Maison de la Roche—
The south of France summons me like a genie back to the bottle. It’s a mysterious mixture of David Niven waving from a yacht with his walnut-varnish suntan, ocean-fresh oysters and gleaming Picpoul de Pinet in the market at Sête and lazy poolside afternoons dreaming of Romans marching northwards rooting green vineyards in their wake. It’s a curious blend of history tinged with glamour and hardship but what I’m always drawn back to is the authenticity of the place. This is a land carved from water and the weather, clung to and harnessed by its people down the days. Gorges fringed with figs, ruined Cathar strongholds, sleek lazy canals, noisy markets and silent wineries resting before the frenetic few weeks of harvest all reveal a different aspect to local lives inescapably reflecting the pool of local history with quiet pride.
The reality of this way of life is perhaps summed up most perfectly in Honor Marks, a Brit who has made her home in Maison de la Roche in the heart of sleepy Ferrals-les-Corbières. I first heard about Maison de la Roche and met Honor through Paul and Alex Hollywood who rightly raved about the place – and the person. Honor welcomes anyone and everyone into her home which she runs as a gîte together with her daughter Holly and dog, well, bear really, Bob. Bob is gorgeous, a Pyrenean mountain dog who bears an uncanny resemblance to the canine star of Belle & Sebastien, a favourite French film of my two daughters.
This is my kind of place, where the door is always open, a delicious dish is in the oven and the wine flows freely as you meet and greet new friends. Honor knows literally everything about the surrounding area and is exceptionally generous with her time and painstaking recommendations. If you haven’t booked a summer holiday and fancy a few days of poolside peace and great inexpensive local food and drink, just dive in and book right now. Here are my four days of bliss.
Swallows are nesting just inside the barn with five fledglings as we climb the steep steps to our cosy barn apartment. The swallow family are, like the owners of Maison de la Roche, terrifically welcoming. They stare right back at me as I gawp enthralled by dreams of their future migrations, these little clinger-onners to the beam of a barn will soon soar to faraway places of magic, trouble, heat and splendour. They may end up visiting me in Sussex one day, though I doubt we’ll remember one another.
Settling in is heartbeat simple and before long the family and I are round at Honor’s sipping Hypocras brought by local Fred, an aperitif from nearby Cathar lands which is scented as summertime and bright as a citrus diamond infused with a secret weave of herbs and spices. La Clape Corbières is red of the night and I’m captivated with a white Mauzac blend from Limoux – Chateau de Gaure 2015 which is as plump and refreshing as sinking your fangs deep into a perfectly squishy summer peach. Sleep comes easy as The Beach Boys and when dawn comes next day, the local Boulangerie unfurls his kindly croissants and the sun is up. Swimming in the pool overseen by sunbathing Bob and a cheeky glass of late morning rosé and the holidays are in full swing before we’ve even noticed.
DAY ONE: FINDING NEMO
Cruising through the vineyards in our jolly bumbling Citroën Berlingo from the bush vines of Fabrezan to the ancient majesty of Lagrasse, Mistral Gagnant flutters from Cherie FM, a song which Michel Roux Jr chose on our recent BBC Radio 2 show together. Here in France, hearing it haunting the herbal mountains as we curve into one of France’s most beautiful villages is pin-sharp perfection.
Perched by the antediluvian abbey in a soft river, I’m paddling in bliss with Test Match Special emerging from a secret source in my pocket and even the swallows seem to be diving ever closer to snatch the score. Inside the abbey, glass robotic hands gently yank black bells in eerie salute to the years gone by, and perhaps in tribute to the living sequestered holy community in residence next door. It’s the kind of village where you can’t help befriending Nemo, the charmingly scruffy terrier who lives in the local pottery as you crane your neck to decipher the shape of gargoyles overhead, quietly keeping vigil, an echo of distant darker days.
On the way back to Maison de la Roche, swimming in the ribbons of River at Ribaute is utterly idyllic with a couple of local French boys plunging the thirty or so metres from the medieval bridge with alarming insouciance. Popping in on Domaine Les Cascades to buy Syrah grape juice for girls is impeccable sweet glory that keeps us all going as we head to local restaurant Chez Bembe, a stroll from Honor’s gates. Sipping Corbières Ayraud 2012 with pork steaks from his very own “free pigs” and spicy chorizo is blissful and Bembe’s cheery manner is the very essence of local hospitality that reminded me of the closing scene of every Asterix feast. Warm fire, warm hearts.
DAY 2: THE INVISIBLE OCEAN
A lazy morning with a small Saturday Kitchen rescue package. A member of the wine team is injured and I’ve been asked to step in – I relish the recipes and wine pairings over a picnic in the gîte of local juicy tomatoes, crunchy-soft baguettes, two local cheeses and a glass of rosé from the village. Even on holiday, I love my job.
My eldest daughter Ruby and I embark on a mission to Minerve Cité, an old Cathar settlement perched on a plunging gorge.
The museum is modest from the outside but a treasury inside. Oyster fossils and giant shark’s teeth from the distant era when the ocean swelled and lapped over these clifftops, dinosaur teeth, crystals, Roman skulls, bronze age bowls and relics from every era since the dawn of civilization puts into perspective the whizzing turbulent millennia. Down into the gorge below and into the giant cave where we wade across the river and fulfill our mission to catch the daylight on the other side. Cavernous, we fill this natural cathedral with a rendition of Grace Jones’ Private Life (long version) followed by David Bowie’s Black Star. Spooky acoustics are perfect for this world-first double bill and we reward our climb back up the medieval cobbles towards the carved Cathar dome marking ancient martydom with a hearty snack of crêpe citron sucre for Ruby and an emmental oeuf galette for me. 2nd lunch? Not exactly, insists Ruby as we invented the differentiation between “public lunch” and “private lunch”. And since we were alone in the crêperie save for a cat, our very first private lunch was exceptional.
Bumbling in the Berlingo towards the holy wine hotspot of La Lavinière we spotted more than six pairs of shoes hanging from their laces overhead on the power cables. Mysterious and unsolved, we mused over their meaning rejoining my wife Sophie and youngest daughter Lily for drinks in the Grand Café in Fabrezan. Pastis for the grown-ups and chocolate chaud for the girls followed by a visit to the local pizza joint which was epic. Lily’s calzone was a star turn but my Napoletana is in my top three pizzas of all time (Da Michele in Naples still holds the top spot followed by Tom Kerridge’s misshapen yet delicious effort cooked late one night in James Martin’s pizza oven clings in second place). Simple reason, the anchovies were massively intense – gets my vote every time, nothing worse than a wimpy anchovy. I want it to shriek of the sea, ocean magnification and Neptune’s laughter ringing from the breaking waves.
DAY THREE: CANAL
The market in Lezignan is a jolly scrabble for the best local produce. We hoarded cherries, strawberries, saucission, bread and a couple of bargain dresses for the girls into the boot and headed back to a tiny cave overlooking the river at Ribaute. This spot is echoing with history. The river carves its signature every day anew into the rocks, a dormant bunker keeps quiet about who it fought for on the other side and if you listen carefully, you can still hear the sound of the thousands of happy bathers who whiled away a few free hours dipping themselves deep into nature. The weather growled so we piled into the car bound for the thick walls of Carcassonne where the sun twitched and I sipped cider from a glass boot. We mooched, we prowled, Carcassonne was welcoming but perhaps a little soused in tourism so we piled back to Honor’s idyll and grabbed a few hours in the late afternoon sun beside the pool as our last evening gloomed.
Honor grabbed us and dispatched us brightly to Café du Port beside the Canal du Midi. Without doubt this was the best meal of the trip and utterly charming in every regard. As the chef put it “how far do you have to travel to get cooked for by a Brummie?” – I’d travel the distance every day if I could. House red wine was off the chart delicious and a bargainous treat at just five Euro for 50cl. Gnocchi starter with tomato and Roquefort was a hug in a hot bowl, beef cheeks godly in their simple splendour accompanied by a roast yellow courgette, and star of the night was the woodland ravioli which made local mushrooms truly magical.
DAY FOUR: STAY!
The decision is a simple one. Drive to the beach or hang for the last few hours at Maison de la Roche? We don’t want to leave. Not even the beach can tempt us. And as I type this beside the pool with the girls squealing in delight, all I can think about is when we can all come back and stay for a few weeks at Maison de la Roche. This powerful landscape sprinkled with rivulets, lakes and memories of the ocean is a strata of deep secrets to discover – and Honor knows the tributaries that lead to their heart.