Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Fortifying food – and another fort

Forteresse de Salses: light and shade
After a few days on the beach, the beginning of the week seemed like the perfect time to take another day trip and see something more of the region.

So in the late morning, we headed up to the railway station and caught a train north, to Salses.

Just two stops beyond Perpignan, it was like walking into an entirely different world. Spoiled by spending time in busy tourist towns, this was real rural France. And when we arrived, it was pretty much deserted for lunch.

Talking of lunch, by that time we needed some ourselves.

We sat down outside what appeared to be the lone open eatery, but after a lengthy wait in which nobody appeared, we wandered away in search of somewhere – anywhere – else.

Eventually, we managed to find a café-sports bar, Cafe de la Paix, which we’d actually walked within a few metres of to start with.

Café de la Paix
There was a limited available menu – sandwiches – so we ordered that. In the event, a ‘sandwich American’ turned out to be a quite a meal.

They arrived wrapped tightly in foil; a hulking big bun, toasted, with two steak hachés inside, plus thick slices of tomato and onion and, in my case, two varieties of cheese and some mayo.

The burgers were delicious: cooked to still be pink in the middle – and most certainly not something that had come out of the freezer.

These sandwiches hit the spot completely.

It was clearly a working class bar and they probably don’t get many holidaymakers – which might explain why the woman behind the bar wondered whether we were Australian!

But she was delighted when I commented on all the Catalans Dragons flags around the place and said that the team was good.

Now this is a sandwich
We were made very welcome – indeed, when two young lads popped in to pick up their own sandwiches for lunch, as they left, they waved and wished us a ‘bon appetite!’

Opposite was an old church, that, amazingly, seemed to have a building that had been attached to it demolished. The space was acting as a carpark, and young lads were playing boules there.

But we hadn’t ventured to Salses on the off chance of finding something: there was a specific motive in mind.

And after that supremely satisfying lunch, we ambled off to find what we made the trip for: the Forteresse de Salses.

Church, Salses
One the way, we spotted a fascinating flower with yellow flowers and along, red stamens – entirely appropriate for Catalan country.

Its scientific name is caesalpinia gilliesii but it’s also known, rather poetically, as ‘oiseau de paradis jaune’: ‘yellow bird of paradise’.

And so on to the fort, which can be seen from both the train to the east and the main road on the other side.

Its positioning is no accident. To the east lie the Corbières hills and to the west, the Etang de Leucate. The fort was intended to guard the narrow strip of land between the two, on what, in Roman times, had been the Via Domitia between France and Spain.

'Yellow bird of paradise'
The region has a turbulent history. Roussillon was conquered by the Arabs in 720, then passed to Carolingian France in 759 when it was liberated by the delightfully-named Pepin the Short.

The first mention of a castle on the site goes back to 1007, and it was rebuilt in 1192 for Chevalier Raymond de Saint-Luarent.

Suffice it to say that it has had as long and fascinating a history as the region: it was partially destroyed in 1496 by the French, but under the following year’s treaty that ended the first Franco-Spanish War, it was returned to Spain.

In June 1497, work began to rebuild the fort. The architect – only recently discovered by historians – was Francisco Ramiro López.

It was to be a revolution in design and withstood three sieges – one coming before it was even complete.

Fort entrance: Other Half waiting
In 1685, when its role had passed into history, Vauban was amongst various people who considered razing Salses to the ground, but that would have been too costly, so instead, he made a small number of improvements.

In 1886, it was listed as an historic monument and, in recent years, the Historic Buildings Department has been painstakingly restoring it.

It’s deceptive to approach, being partly below ground, surrounded by a vast moat, which disguises its real scale.

There are two gate houses to pass through, and then a main gate, before you come into the central courtyard, with its well at the centre, a chapel (dedicated to St Sebastien) on one side, barracks and stables on another, and the main keep to the left.

There’s also the complete oddity of a baroque clock above the barracks – for which I can find no explanation.

We went on the tour around the keep (donjon). Unsurprisingly, they don’t let you wander around it on your own – not least because it’s labyrinthine. For me, it brought to mind the castle/library in the film of The Name of the Rose.

Fort courtyard from the keep
Then we were able to wander freely. The barracks used to be on three floors, but is now one vast, cavernous room that seems almost Roman. The stables are down ramps below.

There’s a starkness to it that is quite unlike anything else I’ve seen. If you want to see the extremes of Mediterranean dark shadow and bright light, against an incredibly simply background of sand-coloured stone and blue sky, then you can do so at Salses in the right weather.

Well in the foreground. Barracks, stables & baroque clock
The scale is astonishing; the state of repair is remarkable (and yes, they’re still very obviously working on it) and the sense you start to get of how it was designed to work in a military sense is every bit as fascinating.

There are something like 400 ‘loopholes’ – holes where soldiers could train a weapon on the exterior. There are a fair few more that would have allowed soldiers to train arms on the interior too, should enemy troops break through.

Once outside, we took the time to stroll around the entire exterior, above the moat.

And here we spotted something entirely different and quite unexpected: vast numbers of small snails on the stems of fennel.

Snails on fennel
As any schoolchild knows, the French word for ‘snail’ is escargot. In Occitan country (not far to the west of where we are) it’s escagaròl and in Pays Catalan it’s cargol – hence a cargolade is a Catalan speciality of barbequed snails, which are served with assorted regional meats, such as saucisse Catalan, the regional sausage.

The most common snail used is theba pisana – sometimes known simply as the Mediterranean snail – which can be spotted aestivating: or in essence, having a lengthy doze during hot periods.

And that was what we spotted: hundreds – no, thousands – of small, pale snails clinging, in utter stillness, to fennel stalks.

Every bit as much a pest as the common or garden British variety that hides away and loves the wet, this little bugger at least has a gastronomic virtue.

In just a few weeks, after the grape harvest, a large number of them will be found vine leaves on grills over open fires, doused with hot fat.

It’s a rather nice thought.


  1. Why don't you eat your garden snails then? Go on, I dare you

  2. Also, how come "Sandwich Americaine" is cooked mince, whereas "Steak Americaine" is raw mince?