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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Camargue, France. The Land, its People, its Produce and its Cuisine.

The Camargue is set in the Delta of the River Rhone and also divides the center of France’s Mediterranean coast; it covers an area of almost 1,500 sq km  ( 580 sq miles)
Behind the French Menu.
Bryan G. Newman  
The Taureau de Camargue AOP

The cuisine of the Camargue gained international fame with the superb beef from its unique free-range cattle, the Taureau de Camargue AOP. The Taureau de Camargue was the first beef to be awarded France’s AOC grade ( and later an AOP) for outstanding quality.  Despite the Camargue’s truly excellent meat when you visit  the area you will find much more than beef to enjoy.

The Camargue

The vast area of the Camargue includes nearly half of the coast in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône in Provence, Alpes-Côte d'Azur; while the western part of the Camargue, called the Petite Camargue, is in the departments of Gard and Hérault in Languedoc-Roussillon.

Map of the Camargue
Photograph courtesy of

Half of the Camargue is a working nature reserve with the black and dark brown, cattle, the Taureau de Camargue AOC, and the semi-wild white horses, the Cheval Blanc Camarguais, being the area’s most famous residents.
The agriculture of the Camargue

The most famous agricultural products grown in the Camargue’s unique micro-climate are the distinctive Camargue rice varieties that include a natural red rice, a Label Rouge rice and a certified organic rice. After that comes organic vegetables.

                                      The Camargue salt industry
The Camargue salt industry was already an important industry, some claim, in Roman times. However, the age of the salt harvesting industry is a maybe since others have told me that it is a relatively recent addition. Whatever the truth, the Camargue salt and Fleur de Sel condiment are a significant industry today, and they have a museum that explains the system used for collecting salt.

Fleur de Sel from the Camargue
Photograph courtesy  of

There are also  freshwater fish-farms, pig farms, and producers of Camargue honey. 
Camargue Honey
To all these local products add the catches of the Camargue seawater fishermen and women who bring in crustaceans, mollusks, and many types of seafish with the most sought after being tuna. Local menus show the influences of Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon, Gypsy cuisine and Basque and Catalonian traditions. The results make for a remarkably diverse, but singularly Camargue cuisine.

Wines from the Camargue
Photograph courtesy of nadia and massimo
The excellent cuisine of the Camague will be accompanied by the wines of the Camargue as well as the wines of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon.

Dining in the Camargue.
Photograph courtesy of Bruce Tuten.

Dining in the Camargue:  
….À la Camarguaise –   The prefix for any dish cooked or prepared in the manner of the Camargue.  À la Camarguaise indicates the use of local products including seafood, rice, freshly caught fish, (especially tuna), pork and, of course, beef from the bulls and cows of the Taureau de Camargue AOP.
 Anchoïade  Camarguaise et ses Légumes Crus -  An anchoïade served with fresh crunchy raw vegetables. An anchoïade is a Provencal anchovy based spread created together with olives and garlic. Here you are offered the anchoïade with fresh vegetables on the side, the anchovies will have been caught locally. The anchoïade will be served with fresh country bread, usually the round loaf called a boule, or perhaps a sliced baguette or even toast.   If you like anchovies, olives, garlic and olive oil this is for you; I admit that I love it!. To fully appreciate your anchoïade order a bottle of a cold, dry, white wine, and spread your anchoïade thickly on the bread;  alternate your bites with the crunchy fresh vegetables provided and sips of the white wine.  After a minute or two sit back with your eyes closed and you may find yourself in anchovy, olive, and garlic heaven.  Anchoïade is also used in sauces that accompany other dishes, mainly fish dishes. Outside the Camargue, this same dish may be on menus with different French spellings as an anchoyade or anchouiad. Other menus may offer a tapenade;   a tapenade is an anchoïade with added capers; the Provençal word for capers is tapéno and, so, with added capers, an anchoïade becomes a tapenade.

Câpres in the languages if France’s Neighbors: (Catalan -  taperera), (Dutch - kappertjes), (German – kapernstrauch), (Italian – cappero), (Spanish -alcaparras).
Daube de Taureau Mode “Gardienne” -   A traditional Provençale beef stew made in the manner of the gardiens. The gardiens are the French cowboys who look after the Taureau de Camargue  AOC, the black or dark brown bulls, and cows of the Camargue.

The guardians wedding tribute to one of their own.
Photograph courtesy of kahala 
The main difference between a Gardian’s daube and other Provençal beef daubes is the quality of the beef and the serving of the dish with rice. As with other daubes the Gardian’s daube includes red wine, bacon, onions, beans, tomatoes and other vegetables of the season along with garlic and other herbs for flavor.     

Daube de Taureau Mode “Gardienne”
Photograph courtesy of  Γιάννης Νικόλης
The excellent beef from these free-range cattle, will be on many menus. The breed is descendants of Spanish fighting bulls, however, now after many centuries, they are a much smaller animal than their forefathers and fore-mothers. 
The gardians, the French cowboys, who look after the cattle, despite their similar hats and boots, are markedly different to USA cowboys; to begin with they speak French, drink wine and have better cooks!  The beautiful white horses of the Camargue are also looked after by the gardians; these are the semi-wild Cheval Blanc Camarguais.

The white horses of the Camargue.
Photograph by courtesy of the City of Arles.
Filet de Rougets Poêlé, Riz Rouge de la Camargue – Lightly fried filets of red mullet, served with the natural red rice of the Camargue.  This special and natural red-to- brown rice is usually prepared with recipes similar to those used for risotto. It is the unique Camargue marshes that produce this special rice.

Salmon served with the red rice of the Camargue
Photograph courtesy of David Vo.
  The red mullet is a sea fish and will have been caught locally; elsewhere, this fish may be on the menu as the rouget barbet or rouget de vase; under whatever name a menu uses this is a fish that makes excellent eating.
Red mullet in the languages of France’s neighbors:

(Catalan - moll fanguer), (Dutch - koning van de poon), (German – meerbarbe or rot meerbarbe), (Italian – triglia, triglia di fango), (Spanish - salmonete de fango).

A lightly fried red mullet filet
Photograph courtesy of philgross

Tellines de Camargue à la Plancha et Citron - The sea olive clam fried/grilled on a plancha.  The plancha is a distinctive solid, thick, iron plate used for a particular style of cooking that is between frying and grilling. It is claimed as their own by both the Basque and the Spanish.  The clams here will be prepared with olive oil and fresh lemon juice, and they must be lightly fried, or they become chewy.

These clams are collected along the Camargue sea-shore.
Photograph courtesy of Mangilao30

Searching for sea olives.
Photograph courtesy of roglide-robert la forgia
Elsewhere, in France,  this small clam may be on the menus as the flion or olive de mer.  This clam, when cooked will often be served warm or cold in a seafood salad, or served raw as part of a seafood platter, and in Italy  this clam is a favorite to serve with pasta. 

The sea olive clam in the languages of France’s neighbors:

(Dutch – tellina), (German - stumpfmuscheln), (Italian – tellina).  (Spanish – coquina, tellina).

Tournedos de Thon à la Camarguaise Servi Saignant, Sésame, Réduction Balsamique – A thick cut of tuna prepared in the manner if the Camargue; that is covered with sesame and then very lightly fried and served with a thickened Balsamic vinegar. For this dish, the large northern bluefin tuna, which is also caught in the Mediterranean, is preferred.

Very lightly seared tuna with sesame.
Photograph courtesy of sheilaz413
As in the picture above the tuna will be served with only the outer two or three millimeters of the fish cooked, the inside will be raw, like sashimi; this is one of the best ways to enjoy fresh tuna. 

The northern blue fin tuna in the languages of France’s neigbhors: (Catalan - golfàs), (Dutch - tonijn), (German – Atlantischer thunfisch, roter thun), (Italian - tonno, tonno rosso), (Spanish - atún alata azul).
Salade Camarguaise – A Camague salad is made with local rice, tomatoes, maize bell peppers; in the UK  that is corn, tomatoes and sweet peppers.
Apart from the unique red to brown rice offered on one of the menus listings above the Camargue also provides many other types of rice that including a label rouge, a red label, rice which receives its certification for its consistently high quality.  Also much sought after is the Riz Bio de Camargue AB.  This is the Camargue's organic rice that holds the rights to the AB label for French government certified organic products. Even Japan imports these unique French rice varieties!

The French AB logo for organic produce is on the left.
The leaf with 13 stars on the right is the European Union Organic food  logo.
Your vacation in the Camargue.

The Camargue is a beautiful place for a vacation; it has miles and miles of sandy beaches, and you may enjoy fishing, hiking, bird-watching, quad biking, jeep rides,  horse-riding, sunbathing, swimming, jet skiing and more. There are  museums that tell the history of local industries and the museum of the history of the Camargue includes a three-and-one-half kilometer trail showing the uses of the land.

 Horse-riding in the Camargue
Photograph courtesy of Frank Wuestefeld
The town of Arles is famous for the time Vincent van Gogh stayed and painted there and cut off his ear, However, Arles is much more than Van Gogh and Van Gogh's house, unfortunately, it only has a few copies of his paintings to show the visitor. 

On the other hand, Arles has the best preserved Roman amphitheater in Europe with an audio guide that, at least in English, is probably the best I have ever used. The amphitheater in the summer is fully booked with concerts of all types, operas and more.

The Arles Amphitheater

Nevertheless, check the dates with the Tourist Information Office of Arles to stay away around the third weekend in July when they have two days of those passé corriddas; that is real bloody bullfights. 

The city of Arles tourist information office has a website, click on the Union Jack Flag at the top of the screen for English.

Clams on sale at the Arles market.
Photograph courtesy of Trevor Huxham

One word of advice to first-time visitors, to enjoy the Camargue, even if you have your own transport, do not try to take it all in in a few days.  The Camargue is vast and has many fascinating places and towns to visit, far too many for just one visit.  I spent three hours in the Arles food market though not all tourists do that! N.B. With all museums, historical monuments and places of interest, and food markets as well you need at least three weeks to see it all  and enjoy it.   In France check opening hours with the local tourist office or on the web; many sites are closed one day a week, others close for lunch, and others are closed at certain times of the year. Then pick two or three sites and that will be enough for three days.

The Course Camarguaise.
The Course Camarguaise is not a bullfight.
Among the Camargue’s many traditions is the Course Camarguaise, this is an acrobatic contest, and it is certainly not a bull-fight as some guide books suggest. The Course Camarguaise is distinctive and the gardiens do not allow their bulls, or cows, to get hurt or wounded.  The bulls, now usually the cows, are respected professionals that are under far less stress than the animals in horse-racing or horse dressage competitions.

A Course Camarguaise and the cow is winning!
Photograph by courtesy of the Ville d'Arles, the City of Arles.
In a Course Camarguaise, the raseteur, an accomplished course acrobat, I can think of no better description, is dressed in white. His or her mission is to grab a rosette tied between the bull’s horns.  All the raseteur is allowed to use is his or her agility, and a small hook to grab the rosette.  No picks or swords are allowed here, and the bulls, or cows, and are not to be hurt. The rasteurs are rated, are celebrated, and are local heroes; the winner of the rosette gains a cash prize.

The Camargue bulls and cows are not as large as the Spanish fighting bulls, however they are descendants of that Spanish breed. They still have the requisite long, curved, pointed horns! When at the end of the course spectators are allowed to try their luck at grabbing the rosette from a much smaller, younger, bull or cow this is still not a game for the fainthearted. You need a high turn of speed and excellent co-ordination to clear out of the way of a young charging bull or cow, and you can get hurt.

Sport-fishing for tuna and or the yellowtail amberjack
 in the Camargue.
The Camargue port, where you may reserve space for your yacht, is in the Petite Camargue. The Petite Camargue is the western part of the Camargue, and the port is the center for fishing expeditions. These expeditions are led by captained boats where aspiring fishermen and fisherwomen may rent a place for one, or charter the whole vessel. These boats go out for a day of sport fishing for tuna and or the yellowtail amberjack and other fish. For competitive French fishermen and women, there is also a respected annual sea-fishing competition usually in August. For serious fishermen and women, the organizers may be contacted at

Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer is where the French Roma, the name the French gypsies prefer, have their acclaimed annual religious festival, in May.

The Camargue beach at Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Photograph courtesy of Andrea Schaffer.
The center of all Camargue activities in May is held on the 24th and 25th of May.
The festival honors the three Roma Saints and especially their patron saint, Saint Sara; it is a significant festival for the Roma, but open to all.  You may connect with tens of thousands who come to watch, alongside those who participate in this festival every year.


Greeting the saints arriving by boat at Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Photograph courtesy of Fiore S. Barbato
According to the Roma tradition, Mary Magdalene along with Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and their black servant Sara, fled King Herod who was pursuing them in the Holy Land; they arrived here, on the coast of France, by boat, and Sara would become the Patron Saint of the Roma.

Statue of Saint Sara
Photograph courtesy of Sarah Goldsmith.
The Roma will tell you that these three Christian Saints brought Christianity to France.  The town and the festivities around the three saints  have become even more famous after the publication of the book and the release of the movie the Da Vince Code.

For those needing to relax, the spas of the Camargue.
For visitors overloaded by the vacation activities be aware that the area around the Camargue port is a fast growing Thalassotherapy spa center;  after a week playing hard and eating too well in the Camargue, you may need the services of a spa. Thalassotherapy uses sea-water for therapy, and it seems, to me that every year another large spa hotel is built here. I know little about Thalassotherapy therapy, but it is obviously of growing importance in this area.

A Thalassotherapy  spa
Photograph courtesy of Virtual Eric

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Bryan G Newman

Behind the French Menu
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