Vanessa Cutts explores one of southern France’s most beautiful regions… It’s difficult to decide what the most iconic thing about the Camargue is: Van Gogh’s sunflowers, the wild white horses or perhaps the bullring at Arles loved by Picasso. Arles has a rich association with art and is well known as the home of Van Gogh although the little yellow house where he lived no longer exists. The famous Langois Bridge and Starry Night café are two locations from his paintings that you can visit; you can also experience the Mistral in the cypress trees and taste the local crabs, both other subjects he was compelled to put on canvas for us to share. Or you may wish to go to see the impressive matadors running the bulls and walk in the footsteps of Picasso.
Artistic heritage isn’t the only reason to visit the region which straddles the border of southern France and northern Spain. There are four hundred species of birds including huge flocks of Greater Flamingos and rarer sightings of Sea Eagles in the wetlands where the white horses and bulls roam free in the ‘etang’ marshes. Riding holidays and canoeing in the nature reserve will appeal to nature lovers or wildlife seekers. For me, the best way to explore the Camargue was to immerse myself in the regional cuisine. Thirty kilometres south of Arles along the Cacharel Route is the little seaside resort of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, usually the destination of French holiday makers. It is a compact resort with its own bullring, and restaurants to suit all tastes from oyster bars to those offering simple paella or regional specialities.
To build up an appetite, I can recommend taking a boat up the Rhone from the pretty port at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to see the wild Camargue countryside and the bulls and white horses running free; beautiful and romantic imagery captured by many a photographer. And if there is one thing you should definitely do it’s try the crab bisque in The Oyster Cave overlooking the yacht basin, where you can spend the afternoon just watching the world go by and trying to decide which of the many dressings to put on your next crouton.
Regional specialities to tempt the tastebuds abound. Camargue red rice is a relatively new variety of rice cultivated in the local wetlands. It is a short-grained and unmilled variety is therefore quite sticky, with an intense somewhat nutty taste and a naturally chewy texture. Some 250 rice growers in the Camargue now produce 110,000 tons of rice a year, in fields spread over nearly 50,000 acres, so there is an abundance of risotto like dishes full of local flavours to choose from.
Tiny shellfish called tellines and the saucisson d’Arles made by the Maison Genin are other local delicacies. One of the most emblematic foods of the Camargue is the telline, a small, flat, pearly shellfish, pale yellow and violet inside, found in estuaries providing a mix of salt and fresh water. They can be found in regional markets, washed and cleaned of sand, and on the menus of many restaurants. They’re often served as a nibble with aperitifs, or as a starter, with an olive-oil mayonnaise thinned with a little of the cooking water. Unforgettable.
The famous saucisson d’Arles, a traditional dried sausage, is made by many charcutiers in the region, but one of them, quicker off the mark than the others, registered the name, meaning that the Maison Genin is the only one officially authorized to call his the “véritable saucisson d’Arles”. Half beef and half pork, Genin’s saucisson is made with red wine, spices and peppercorns. Dark red in colour, it has a strong, unique flavor and many devotees. And then there’s the wine… Your only problem might be the subsequent need to book some kind of active holiday without delay, in order to justify all this gastronomic indulgence! Vanessa Cutts