11 August, 2010

Before the bulls.

It just seemed like the thing to do this past Sunday morning. We jumped into the Mini Cooper, drove for a couple of hours, and found ourselves in a somnolent, 2,700 year old city.A scant ten kilometers from the Mediterranean, Béziers has seen a lot of action through the ages, having been variously occupied by the Celts, the Romans (natch), the Visigoths, and the Moors. It became a Cathar stronghold, until it was definitively sacked by the Catholics in the Albigensian Crusade. Béziers' history marched on, and included the dramatic building of Canal du Midi, which was finished in 1681 and stretches 240 kilometers from Toulouse to the port town of Sete, and was intended to be the defining element of a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In Béziers, there are nine locks of the Canal du Midi, which together are the third most visited tourist site in France, after the Pont du Gard and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. These days, the old city center is wonderful to wander. You get positively blissful doing it, as there's something noteworthy or at least charming around every corner. Good thing, too: as any small Mediterranean city worthy of the name, Béziers is so very closed on Sunday afternoons. Finding a restaurant open for lunch was well-nigh impossible, so we settled for a cafe-bar with rows of shaded swinging chairs, sandwiches jambon-beurre and citrons pressés. Small pleasures can bring the biggest joy. Especially when you're hot and hungry.
Béziers may also have been resting up for the party of the year, which opened today. The Feria takes over the city for 5 days every year, with the long bull-fighting tradition of the city as its centerpiece. In France, certain though not all forms of bullfighting are non-lethal, and the bulls thus often have long, lucrative careers. The interest in the Béziers feria is intense: it is said that a million people attend. I don't suppose all can fit in the Roman arenas where the spectacles occur, and for those of us who still find it a bit of a blood sport, the feria is known as much for its high quality street music and theater, extensive open-air markets, parades, equestrian events...But of course we missed all that.Getting home, we were good and hungry (again), and grilling already marinaded chicken brochettes was the easy solution, along with stuffed tomatoes. When you make these, look for tomatoes that are intended for stuffing, such as the 'Striped Caverns' I went with. Stuffing tomatoes are actually rather dry and hollowish inside, not unlike a bell pepper. They are the ultimate heirloom tomato, as they are said to be how tomatoes used to be, before the development of the modern cultivars we know today. They taste fine stuffed with nearly anything, from meat, to rice, to veg, to couscous. I like using the really large couscous, which, depending on where you are, is known as Maftoul, pearl couscous, Israeli couscous, etc., etc. I also throw in a generous, heady combination of typical North African spices (don't worry, they mellow in the process), crumble in some Greek feta, use some of the zucchini all my gardening friend share with me, add a piquant element with balsamic vinegar, and voilà. What to eat after a sun-soaked day trip.Tomates farcies à la Méditerranéenne (Mediterranean Stuffed Tomatoes)

Serves four as a side dish.

1 liter chicken broth
1 large clove garlic, very finely minced
1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
¼ teaspoon ground chili pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Fresh ground pepper
100 g maftoul/pearl couscous/Israeli couscous
4-6 stuffing tomatoes (ex: Yellow Stuffer, Red Stuffer or Striped Cavern)
1 tablespoon good-quality balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon thick crème fraîche
1 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
1/3 cup Greek feta, crumbled

Add the minced garlic, tomato concentrate and all the spices, including the fresh ground pepper to the chicken broth. Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a medium sized saucepan. Add the maftoul/pearl couscous/Israeli couscous to the spiced broth. Allow the couscous to boil for about eleven minutes (ten will be rather firm, twelve will be a bit too soft). While the couscous is cooking, cut off the tops of the tomatoes, cut the ribs and scoop out the flesh and seeds. Once ready, remove couscous from the heat and strain, reserving the tasty, thick broth for another use (cooking rice, as a soup base, etc). Add vinegar, oil, crème fraîche and some more fresh ground pepper to the strained couscous and stir to combine well. Lightly sauté the zucchini in a large pan over medium heat in two batches to keep it from getting mushy. As the zucchini is just barely cooked (2-3 minutes), stir in the red bell pepper and continue to cook another minute or so. They should still have a bit of bite. Mix the two vegetables and the crumbled feta in with the couscous. Stuff the tomatoes with the couscous mixture. Before serving, warm the tomatoes in the oven for 15-20 minutes at 150C.


  1. Those look delicious! I've (obviously) never seen tomatoes like that. Yet another reason I yearn for a garden of my own. Is that photo after they're baked? They really hold their shape well.

    I love that couscous too. For Easter one year, I made a boneless leg of lamb stuffed with dried apricots, slivered almonds and Israeli couscous. That meal still lives in infamy. SO GOOD.

  2. Hi Rose,

    You can find these around, there's Striped Cavern, Yellow Stuffer, Red Stuffer, etc. The tomatoes, though not highly perfumed, are better than their names, promise. I stumbled across the type because I bought one for a colorful salad and was pretty disappointed when I sliced it...Just type Striped Cavern into your search engine and watch how much comes up. As for the last photo: actually, I only warmed them after the sun went down, so that was taken before. But yes, they do hold their shape quite well.

  3. My son and I visited Beziers last year with my niece. We also had to go to see the "ecluses" and stopped at Enserune.
    That recipe seems very easy to make.

  4. Nadege, I've a reason to go back, he he: I missed the ecluses...The recipe is indeed fastoche!


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