Nougat de Montélimar

nougat

While stranded in Montélimar, I decided to search out the town’s famous artisanal treat: nougat. I have had something called nougat before (the kind that is mass produced and comes in pink and white flavours), but real nougat is really something else. The soft and puffy texture is punctuated with nutty crunches of almonds and pistachios, the mild honey sweetness pleasing without being sickly. Montélimar nougat is something a little special, and it’s all about the almonds.

The almond or amande (Prunus dulcis) was brought to France from Greece through the port of Marseille in the late 17th century by Olivier de Serres*, and thrived in the Mediterranean climate of Provence. The first nougat was produced in the late 17th century when de Serres’ amandiers first began to produce fruit (the almond is not a true nut but a type of fruit called a drupe). The recipe was based on a product of Greek origin called ‘nux gatum‘ or ‘nougo‘ which was popular in the countries of the Langue d’Oc at the time, with almonds replacing the native walnuts of the older product. Nougat de Montélimar is prepared by mixing honey (at least 25% of which must be produced in the Ardèche), with almonds (30% of the total content, or alternatively 28% almonds and 2% pistachios), with stiff egg whites and vanilla. It is then cooked in moulds which are traditionally lined with sheets of unleavened bread, before being cut into blocks. You can find all kinds of flavours besides the traditional honey and almond, but all must adhere to the same basic recipe. Additions include locally sourced produce such as figs, blackberries, lavender, and apricots.

Nougat de Montélimar began its rise to fame in France  when Louis, Duke of Burgundy, and Charles, Duke of Berry, passed through the town on a return trip from Spain and were offered nougat as a gift, the gifting of nougat to visitors later becoming a tradition of the town. International recognition came in the early 20th century when the Mayor of Montélimar, Émile Loubet, began a campaign to promote his town’s product to French and foreign politicians, and an IGP label was finally awarded in 2003.

 

*Olivier de Serres was a soil scientist and agronomist from the Ardèche, who wrote the first French agricultural text book Théâtre d’Agriculture (1600), in which he advocated crop rotation. He also recommended ‘sharecropping’, a practise where viticulturists grow 5-6 varieties of grape in their vineyards to reduce the risk of crop failure, and proposed that the risk should be shared by landowners and tenants. He also brought home the almond, which has since become an iconic Provençal product.

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Confiture d'olives (olive jam)

We made 10kg, about 50 jars. Delicious with cheese🙂

Confiture d’olives (olive jam)

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Mardi, le soir.

After a somewhat uneventful bus ride to Valence via Paris, things got a bit more exciting on the final leg of what ended up being a three-day journey. I took a train to Montélimar to catch a connecting bus to Vallon-Pont-D’Arc, which is pretty far out from any big settlement, so I guess I should have anticipated that there would only be one bus. Said bus wasn’t due to leave until 5.25 and I had arrived around 10.30 in Montélimar. With no locker to leave my bags in at the station, and so far no word from my hosts to say they could pick me up when I got there at dusk I wandered out, loaded up like a donkey, in search of an internet café. As if the universe was giving me a morale boost, just outside the station I stumbled upon a park with goats, shaggy sheep with long twisted horns, miniature ponies, peacocks, ducks, chickens and geese, the streets bordering it lined with plane trees (apparently it was an English design). Spirits high, I took some snaps of the animals and trees, and set off towards the centre ville where I found a pub with wifi (double score), and set about trying to contact my hosts, Jean-Noel and Geneviève.

Unsuccessful in my attempts to reach my hosts by phone or email, I went in search of nourishment for the soul and body in the form of nougat  de Montélimar, a spécialité of the town (blog post on this to come), which is made with locally grown almonds. There were a million nougat ‘houses’, but apparently the whole of Montélimar takes a two hour lunch, so I just wandered through side streets and plazas admiring all the independent stores, the abundance of organic food and naturopathic products, and the distinct lack of Starbucks, Primark, and McDonalds. Having finally got my nougat (almond and pistachio- delicious), I chose a bar and ordered my first actual meal in France: a croque-monsieur with chèvre (one might expect the goat cheese to replace the standard cheese, but it in fact replaced the jambon... un peu trop de fromage pour moi).

Fortified with too much food and a new French mobile number I went back to the wifi pub to check my emails and make more unanswered phone calls (and drink another beer). I did wonder at this point if I should start to worry, but my spirits were seriously high, and I was very much enjoying moseying around a Provençal town, and making amateur attempts to get by only in French. Even as I left Montélimar on a bus heading further and further into the boonies, I was feeling wonderfully excited and free, and not much concerned about the fact that I had no idea how, if at all, I was going to make it to the farm tonight.

Rewarding my trust in her, the universe saw to it that everything worked out of course. Having been directed to the town square by a kind Parisian, I was wandering around in the fading light looking for an internet cafe or a hostel, when a car pulled up beside me and a lady with mad-curly hair in leopard print leggings leant out and shouted ‘Jennie?’. And so I met my hosts, who had apparently gotten at least one of my messages and had come to find me. They were on their last circuit of the town searching for me and about to give up  (the bus station was moved recently and they didn’t know where to), when they saw a lone backpacker (outside of tourist season) and guessed that it must be their new WWOOFer!

I’m writing this at the coffee table in my small apartment, which has two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchenette/dining room), listening to the wind tearing across the mountains outside while I cosy up in my armchair. The house is vast, and my rooms connect to the main apartment by a narrow passageway leading upstairs, which makes me feel like I’m in a castle. I’m full from a hearty dinner of about six varieties of tomatoes organically grown on the farm, an omelette made with fresh eggs supplied by Jean-Noel and Geneviève’s chickens, olive tapenade (you can guess where it was made), and warm crusty French bread, eaten at a big table in a cluttered living room with my hosts, their son Jean, and another WWOOFer named Olivier. I’ve already learned that if you say je suis plein, literally ‘I am full’ in French, it means you’re pregnant! So, j’ai bien mange is my new vocab of the day!

Full and tired I’m ending this post abruptly and hitting the hay, bon nuit!

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Goats in the park!

Status update: I am stranded in Montelimar, Drôme, but the park opposite the train station has goats, sheep, miniature ponies, ducks, peacocks, chickens and geese!

Goats in the park!

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De France!

Having recently completed my Master’s degree in Ethnobotany, and with a craving to be on the move again, I have decided to explore rural France through the power of WWOOFing.com. I begin this blog from a sofa bed in my friends’ apartment in Wandsworth, having just eaten a last English supper of (vegetarian) bangers and mash with onion gravy. In the morning I’ll be starting the 22 hour journey to Valence, then on to Vallon Pont D’Arc in the south of France. I’m flying (actually bussing) solo this time, which I’m not at all unhappy about; company can be great but right now I’m happy to do just what I fancy with no one else to worry about and only my own expectations and desires to fulfil! Besides, solo travelling is a great way to meet new people, and I’m sure I shall become acquainted with some interesting characters  over the next few months!

So, what is this blog about? Well, I’m not entirely sure. As those of who know me are aware, my main passions are travel, ethnobotany, and goats (not necessarily in that order), so the new blog is likely to be an eclectic mix of posts about organic farming, plants, food, drink, culture, outdoor activities, and my favourite four-legged creatures. My first stop is Vallons Pont D’Arc, in the Ardeche region of southern France, where I’ll work for a month or so on an organic, family-run olive farm in the department of Drôme. I can’t wait to post pictures of this farm, it’s so stunning, set up in the mountains at the threshold of les gorges de l’Ardèche. I’ll be helping to pick the olives as well as process them into olive oil, and I’m looking forward to exploring the local farmers markets for local cheeses, liqueurs, chestnuts and other regional products as well. I’ve heard about an olive festival that happens in the town so I really hope my sources are accurate and that I get to take part in that!

I’m a little disconcerted that my hosts haven’t responded to my last two emails, but they seem to have intermittent internet access and I’ve got a mobile number to call when I arrive on Tuesday so I’m trusting that someone will come to pick me up when I get there! There’ll just be my host family, myself and one other WWOOFer working on the harvest and olive oil production, and I’ll be eating and sleeping in the family’s home. I’m looking forward to entering in to the life of the farm and the local town, and immersing myself in the French language (with the help of a GCSE revision guide and a Collins English-French pocket dictionary).

All that’s between me and that picturesque little farm is a tube, a bus, three hours in Paris, another bus, a train, and hopefully a car ride if someone shows up to get me! Armed with a bag of snacks, a couple of books, and a pillow I picked up from the charity shop today, I shall embark on my voyage with a great deal of excitement and a little apprehension, and will endeavour to post an update with a picture on Tuesday!

À bientôt!

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