Connoisseur’s Guide to Montpellier
*Originally published on the old Connoisseur Magazine Website on Apr 29, 2010
“When you think of the South of France, it’s Nice, Monaco and St Tropez that normally spring to mind. So why am I heading to Montpellier in the South West of France instead of some of the South of France’s more glitzier relatives you may well ask. And I wouldn’t blame you, because this is what I was thinking when I jumped onto a very full easy jet flight from Gatwick to visit a friend who had recently moved to Montpellier for work. I soon began to change my mind though!”
The airport is very close to Montpellier, so within 20 minutes my friend and I were wandering through Montpellier’s charming historic city centre, which has more beautiful old buildings, lop sided churches, dusty antique shops and winding cobbled streets than you can shake a baguette at.
We headed first to the Place de la Comédie, which is the epicentre of Montpellier, for a coffee and sat and watched the world go by. With the sun on my skin, rainy old London already seemed a long way away and I was already day dreaming about relocating here. After that we decided to walk along the neighboring Champ de Mars, a tree-lined esplanade where there is a daily street market, funky art gallery the Musée Fabre and a clutch of bistros.
“Our minds started to turn to lunch and I was pleased to discover that we were spoilt for choice. We decided on Les Bains, which is situated in Montpellier’s restored 18th century former public baths. The setting is magnificent, the old shower booths have been transformed into several dining rooms all connected by a glass and metal gallery and there is an inner courtyard with shady palm trees and ornamental ponds.We opted for the prix fixe three course menu, which was a very reasonable 20 euro’s.
The first course was a delicious pumpkin soup served in a glass with a parma ham wrapped breadstick placed on top and a side salad of mixed leaves, roasted tomato skins and pickled chestnuts. The next course of monkfish, roasted vegetables and rice was equally as delicious and filling, so much so that we opted for the fruit salad desert instead of the tempting crème brulée on offer.”
The next day we decided to have a spa day at Domaine de Verchant. This grand boutique hotel and spa is just outside Montpellier, in Castelnau-Le-Lez and has recently been awarded five stars. The buttercup-yellow former mansion dates from the 14th-century has been made over by Raymond Morel into a luxury retreat. The spa club is situated in the heart of estates own vineyard and the exclusively tailor-made spa menu uses Anne Semonin and Valmont products (used by Brad Pitt no less!) to sooth the body and lift the spirits. Should you be lucky enough to pay a visit, I suggest you try the signature Verchant treatment, one of the best treatments we have ever had in any spa.
After our treatment we drifted to the hotels impressive bar. Wine production is an important part of the Château’s history, concentrating on Syrah and Grenache, Merlot and Cabernet France with 10% of the wine produced being white. The wines are readily available on the wine list and wine tastings are very much encouraged.
My weekend in Montpelier was nearing an end, but I couldn’t leave before dining at Le Jardin Des Sens, which has an excellent reputation. Having trained with the best French chefs, Jacques and Laurent Pourcel opened the Jardin des Sens, which has been awarded a holy trinity of Michelin stars. Their distinctive, modern cuisine could be described as ‘inspired Southern French’, created with the freshest local ingredients.
“We started the meal with a selection of chef’s amuse–bouche, which included pigs trotters, watercress foam and sesame and poppy seed crackers, which were heavenly but a little filling, so much so that in hind sight we didn’t really need to order starters. But order we did! And as the Languedoc region is famous for its oyster beds I decided to order the oyster starter, which consisted of two oyster croquettes, which melted in your mouth deliciously and contrasted perfectly to the two natural oysters with pickled limes that were served alongside.Sticking with the seafood theme, I chose the Lobster Thermidor. The presentation of lobster shell stuffed with lobster meat was a little old fashioned, but with the perfectly cooked lobster and the creaminess of the sauce with just a hint of cognac and complimented by meatiness of Chinese mushrooms who cares!”
Our waiter recommended we try a bottle of Les Mûriers 2007 Mas Bruguière from the Languedoc region to compliment our shellfish. Languedoc is the world’s largest wine region and considered to be one of the most innovative. This dry white wine displays a very prominent nose, a rich palate with good balanced acidity and wonderful citric and tropical fruit flavours. The perfect complement to shellfish.
My time in Montpellier was short, so I didn’t get to sample the nearby beach or the other famous vineyards, but that’s fine as it gives me an excuse to go back for another visit soon.