Woman cannot live on baguettes alone. So what’s a vegetarian to do in a country where fish, meat and copious amounts of butter and cheese are par for the course? Head south, it seems, to a little village called Ventenac on the Mediterranean coast of Southern France. That’s where I discovered Chateau Ventenac, a 19th century castle on the Canal du Midi that’s become a magnet for artists, poets, writers and, on that particular week, veg-loving foodies.
We were all gathered for a five-day cooking retreat with vegetarian chef Rachel Demuth and her assistant, Helen. In between all of our mixing, blitzing, kneading and chopping, I discovered a slow, convivial approach to food that is all at once local, compassionate and most of all, healthy by default. As a result, I’m not only a better cook, but I’m also a healthier traveller and a more conscious eater.
Setting the Scene
Whenever I travel, I often find myself running around like a mad woman trying to see as many sites as I can. But in a tiny village like Ventenac, you can pretty much tick every box in the guidebook in one afternoon. So when we weren’t cooking our aprons off in the kitchen, I was left to do something I almost never do on vacation: relax. And I couldn’t have asked for a better place to relax in.
Chateau Ventenac has everything you’d expect from an idyllic retreat in French wine country: a giant terraced garden with an in-ground pool and a view of the canal and its neighbouring vineyards, bright airy rooms with hardwood floors and soft, comfortable beds, and plenty of tea and coffee whenever you want it. Remarkably, though, it wasn’t the view or the coffee or even the massive free standing bathtub that made my stay so enjoyable.It was the make-yourself-at-home atmosphere that exuded from the chateau’s owner, Julia, and her incredibly friendly staff, all of whom joined us for dinner every night and made us feel like we were all old friends. We were free to wander the house like we lived there. We didn’t lock our doors. All we had to do was simply be.
It’s funny: my usual tendency to try to see all the sights means I usually end up seeing very little at all. But in Ventenac, with the pressure off, I had the space and comfort to really enjoy the place I was in. Maybe that’s the real way to travel – by getting out of the tourist traps and finding a space that puts you at peace inside your mind. Surely the body must follow? I discovered these three simple rules were helpful:
Shop and eat like the locals do
Mid-week, we went shopping for the evening’s meal at Narbonne’s covered market. There I realized that France’s love affair with food goes way beyond butter and cheese. Stall after stall was a cascade of color, mostly green in the spirit of the season: asparagus, artichokes, green beans, olives, baby cucumbers, and every now and then, an explosion of giant red heirloom tomatoes.
I have never before or since tasted tomatoes so good. And almost every meal paid homage to them in dishes that proved “less is more” when good vegetables are seasonally available. One of the week’s most memorable dishes was a simple salad of sliced tomatoes, fresh herbs and olive oil. Another favourite was tomates farcies, tomatoes stuffed and baked with wine-cooked rice and vegetables. Both simple, vegan and quintessentially French.
Who needs average restaurants when the food markets are this good?
At Chateau Ventenac, meals started at around 6pm and usually went until past 11 pm. Yet I never left the table feeling unpleasantly full. Had I discovered the secret to the French paradox? Or was I simply enjoying the food?
True, when you’re in a place with a well-defined food culture, it’s hard not to take time savouring each mouthful, especially when no one’s rushing you to finish your meal. But there was something more to our meals than just the food. For many of those hours, we were too busy talking and laughing to swallow our plates in one swift gulp.
Those meals reminded me that eating isn’t only about the food. It’s also about the people you’re with, the stories you tell and the memories you make.
Try to make new friends
One lady I met in Ventenac was Sunita, an Indian chef from Doha, who came to the chateau simply to meet other people who liked food as much as she did. Such is the great thing about a vegetarian cooking retreat: friendship among like-minded people is pretty much included in the holiday. I know I won’t always be so lucky in my travels.
The people I met contributed more to my trip than any monument, museum or scenic panorama ever would. They taught me things, made me laugh, made me feel welcome in a country I had (wrongly) judged to be totally anti vegetarians and vegans.
In the end, travelling is what you make of it. It can be slow and well thought out, punctuated by long leisurely meals that celebrate the day and the people you are with. That is the best kind of travel for me.
For further information about Vegetarian Cooking Courses at Chateau Ventenac