Gourmet Travels in the Camargue

by MPI Traveler on March 19, 2013

Gourmet Travels in the Camargue

by Agnès Lascève

March 16, 2013

The Camargue—that wide strip of land between sky and sea that stretches across arms of the Rhône—is not just a paradise for birds and white horses. Its marshes are put to work producing crystalline salt, its broad flatlands produce some of the world’s finest rice, and its grassy fields are home to black cattle whose lean, delicious meat is recognized for its healthful properties.

Life is harsh in the Camargue. The delta isn’t the most hospitable place—the soil is poor and corroded by salt, and the mistral, that famous wind from the north, gaining strength as it races down the Rhône, has nothing to stop it as it sweeps glacially over the flat land. Sometimes it blows hard enough to take your breath away, and, they say, it can rage for three, six or nine days straight. The marshes are a perfect habitat for mosquitoes and in summer, when the wind lets up, they take over, especially at sunrise and sundown. But the beauty of the landscapes and the singular “end of the world” atmosphere make you forget the inconveniences that—as the Camarguais say— also protect them from mass tourism.

The gastronomy here resembles the terroir: it gets right down to basics. The region’s products are so elemental that their simplicity becomes their richness; there’s no way to cheat here. Rice, beef, salt, wild fish and the tiny shellfish called tellines are the stars; among processed foods, the saucisson d’Arles made by the Maison Genin leads the way, closely followed by the beef sausage of Diego Gimenez, the tapenade of Jean Martin and the fougasse of Aigues-Mortes— especially those made by Alain Olmeda and Laurent Poitavin.

Camargue rice IGP

Camargue rice was granted the status of IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) a dozen years ago, the first time the official label was granted to a grain. It has a strictly limited geographic territory, and a very precise list of regulations governs, among other things, mandatory leveling of the soil, irrigation and drainage. Irrigation water must be pumped from the Rhône and only used once, and crop rotation is obligatory every two or three years, mainly alternating with wheat and potatoes. This mosaic pattern of agriculture around the Vaccarès pond, combined with livestock and other crops, served fora long time as a natural corrective for soil laden with salt. It was originally an idea of the Duc de Sully, minister of Henri IV. Initially the rice served only as a curative for the soil—it wasn’t edible, because varieties suited to the region had not yet been found.

In the early 20th century, farmers were inspired by the example of Italian rice growers, and finally, during the Marshall Plan period after WWII, rice cultivation really boomed—but only after a largely unknown and not very glorious incident. During the Nazi Occupation, Indochinese workers were forced by the Vichy government to work in the rice fields. Their know-how helped to improve production, a fact that was never mentioned until 2009, when the mayor of Arles finally gave them long-overdue credit. Today the entire Camargue is classified as a Natura 2000 site, and it’s on the official Tentative List to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. That means the territory is bound by strict, non-negotiable regulations— and the environmental constraints are enormous. Some 250 rice growers in the Camargue now produce 110,000 tons of rice a year, in fields spread over nearly 50,000 acres, about 6 percent of which is devoted to organic agriculture. Research onrice varieties is ongoing and 40 varieties are currently grown. White, brown, red, black, perfumed, long, very long or round, Camargue rice is mostly grown on small parcels of land and accounts for 30 percent of France’s rice consumption. Every Saturday morning a colorful Camargue character named Robert Bon can be found at the famed outdoor market in Arles, where he sets up his immense rice cooker and urges passing shoppers to sample his newest recipe du jour. He’s so convincing it’s almost impossible not to buy his organic rice. If you have the time, go ahead and tackle him in conversation—he’s unstoppable once he starts expounding on the subject of Camarguais rice.


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