Under a blazing Mediterranean sun, Carolyn Boyd explores the markets and side-streets of a vibrant city to uncover some foodie delights
As you wander down the wide Place de la Comédie in the heart of Montpellier, there’s no doubt that the city is an exciting place to be; cafés and bars line the street and the sound of chatter from locals and visitors filters out into the streets. Just seven miles from beautiful beaches on the Languedoc-Roussillon coast, this sun-drenched city has a huge student population who keep the place young and lively. At its medieval centre, there is a shopper’s paradise in a huge pedestrian area, which allows visitors to be distracted by the windows of its wonderful little boutiques, studios and food shops without the danger of oncoming traffic.
The Place de la Comédie has its own market every morning of the week (except Sundays) and all day on Fridays and Saturdays, but for a truly great gastronomic experience head to Les Halles Castellane. This covered food market on Place Castellane has all manner of beautifully laid-out stands selling mouthwatering fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, charcuterie, cheese and bread.
Duck, a speciality of south-west France, is on offer in various guises at the charcuterie stand, including fat breasts of force-fed duck (magret de canard) and confit de canard, along with saucisson, chicken and other meaty treats. Meanwhile, the fresh fruit stands offer a rainbow of colourful fruit and vegetables.
The market is in the heart of one of the busiest shopping streets, but wander away from this main hub and you will find the narrower streets have much to offer the food-focused shopper. Many of the buildings en route are hôtels particuliers; mansions built by wealthy wine merchants in the 18th century. Many have charming little courtyards, along with elegant staircases, balconies and stone carvings.
Among the medieval buildings on Rue de l’Ancienne Courrier, designer clothes boutiques sit beneath elegant vaults. On Rue de l’Argenterie, pop into Pinto, a charming little épicerie selling all manner of local goodies as well as spices from far-flung former French colonies. Its friendly and enthusiastic owner Gérard Pinto (pictured left) is a local celebrity, happy to offer advice on how to cook with either individual spices or the many blends he has created. His handmade pain d’épices is one of the shop’s specialities, as is a blend of local herbs known as garriguette that is sprinkled on pizza or grilled meat and fish.
At the top of the same street, the wine merchant Aux Grands Vins de France – founded in 1944 – offers as much variety as Pinto, but in liquid form. In its higgledy-piggledy interior, densely laden shelves heave under the weight of the area’s wonderful wines, while posters, old photographs and maps compete for your attention. Glass decanters are on display, as well as a variety of wine and champagne bottles, from 1.5-litre magnums to the enormous 15-litre Nebuchadnezzar holding the equivalent of 20 standard bottles.
Another wine shop worth a stop is the Maison Régionale des Vins, down on Rue Saint-Guilhem, which as well as stocking a huge choice of wines offers guided tastings on Saturdays. Elsewhere on Rue Saint-Guilhem, known to some locals as ‘Rue du Bon Goût’, your tastebuds will be spoiled for choice with the range of shops: chocolate, cheese, tea and coffee are all on offer.
A blast of cold air-conditioning welcomes you into La Cloche à Fromage, along with a strong whiff of the region’s, and arguably France’s, best cheeses. The staff can advise on the most suitable fromage for your palate and when best to eat it (cheese can be ‘in season’ as much as fruit and vegetables). Worth trying are pélardon, a goat’s cheese made in the nearby Cévennes mountain range, or tomme de Lozère, made with either ewe’s or cow’s milk. As well as its huge choice of cheese, you can also pick up oils, vinegars, chutneys, tapenades and other treats to accompany your platter.
At the nearby Huilerie Saint-Guilhem, you will find a further fine selection of olive oils, wine, salt and 15-year-old balsamic vinegar, as well as other delicatessen delights.
For some sweet treats to end your meals, a must-stop shop is the Chocolaterie Montpellieraine Le Diamant Noir. Going through its door in a red and yellow façade, you enter a world that would impress Willy Wonka. The shop has been a Montpellier institution for around 50 years and its current owners, Marie-Laure et Rodolphe Bascou, have been in charge since 1986. It has all manner of wonderful chocolates on offer from its glass counter that sits on top of wooden shipping crates. A speciality is the bouchon de Montpellier, a praline with hints of dried fruit, presented in a white flecked shell to make it look like the ‘cork’ that its name suggests. The shop also has a wide choice of teas, displayed in red, green and black caddies lined up on the wall.
Finally, every French meal should end with a decent cup of coffee and a great choice is available at Café Solo. Either snap up a bag of beans to enjoy at home or take a seat on the terrasse and sip a cup as you soak up the Montpellier vibe while watching the world go by.