Ah, the sacrifices we make for our friends and family. First, we moved to the south of France just so that they would have an excuse to visit Europe. Once we got settled here in Carcassonne we had to check out all of the various things there are to see and do in our new hometown. Restaurants seemed like a natural starting point, so we’ve been visiting a new one every week with friends, Sally and Larry, so that we could make recommendations. After more than a year, we were only scratching the surface of activities so we’ve stepped up our efforts. We took a half-day walking tour of the lower part of town that still retains part of its walls from the 1200’s. We figured that hearing the history while looking at 17th century buildings would be interesting. Did I mention that we were drinking wine and eating chocolate while on this tour?
We met our tour guide, Brent, at the foot of the medieval 14th century bridge, Pont Vieux with its fantastic view of the huge fortress built across the river a century before that. It made a great backdrop to hear some of the early history of settlers in 3500 BC, followed by Greeks and then Romans around 100 BC who, by planting grapevines, began the huge wine industry that thrives here today.
In keeping with the tour company’s desire to support locally-owned small businesses, our first stop was at Les Chocolats Boccardi where owner Philippe had jammed his cozy showroom with all sorts of creations from chocolate bars of many sizes and types to fanciful creatures, real and imaginary, plus a separate display of his speciality, candied fruits dipped in dark chocolate. We learned that on an ingredient list “cocoa” is actually made up of the rich and tasty cocoa paste plus the less-flavorful and cheaper cocoa butter. While a label saying “70 percent cocoa” must be accurate, no rules exist to say how much paste vs. butter can be combined to reach that percentage. The delightful taste of Philippe’s chocolates made it apparent to which side of the scale they tipped.
The instant the door slid open at Pâtisserie Bimas we knew that we were in for a treat in sight, smell, and taste. It smelled so good when we walked in. Behind rows of gorgeous hand-decorated pastries stood the husband and wife owners and their daughter, ready to tell the story of their family business, that is obviously a passion for them. Knowing the nature of our tour, the youngest member of their team escorted us to a counter at the back of the store that was filled with an amazing assortment of handmade chocolates, some filled, some topped with nuts, and all tempting us to try them. Our sampling of eight different varieties left many choices for us to try on our next visit.
Back to the historic streets we went to hear more tales of the city, passing by the very narrow doorway of the childhood home of chef Prosper Montagné, editor of the food world’s bible, Larousse Gastronomique. A few blocks later we were comfortably seated at Le Canard Bleu, a fully-stocked wine store, artfully disguised as an antiques shop by owner Robert and his friendly rescued dog, Pavlova, sampling the first of four local wines. We started with a refreshing white, moved to a light but flavorful red, that was followed by its full-bodied red cousin, all from the Corbières region nearby. Since the theme was wine and chocolate, our tour concluded with a sweet fortified wine called cartagène and more tasty samples from our previous stop at Bimas. Since there are plenty of other chocolates to try, hundreds of other wines to taste, and much more history of Carcassonne to learn, we will certainly continue our sacrifices to make our guests’ visits even more interesting.