Monica Shaw

Slowing Down in Southern France

Crazy Sexy Life - July 06, 2010

Woman cannot live on baguettes alone. So what’s a vegetarian to do in a country where fish, meat, and copious amounts of butter and cheese are par for the course?

Head south to a little village called Ventenac on the Mediterranean coast of Southern France. That’s where I discovered Chateau Ventenac, a 19th century castle on the Canal du Midi that’s become a magnet for artists, poets, writers and, on that particular week, veg-loving foodies.

We were all gathered for a five-day cooking retreat with vegetarian chef Rachel Demuth and her assistant, Helen. In between all of our mixing, blitzing, kneading and chopping, I discovered a slow, convivial approach to food that is all at once local, compassionate, and most of all, healthy by default. As a result, I’m not only a better cook, I’m also a healthier traveler and a more conscious eater.

Setting the Scene

Whenever I travel, I often find myself running around trying to see as many sites as I can. But in a tiny village like Ventenac, you can pretty much tick every box in the guidebook in one afternoon. So when we weren’t cooking our aprons off in the kitchen, I was left to do something I almost never do on vacation–relax. And I couldn’t have asked for a better place to do just that.

Chateau Ventenac has everything you’d expect from an idyllic retreat in French wine country: a giant terraced garden with an in-ground pool; a view of the canal and its neighboring vineyards; bright, airy rooms with hardwood floors and soft comfy beds; and plenty of tea and coffee whenever you want it. Remarkably, though, it wasn’t the view or the coffee or even the massive free standing bathtub that made my stay–it was the make-yourself-at-home vibe that the chateau’s owner, Julia, and her incredibly friendly staff exuded. They joined us for dinner every night and made us feel like we were all old friends. We were free to wander the house like we lived there. We didn’t lock our doors. All we had to do was simply be.

It’s funny: my usual tendency to try to see everything means I usually end up seeing very little at all. But in Ventenac, with the pressure off, I had the space and comfort to really enjoy the place I was in. Maybe that’s the real way to travel–by getting away from the tourist traps (no offense to the Eiffel Tower intended) and finding a space that puts you right in mind. Surely the body must follow?

Shop and Eat Like the Locals Do

Mid-week, we went shopping for the evening’s meal at Narbonne’s covered market. There I realized that France’s love affair with food goes way beyond butter and cheese. Stall after stall was a cascade of color, mostly green in the spirit of the season: asparagus, artichokes, green beans, olives, baby cucumbers, and every now and then, an explosion of giant red heirloom tomatoes.

Narbonne Market Tomatoes

Oh, those tomatoes.

I have never before, nor since , experienced such delectable tomatoes. And almost every meal paid homage to them in dishes proving that less is more when good vegetables are on the line. One of the week’s most memorable dishes was a simple salad of sliced tomatoes, fresh herbs, and olive oil. Another favorite was tomates farcies, tomatoes stuffed and baked with wine-cooked rice and vegetables. Both simple, vegan, and quintessentially French.

Who needs the average restaurant when the market is this good?

Slow Down

At Chateau Ventenac, meals started at around 6 p.m. and usually went until past 11. Yet I never left the table feeling unpleasantly full. Had I discovered the secret to the “French Paradox?” Or was I simply enjoying the food?

When you’re in a place with a well-defined food culture, it’s hard not to take time savoring each mouthful, especially when no one’s rushing you to finish your meal. But there was something more to our meals than just the food. For many of those hours, we were too busy talking and laughing to swallow our plates in one swift gulp.

Those meals reminded me that eating isn’t just about the food–it’s also about the people you’re with, the stories you tell, and the memories you make. I try to tell myself this, especially when the food is not so good. Let’s face it: not every meal in life is going to be a religious experience, especially when you’re travelling. It’s all too easy to look at a meal and think of all the ways you can make it better. But sometimes it’s better to just let it go and enjoy the situation for the company you’re keeping.

Make New Friends

One woman I met in Ventenac was Sunita, an Indian chef from Doha who came to the chateau simply to meet other people who liked food as much as she did. This is one of the sweetest aspects of a vegetarian cooking retreat: friendship is pretty much baked into the holiday. I know I won’t always be so lucky in my travels.

Some people are able to make friends with strangers just about everywhere they go. I am not one of those people, but I’m willing to try. The people I met contributed more to my trip than any monument, museum, or scenic overlook ever would. They taught me things…made me laugh…and made me not feel so alone in a country I had (wrongly) judged to be totally anti-vegetarian and vegan.

In the end, travelling is what I make it. It can be manic and rushed, punctuated by short bursts of hunger-induced food fests at whatever restaurant happens to be handy. Or it can be slow and deliberate, punctuated by long, leisurely meals that celebrate the day and the people surrounding me. Next time, I think I know which option I’ll choose.

Monica Shaw is a freelance writer from Chicago who currently lives and works from a converted barn in the UK countryside. When she’s not writing her blog,, you kind find her in the kitchen, in the garden, or on the road in search of her next perfect meal.