On a recent visit to the Aveyron, France I surprised myself. Never likely to be accused of being a ‘culture vulture’, this trip was a feast of cultural treats.
I can appreciate captivating art, good cuisine and enjoy listening to a powerful piece of music. However visiting the Louvre was more due to peer pressure than my own interests. The “how can you go to Paris and not visit the Louvre?” kind of pressure.
My kind of museum is more of the Natural History type although I also pointedly avoided the ‘National Penis Museum’ in Husavik, Iceland too! Read into that what you will.
I dropped into Montauban, capital of the Tarn et Garonne region of the Midi-Pyrénées. France of course has a long and illustrious history of art and culture, and the museums of this lovely city display a surprising and impressive selection of both.
France is also extremely famous for its cuisine, often touted as the best in the World, from foie gras to cassoulets, cheeses such as Roquefort and Chèvre make haute cuisine exceedingly popular. French chefs have an almost unrivalled reputation and their artistry is exported throughout the planet.
This philistine has to again admit that in the past whenever French cuisine is brought up in conversation he always imagines beautifully formed but hardly man-sized meals. Whilst there maybe a little truth in this, having sat down for a couple of four course lunches recently it is easy to appreciate them being ‘portionally’ challenged (do not bother researching I made it up). Usually by the third course I was begging for mercy.
The art of cuisine
During the trip to the Aveyron there were plenty of culinary delights on offer, the cuisine of the region is extremely varied and I was treated to its many guises throughout the visit.
I tried foie gras dishes in several restaurants, the etiquette of enjoying this very French delicacy was explained to me whilst in Montauban. Délices les Gascon is an excellent restaurant in the city, very busy at lunchtimes and whilst tucking into the foie gras salad there my host explained that unlike a pâté it is bad manners for it to be spread onto French toast. It is produced from the liver of a specially fattened duck or goose and has a firmer texture than pâté and should be sliced rather than spread.
The food was always excellent but each dish looked like a work of art, almost too good to eat and although usually images of food is not my style all meals served were the ‘super models’ of the cuisine world. Duck, venison and even pigeon were popular, strong ‘gamey’ flavoured meats with subtle complimentary sauces but all arranged immaculately with such care that it is only possible to think of the creators as artists whose creations deserved to be shared.
It is easy to imagine myself getting used to eating four course lunches daily, but not before I buy a new pair of running shoes!
I was provided a guide for the tour around Montauban which included visiting the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Musee Ingres witnessing some of the outstanding works of art on display in both. My guide however seemed to almost prefer showing me the exquisite interiors of the patisseries and confectioners scattered around the main square.
Montauban is one of the original bastides, which is a specific design of French town where all the streets lead to an inner central market square. The city did not originally possess a fortified wall as did later bastides, but it was almost certainly a forerunner to the successful design which spread throughout France.
The Cathedral is situated in on the edge of this inner square Place Nationale which is used for many cultural events ranging from markets to music festivals.
It is an impressive building which is impossible to mistake for anything but a place of worship. Once inside however it becomes even more impressive, a huge cavernous interior with many ornate carvings and several magnificent works of art including one by Ingres specifically commissioned by a former mayor for the Cathedral.
After leaving however my guide soon resumed leading me from one patisserie to another encouraging me to get as many images as possible of the delicacies on offer.
One particular confectioner called Les Delices (bit of a theme here) is apparently one of the finest and oldest in the whole of France. Its specialities are small candy coated chocolate cannonballs; they seem simple but are extremely moreish.
Surrounded by art
There is a great deal to see in this part of France and Montauban is certainly no exception. My own itinerary unfortunately did not allow for more than a cursory wander through just a few of its noted sights.
The city has an extremely rich history, it is another that was involved in the religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants when it was a Huguenot stronghold. It was also a barracks town for English troops during the One Hundred Years War between France and England.
The birthplace and home of several well known writers, painters and sculptors including Emile-Antoine Bourdelle and Antonin Perbosc the Occitan language writer that gave his name to the city library.
It is doubtful that this city can be fully explored in less than a few days. A wander through the streets filled with friendly people offering a ready smile, whilst soaking up the history through its wonderful architecture and culture has me eager to return again.
Next time maybe there will even be time to enjoy a little cafe culture and a coffee in front of one of the few patisseries that was missed out this time.