Sweet Wine, Chocolates Galore, and Women’s Voices

 Basil Howitt reports on the exceptionally dynamic village of Maury under its long-time mayor, the potter Charles Chivilo.

If you head west on the D117 from the Catalan border town of Estagel, with the unforgettable 10th century fortress of Quéribus towering above you on your right, you soon come to Maury, the first village along this route in Le Fenouillèdes, or the Land of Fennel – or even Fenolheda in Occitan-speak. Le Fenouillèdes is part of Occitan Languedoc, whose inhabitants are rather scornfully referred to by Catalans as “les gabatx” or foreigners. Skirmishes between the “gabatx” of Maury and the youths of Estagel are still not unknown.

Unless they are turning off for the dizzying climb to Quéribus, many tourists drive straight through Maury’s very narrow main street en route for the Aude. However, thanks to the dynamism of Maury’s mayor, Charles Chivilo, and many others, more people are pausing there to dine, buy wine and enjoy many communal events.

Maury (population 901) has long been famous for its sweet red fortified wines (Vins Doux Naturels or VDN) – rich, aromatic and very fruity, made from Grenache noir grapes. Basically, these wines are produced by stopping the fermentation with the addition of grape spirit, and have enjoyed AOC status since 1936.

The trouble is that not so many people want to drink these magnificent bottles any more. Less than 10 years ago the Cave Cooperative of Maury was close to collapse, with a debt by 2003 of 1.7 million euros. A receiver was appointed to try to steer the cave through the crisis.

With the dramatic fall in takings, the majority of vignerons had decided in 2001 that the cave must diversify into dry wines – reds, rosés and whites. This majority, under its newly elected president, Paul Armingaud, thus took control of the cave’s administrative council. In addition to a red Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, new country wines such as Terra Novo and Les Maurynates appeared.

But not without a lot of heartache! Many diehard vignerons refused to deviate from VDNs and abandoned ship. “This major haemorrhage nearly killed us off,” admitted Armingaud.

However, by dint of hard work and rigorously imposed budgeting, the Cave recovered in spectacular fashion. By 2006 the books were balancing, and with a turnover of around 1.57 million euros in 2007, the Cave increased its dividends to members by 46%.

Harvests are now around 25,000 hectolitres, two thirds of which are VDN and the remaining third dry wines. In Armingaud’s words, “the Cave’s fortunes have been saved not by its VDNs but by its vins secs”.

Nice work if you can get it!

None the less, those thousands of litres of VDN still need to be sold – so what better idea than to lay on a chocolate fest in which professional chocolatiers spent a day sampling 18 different Maury VDN wines with 18 different chocolate creations in the company of 40 professionals from the wine and catering trades?

So it was that on for the first time in April 2009 the renowned chocolatiers Christian Constant and Olivier Bajard (each holding a coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France or Best Craftsman of France award) guided the assembled gourmets through an exploration of what must have been a paradise of flavours. Each participant held a glass of Maury in one hand and a chocolate creation in the other. For the chocolatiers this was serious work of course, “with an intellectual perspective”, however amazing that may seem to you and me.

One of the biggest surprises for the participants was the marriage of an old rancio (an intentionally oxidised VDN) with a concoction of chocolate with quails eggs and anchovies! Another fortuitous marriage included conventional Maury wines with chocolates flavoured with honey gathered from fir trees, and cinnamon.

La Maison du Terroir

The chocolate event took place in Maury’s La Maison du Terroir (The House of Local Produce is my poor translation), another astounding success story in the village. Charles Chivilo had the brainwave of establishing a top-class restaurant on the main road as you enter the village from the east. This would promote only local wines, along with gourmet food prepared by the distinguished chef Pascal Borell, who had presided at the Michelin-starred Le Chapon Fin in Perpignan. With the backing of the EEC, the Conseil Régional and the Conseil Général, La Maison du Terroir opened for business in June last year. Within 9 months Borell had collected a Michelin star. In his own words (freely paraphrased):

“We opened in June … the Michelin inspectors visited us in July and they were demonstrably impressed by the unique concept of matching our dishes only with local wines.

The award of a star to a restaurant featuring only local wines and pioneered by a local mayor is exceptional. He and the villagers have shown remarkable confidence in me by handing me the keys to a fully equipped restaurant. The award of this star thus touches me all the more.

“Furthermore, in less than a year, we have sold 5,000 bottles of exclusively local wines, not to mention another 1,000 bottles opened in the restaurant.”

Borell’s immediate ambitions are to acquire another star, and to build 25 guest rooms.

Michelin stars are awarded to “restaurants offering the finest cooking, regardless of cuisine style” so why did Pascal Borrell, talented former chef of the much talked of Maison du terroir in Maury, voluntarily give up the hard earned star awarded to the restaurant?

Out of the five restaurants in the department awarded Michelin stars, only two remain.

Jean-Paul Hartmann lost his star at the Almandin in Saint Cyprien, Bart Thoelen gave up the Palmier in Laroque-des-Albères and in September 2012, Pascal Borrell surrendered his star on the Maison du terroir in Maury. However, whilst a restaurant can lose, or voluntarily surrender its star, a Michelin-starred chef remains a Michelin star holder for life.

Pascal explained that, economically, a Michelin starred restaurant could simply not survive in the little village of Maury. The need to drive there cut out long liquid lunches, the lack of other entertainment or activities along with acceptably higher prices for gourmet grub ruled out families, few local companies within a wide radius meant no group business lunches or dinners…so with great sadness, Pascal jumped before he was pushed!

However, his star continues to shine as brightly as ever in the newly opened Le Fanal in Banyuls-sur-Mer.

Fresh and creative vegetables, foie gras ’maison’, fish and seafood straight out of the sea onto your plate, delicious and inventively prepared meat dishes such as lamb ’en croute’, grilled rabbit with snails, desserts to melt for … And of course, all the wines on the wine list are exclusively local!

Pascal invites you ’à table’ to sample his mouth-watering creations overlooking the port in Banyuls-sur-Mer, with menus starting from 19 euros for 2 courses.

Le Fanal
17 avenue du Fontaulé,
66650 BANYULS-SUR-MER
Phone: 04 68 98 65 88
Web site: www.pascal-borrell.com

Women’s Voices

Each year, in June, the town hosts an annual festival celebrating the rich diversity of female artists. Find out more here.

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