Traditional dishes of Ariège

As everyone knows, eating is one of the major pleasures of traveling in France, where each region's cuisine reflects its history, geography and culture. Often you get a better idea of the regional specialities from visiting the open air markets than you do dining in restaurants.

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This sign in a butcher’s shop in Massat shows the names and addresses of the farmers who raised the cows, lambs and pigs whose meat is sold there.

In Ariège markets you can't miss the ropes of dried sausage (saucisse sèche), the cured ham (jambon du pays), and duck legs encased in fat (confit de canard) everywhere on display. The high Ariège and the Couserans were long very poor regions and until relatively recently most families in the countryside raised a pig as well as ducks and geese. The dried, cured and preserved meat sustained them through the year, serving as the basis for savoury, robust dishes like azinat andmounjetado. Though few Ariégeois butcher their own pigs now, they have retained a taste for the excellent, locally-produced charcuterie.

If you will be cooking your own food while visiting Ariège, resist the temptation to stock up on everything you'll need in one trip to the supermarket. The weekly outdoor marketsheld in the larger towns and villages offer wonderful, locally-grown produce and produits du terroir--honey, cheeses, jams, foie gras, etc. The meat sold by small butchers is mainly locally-raised using traditional methods, and a steadily increasing number of farms are raising animals organically. You can find their stands at farmers markets.

The cheese produced here -- Bethmale, Bamalous, Moulis and Rogallais to name just a few -- is semi-soft, pale, mild but far from bland, and has small holes. Connaisseurs prefer this cheese when it has been aged 10-12 months. The cheese course in some restaurants is a selection of just Ariège cheeses and provides a good opportunity to compare them.

As for desserts, the fruit-filled (apple, pear, or prune) croustade was originally a speciality of the Couserans region but now is enjoyed throughout Ariège. Millas is a cornmeal-based confection similar to polenta. It was traditionally prepared when the pig and ducks were slaughtered and there was extra fat on hand, which is why these soft, yellow slabs are often sold by butchers, though now it is usually made with butter. It is served browned in butter and sprinkled with sugar.

In France, no decent meal is without wine. Some former vineyards in lower Ariège have been replanted and an Ariège meal may be accompanied by a very local wine. Try also one of the excellent regional wines, such as Minervois, Fonton, Gaillac, Buzet or Madiran.

Many thanks to these photographers

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