Saturday, March 23, 2019

A Weekend in Foix, Ariège, Occitanie.

Behind the French menu
Bryan G. Newman
The town of Foix and its castle.
Ariège, in the summer, is ideal for those seeking the beauty of France, far away from masses of tourists.   Ariège’s mountains and valleys are devoid of big cities, big towns, big villages and crowded tourist centers; it is a beautiful place for the visitor seeking nature as well as peace and quiet, with other visitors coming for water sports, fishing,   hiking, history, and camping.  Half of the department includes the Natural Regional Park, the Parc Naturel Regional des Pyrenees Ariègeoises. The park’s website is in French but using the Bing or Google translate apps everything will be clear.
There is a well-traveled route from Barcelona to Calais for the car ferries to England, but some years ago I took the road less traveled. In October I drove via the Principality of Andorra and its capital, Andorra la Vella which is the highest capital city in Europe, at an elevation of 1,023 meters (3,356 feet) up in the Pyrenees.  I had wanted to see Andorra and arrived late in the evening and in the morning walked around Andorra La Vella’s main business street as the weather was wonderful. Then and now Andorra’s main summer business was selling tax-free products and now the roads are jammed packed with French and Spanish tourists making a quick trip to Andorra to go home with up to 900 Euro per person free of the VAT tax. The country boasts over 1,500 shops with the world's top brands on sale alongside an incredibly large business in tax-free cigarettes and liquor,
Andorra La Vella

Andorra La Vella 
After walking around Andorra La Vella for five hours, I had been there and done that.  I was not in the market for any special tax-free goodies, and I was far too early for winter sports, and shopping and winter sports are modern Andorra’s raison d'être. In the afternoon I headed towards Foix the departmental capital of Ariège in what was until 1-1-2016 the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.  (Since 1-1-2016 the old administrative regions of the Midi- Pyrenees and Languedoc-Roussillon are joined together in the super region of Occitanie). The drive to Foix is just 98 km (62 miles), and just under 2 hours; but when I drove it took three and a half hours. From my hotel, I did not need a car to enjoy the center of the town. 
Andorra La Vella to Foix with Google Maps.
Foix has around 10,000 inhabitants, having seen along with the rest of Ariège a devastating population loss as the young people headed out to the big cities. The whole population of Ariège is now under 165,000.  The drive into the town and the view from nearly everywhere is the castle, the Château de Foix first built in 987.
The morning after I arrived was market day in Foix. There is a French language website information about all the markets in Foix but using the Bing and or Google translate apps it is easily understood, just click here.  The Foix Tourist Information Center has an English language website:
The market was filled with fresh local fruits and vegetables, freshwater fish,  jambon, hams, bacon in at least twenty varieties, and sausages of all types including the Saucisse de Foie Seche de l'Ariège, the dried pork liver sausage of Ariège which inspired one of France's well-known nursery rhymes about a liver merchant in Foix.

Il était une fois,
Dans la ville de Foix,
Une marchande de foie,
Qui vendait du foie...
Elle se dit : Ma foi,
C'est la première fois
Et la dernière fois,
Que je vends du foie,
Dans la ville de Foix  
The rhyme is a nonsense jingle, but by the age three or earlier all French children will have heard of the town of Foix.. (With thanks to Michel Masse who opened the door to French childhood memories).
The menus of Ariège’s restaurants have much of France’s best cuisine but star with local ingredients including duck confit which results in many savory dishes and of course, there is also duck foie gras. If you are lucky, your restaurant’s menu may also offer wild trout or écrivisse, crayfish from one of the local rivers or streams. Chou, cabbage dishes; cabbage soupes, soups, and other dishes with cabbage will be on nearly all the menus. In season breakfast omelets with wild mushrooms that include cèpes, France’s porcini mushrooms or morels are a great start to the day.

Étang de Cabanas, Ariège,
Winter specialties.
Not on the menu when I was there but soon to be included for the winter is Ariège’s traditional cassoulet, locally called mounjetad and their Garbure Ariégeois (a thick duck and cabbage stew).  These and other winter stews and dishes will include their local Lingots de l'Ariège, a variety of France’s ubiquitous white dried beans; elsewhere mostly called Haricots Blanc. I missed out on Azinat Ariégeois, the pot-au-feu from Ariège.
The local wines are mostly reds but include whites and rosés; these were the Vin de Pays de l´Ariège, now the IGP Ariège wines. Ariège’s many neighbors influence Ariège’s wines as well as its menus, local languages, and dialects. To the South are Spain and Andorra, to the West and North is the French Basque country and to the North, North-East, and East are the other Languedoc-Roussillon departments that are now joined together as Occitanie. To all these influences add Gascogne to which Ariège has linguistic and historical connections.
Grapes outside of Foix
Ariège restaurants offer good, and different, local cheeses including many rarely or never seen outside the area.   When visiting try one of their farm-made Tommes, these are semi-firm, farm-made cheeses.  The best of these local tommes are made by the farmers high up in the Pyrenean pastures who work with unpasteurized milk. Many farmers only bring their cheeses down when the cows come down for the winter. Other local cheeses are also unique. 
A wedge of Tomme cheese.
There are tens of local cheeses on sale in the markets and apart from those that are part of cheese plates in restaurants.  With friends, I bought a local breads, butter, four kinds of cheese and two sausages for a picnic. The four cheeses were:

Bethmale -  A mild and semi-firm 28% fat, cow’s milk cheese  made with unpasteurized milk  aged for three months.

Chèvre de l'Ariège – A goat’s milk cheese from Ariège aged for one month..

La Toudeille – You may be offered a version made with goat’s, cow’s or sheep’s milk or even all three different kinds of milk combined.  Each of these La Toudeille cheeses offer different textures and different tastes.  If this cheese is on the cheese plate or cheese trolley then ask which milk was used? We enjoyed the goat’s milk version

Le Rogallais  – A creamy, 45% fat, cow’s milk, cheese from the Rogalle high pastures aged for one month though more mature cheeses are available.
Water in Ariège.
In Ariège water is everywhere. The thermal baths in Ussat-les-Bains are just 20 minutes 22 km (14 miles) from Foix and you may drive to lakes 1,000 meters above sea level  in the mountains or visit the long Labouiche underground river. This is Europe’s longest navigable underground river. You may take a short cruise in small metal boats that you push along by hand for about 1.50 km (0.90 miles).  You can read more about this in the English language France-voyage website below:

The Ariège River in the town of foix.

 If you planning to be in the area in late July or the beginning of August contact the tourism office in the town of Saint-Girons 44 km (27 miles) from Foix.   Then the Pyrenean farmers have an annual competition for the best farm made un-pasteurized milk Tomme cheese. The English language website for the town is:

For many Ariège is best known for the caves of Niaux and its famous Prehistoric Park.  Here, are some of the world’s earliest cave paintings, The Niaux Cave is located in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, just south of Foix.  The cave is one of many in this region but is one of Europe's most impressive Paleolithic rock art galleries of cave paintings. These incredibly preserved cave paintings represent bison, horses, and ibex.  The English language website of Niaux gives all the contact information.
Paintings in Niaux.
Only 20 people at a time are allowed into the caves, and there is a 45-minute wait between each group; read up on this unique place before coming as there are no tours in English.  In the summer, there are, at most, 14 tours a day; that’s a maximum of 280 tourists a day. Out of season, there are then only three tours a day; that’s 60 visitors a day.  Book now!  Reservations to visit should be made long in advance as your chances of getting in without a reservation are not good, to put it mildly!  I could not get in though I waited for a no-show for over three hours.
The valley of Niaux
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Bryan G. Newman

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