My husband is from a mountain village in the Pyrenees. There is nothing much there except Nature and stone houses, and although you eat well, it’s simple, traditional fare and you generally keep the same glass from the apéritif to the coffee. What’s in your plate is important – most people grow fruit/veg, raise chickens/rabbits, or forage for mushrooms/blueberries themselves – but what happens around the table is much more important. You chat; you laugh; on refait le monde – “rebuilding the world” means that discussions are deep and potentially existential while everyone knows that it’s just to pass the time and no-one is going on any barricades after dinner. Especially if there is cognac still to come.
There are many places to eat or drink around the place, but one that stands head and shoulders above the rest is Le Carré de l’Ange in Saint-Lizier, two minutes outside Saint-Girons in the département Ariège-Pyrénées. Saint-Lizier is a tiny town of gallo-roman origins, filled with history, and a former bishop’s seat. It has an 11th century cathedral and the old hôtel-dieu (hospital) houses a fascinating 18th century pharmacy that one can visit for a couple of Euro.
The chef at the Carré de l’Ange is Paul Fontvielle, a chef of impeccable technique and undeniable flair. In the years we have been going there, he has surprised and delighted us over and over, and as if the food wasn’t enough to swoon over, the view will make you sigh and smile until the sun goes down and the mountains are swallowed up by the dark.
It’s just magical.
Before dinner we had a drink with Paul. It was the fist night for outdoor dining, and it was still a little on the chilly side. I was grateful for the fleece blanket embroidered with the restaurant’s name to keep my legs warm. The wine, though, was cool and wonderful. Paul explained that he bought it years back at a special event that takes place every year on Palm Sunday when famous chefs have a cookout and people go around tasting wine from different vineyards. It’s called the “toques et clochers” – a toque being a chef’s white hat and a clocher a bell tower – since the proceeds of the year’s wine sales go towards restoring one of the old church spires of the participating villages. The wine we drank was from the year they redid the clocher de Cépie, a 2011 Limoux Chardonnay. Delightful! (For your information, the village of Cépie, in the département Aude, not too far from Carcassonne, will be hosting the 2017 edition of toques et clochers. Well worth a visit, I think, and we will definitely try to make it!)
Dinner was lovely. It was the day before Paul changed the menu, so we got the very last of the season’s morilles (served in a cream sauce with a soft egg and crisp, melba toast fingers), crayfish ravioli with a strong chowder, tender veal and pan-fried cod.
Dessert was a destructured tarte au citron, a chocolate something-or-other (Sorry. I’m not a fan, so I forgot to look!) and an impressive flambé strawberry meringue sorbet. I went for the cheese option which consisted of blanched paper-thin beetroot slices which encased a citrussy fresh goat’s cheese. Right up my alley.
Paul has another two restaurants: the “Self” at the ski resort Guzet Neige, 45 minutes up the road from Saint-Lizier, and the most fabulous mountain restaurant called Le Chalet de Beauregard which opens seasonally during the skiing holidays and during July and August. We have spent many a great day/night there, but most memorably a breathtaking jazz night in August about 5 years ago, for which they had hauled a grand piano to 1700m above sea level for a concert with gourmet food and a 360° view of the mountains. Last year, we celebrated the New Year there with 30 family and friends and snow and champagne and Chinese lanterns in a crystal clear sky.
These are a few of my favourite things…