers, Marchés au Gras occur. Literally translated as Fat Markets, selected breeders sell duck and goose carcasses and liver directly to the public.
A French fine food enthusiast friend tells me the events are particularly favoured because of the meat quality. Most of the animals are bred in small numbers and free-range. Producers’ premises and working practices are approved by veterinary services, and even the markets are heavily regulated. Queues form early on sales days, and the produce is generally sold out within two or so hours.
Another facet of November is La Saison de la Chasse. The hunting season is already in full swing. It may be a contentious topic for many, but it’s part of life here and a method of protecting farmers’ land from damage, particularly by larger species. The numbers of specified plumed, small furred and big game animals culled are controlled, and carcasses are shared among the hunters or sold to licenced butchers.
With such diverse food production, I wanted to give you an idea of the most popular dishes enjoyed here in November. Spoilt for choice, I decided to ask my yoga pals, a group of French farmers. Brilliant idea, although our yoga teacher wished I hadn’t bothered. The discussion went on and on.
Here’s a (brief) summary of the response to my innocent question: What is the most popular dish or food eaten here during November?
“You must eat châtaignes et vin nouveau, there’s a celebration at Estramiac this weekend. Go. You’ll love it.”
This turned out to be an old tradition where two harvests are celebrated: châtaignes, usually roasted in holey pans over an open fire, washed down by a glass or two of the new season’s red wine, possibly a Beaujolais Nouveau? A fine idea, though Ana had a different suggestion.
“The main meal should be Parmentier de Canard, but make sure you use parmesan cheese.”
Duck Parmentier is basically shredded duck confit topped with mashed potatoes and baked in the oven. It’s a great winter warmer, though Fabienne disagreed, tutting about parmesan. She had an alternative proposal.
“But what about our famous Cassoulet? That’s very popular, and it should be. We’re close to Castelnaudary, where it was invented during the 100 Years’ War. Just make sure it’s the Toulouse version.”
A lengthy debate instantly erupted over the other ingredients to go with the ubiquitous beans. In Castelnaudary, Cassoulet is prepared with duck confit, pork shoulder, and sausage. Mutton is typically used in Carcassonne, while the Toulouse version includes duck confit and Toulouse sausage. It’s quite a tummy liner. Nadine shrugged. She was adamant about a culinary alternative.
It has to be Garbure, a rustic soup with garden vegetables, lard or ham on the bone and a chunk of bread and strong cheese. My grand-père always followed with the old-fashioned Occitanian custom of adding red wine to dilute the last remnants and then drank directly from the bowl in big gulps. It’s a tradition called ‘faire chabrot’.
Translated as ‘drink like a goat’, I thought this was a fun, practical idea.
Despite overrunning our lesson start time, the lively discussion continued with recommendations of blanquette de veau, veal casserole, and boeuf bourguignon, the universally famed beef stew. Not forgetting la chasse, someone added roast sanglier (wild boar), and ‘don’t forget to marinade the joint in red wine all night’. “Non!” argued Arlette, “It must be beer.” That, of course, led to another culinary argument.
Anything to do with duck and goose was favoured by most (aside from the yoga teacher, who was getting bored), and foie gras was the hot favourite. Like it or hate it, the foodstuff is revered here and home-prepared by most of our farmer friends. They’ll save it as a special treat for Noël.
Keen to steer away from body parts and at risk of being ejected from the yoga session, I asked if we could perhaps agree on one dessert. To our yoga teacher’s relief, there was general agreement that anything to do with pommes is a November winner.
Sooo, in honour of my yoga pals and all our cheerful apple pickers, I can offer you a countryside favourite, Croustade aux Pommes (not to be confused with Pastis Gascon, which takes you down yet another mouth-watering rabbit hole). Translated as Apple Crisp, it may look like an ordinary apple pie, but don’t be fooled. Usually laced with Armagnac, there are several versions of the recipe, and they’re all delicious. Here’s one recommended by Martine. Bon appétit!”
For more real-life stories in rural France, check Beth's excellent books. They're on sale on Amazon and a great gift idea for any lover of animals, nature and France. Are you aspiring for a new lifestyle in the countryside, take a look at our rural properties and countryside houses in southwest France.