Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A Surfeit of Anchovies

 It is 1997 and our final destination is Barcelona in pursuit of tapas and zarzuela but there are a few stops en-route first.  We are driving across coastal Languedoc past seedy Sète a disappointing, dirty place which we once left lunchless after seeing patrons at the scruffy portside restaurants eating the local speciality encornets farcis a Sète - stuffed squid. What sounded delightful had looked and smelt like the squids had been stuffed with the steaming mess that the cats regurgitate whilst walking backwards and yowling having too greedily gobbled a tin of cat food.  Past Bouzigues where we had finally lunched at La Cote Bleue restaurant spending the afternoon lazily picking at a seafood platter presented on a basketwork ship loaded with oysters straight from their beds in the Etang de Thau, tellines (tiny clams), langoustines, and the extraordinary and exquisite violets, an iodine rich, soft-shelled sea creature that we had never tasted before nor since.  All washed down with a couple of bottles of crisp, citrussy Picpoul blanc its mineral tones so well suited to the shellfish.
Sadly we have no time to stop there now as we drive on past charmless Gruissan with its outsize beach shacks on stilts where Betty and Zorg began their mad and passionate affair in one of my favourite films, Betty Blue.  There is nothing on these drab coastal plains, with their characterless holiday towns, grid built streets, sorry sandy stretches and boring beaches, that could evoke my passion  -  just the haunting, melancholy music of the film which plays so often in my mind.
Finally we leave this charmless landscape behind and where the Pyrenees dividing France from Spain suddenly crash down into the sea, we reach our destination Collioure and prepare ourselves for a surfeit of anchovies. 

Collioure is a small and pretty medieval harbour village, the kind of place much favoured by artists... and tourists.  As we swing our car around into the narrow streets in search of our hotel our hearts sink at the sight of the ubiquitous Petit Train Touristique.  Whoever designed these white mini-monstrosities must be as rich as Bill Gates. There is not a tourist town in the entire Mediterranean (except perhaps Venice) free of the sight of Petit Trains filled, not with children, but with lazy, oversized tourists in child-sized seats their knees squeezed up into their fat flabby bellies and their dulled, gloomy gormless faces staring sightless at the sights. 
Only families might perhaps have an excuse to transport tired children in this way, although when I was a child I often walked for miles and was better for it.  Luckily our irritation is soothed by the fact that as usual we are holidaying outside of the main season, the town is quiet and the Petit Train is not yet filled with its lardsome load.
We awake to a warm sultry mediterranean  morning and head straight out in search of 'Le Vrai Anchois de Collioure'.   The Société Roque is a shop overflowing with anchovies, anchois au sel, plump salt-cured anchovies bulging in their bottles, anchois à l'huile cured in oil,  créme d'anchois, anchoïade a sweet, salty paste and anchovies marinated in a multitude of mouthwatering ways.  A line of three or four ancient women are sitting side by side at a long table gutting anchovies one-by-one, then throwing them into marinades. We buy various of the latter for our picnic lunch and several bottles of salt-cured anchovies which we vainly hope will survive in the cool-box until we get home.

We have rented scooters for the day and the hire shop manager has given us some smart, brand new ones, presumably in the belief that a quiet, fairly respectable looking couple like us will potter gently around the local villages on them.   But the minute we are out of sight we are outathere, up the mountainside on an off-piste goat track, snaking and scrambling its way to a mountain-top monastery where we finally stop to view the coast below. Further into the mountains following small roads and side tracks pausing for a delightful picnic of fresh baguette and anchovies in a spicy marinade.  Then careering ever onwards and upwards until we reach a hill top viewing spot that for some reason doesn't seem to appear on our map.  I finally have to admit, that despite my amazing map reading skills, we might be a bit lost. Two passing Germans, amidst much ho-ho-ing and shaking of heads over the map would seem to confirm it - they don't know where we are either.   "Right," I say "I think if we just go down this dirt track here and circle back round the bottom of the mountain it will be bound to take us back to Collioure."  Since then R has learnt to distrust my use of the words "just" and "bound to" in relation to distances and route following but at this time he is happy to bounce down the alarming mountain track trying to keep the scooter under control. This is fun but when we reach the bottom of the mountain there doesn't appear to be a way to "circle back around" and we are forced to keep going for some miles in the wrong direction.  Tired, hot and rather thirsty we eventually hit a main road but the signs on it are all in Spanish! The reason I couldn't find our location on the map was because we were in fact some twenty miles out of our way in a different country altogether and not on the map at all.  This unmarked, unwatched and unbordered track had most likely been used by Spanish Civil War refugees escaping to France.  Finally we find the main route and join the heavy coastal traffic back to Collioure.  We dump the battered, muddy scooters outside the hire shop and R rushes in to retrieve our passports before the owner can see that they are in a somewhat less pristine condition than when we started.

We dine on more anchovies that evening a starter of salad of salt-cured anchovies sprinkled with sherry vinegar and served with chopped hard boiled eggs, washed down with plenty of wine to slake our salt-sown thirst and enhance our already exultant mood.  This is perhaps not the best time to ensure a hangover as the next day is an important one, the memory of which will enrich the rest of our lives. It is a memory that will now  be only given to a chosen few.  We are off to El Bulli....


  1. What a brilliant trip! I must find out what 'violets' are. Trouble is, if you Google that word, the results will be anything but fishy!

    We strayed into Luxembourg, once, by mistake and I only found out when I'd filled up the car and was given my change in Luxembourg money. I didn't even know they had their own currency, then - longish time ago, certaily before our children were hairy and attitudinous.

  2. Well, golly gosh! I've just found the info here:

    Have to say, they don't look very nice in their natural state!