Peta Mathias explores Uzes
Writer, cook and lover of the south of France, Peta Mathias tempts visitors to cook the rabbit, peel the artichoke and dance in her town square. Oh, and the rosé is worth drinking, too…
Words: Peta Mathias
Photos: Sally Tagg
Many years ago I wrote in one of my books on France, “When you pass through a place like Uzès, you can never just pass through. Passing through intimates you have been unmoved, you breathed in but didn’t inhale, you looked but didn’t touch. This is impossible in Uzès and it only hits you when you return, why you had to come back.”
People smile a lot there – maybe because the sun shines 300 days a year. Sometimes I open my curtains in the morning and think, oh no, not another boring perfect blue day.
Technically Uzès is in the Languedoc-Roussillon department of France, more particularly in Le Gard. It is dry, old and staunch and covered in vineyards and olive groves. You have to let go of time there, people will not be hurried and they are authentic.
They think all Parisians need Valium and they would rather sit in a café all day sucking on pastis than make money. Uzétiens live in worn-down espadrilles, faded souleiado shirts and old linen pants. Fortunately the Eurostar train doesn’t go to Uzès so it is not overwhelmed with visitors.
This sparkling medieval town is made of white limestone and built in a circular fashion around a hill.
This makes it (a) easy to get lost and (b) easy to get found as you wander round and round. Right smack in the middle of all this is the hulking, masculine castle, Le Duché, which still has a Duke – the only one in France. It is in Le Duché’s enchanting courtyard that we listen to the Baroque concerts in July, dressed in our finery.
Sometimes when I’m sitting there with my friends in the warm perfumed night listening to a Pergolesi aria I wonder if you can die of beauty. At the other end of the scale is the Fête Votive festival every August, which involves heroic consumption of alcohol, bull-running, extravagant parades and dancing in the street.
Uzès is a designated ville d’art, so chic foreigners and gorgeous art galleries live side by side with the down-to-earth locals. My favourite interiors shop is the sensuous Affaires Etrangères run by my charming friends, Pierre Cadé and Thierry Wong. Their wares are handmade by artisans and sourced individually.
They have fearless, audacious taste – you leave resolved to go straight home and change your entire décor immediately. Their treasures include Egyptian Mamluk lamps (open work in oxidized copper), gorgeous colourful couches, Berber textiles, Moroccan rugs, Tunisian mats and green Tamegroute ceramics.
A fascinating secret place to visit is the Medieval Garden where medieval plants, flowers, grains, medicinal plants and vegetables are grown. I love the puces and brocantes in Uzès and around the Uzège area and often find heritage Provençal textiles, my favourite Sarreguemines ceramics, sewing machines, old wooden chopping boards… There are lots of chic clothing shops in Uzès but the one I can never walk past is Montagut Dominique on Rue Pélisserie. Dominique is a beautiful woman with impeccable taste in stylish clothes and refined and unusual accessories.
There is a one-Michelin-star restaurant, La Table d’Uzès, in the very posh hotel, La Maison d’Uzès, which I love visiting for lunch and munching on chef Oscar Garcia’s bull stew, caviar, foie gras and his irresistible cheese trolley. He is the youngest chef in France to have obtained a Michelin star and he got it about five minutes after opening.
This just happens to be up the road from the best fruit and vegetable shop in Uzès, Gaiffier on 2 Rue Saint-Julien at the bottom of Boulevard Charles Gide. The other restaurant I really like is outside Uzès – Le Tracteur – funky, fabulous food, country style.
Of course the market days on Wednesday and Saturday are bursting with sunshine and fun – this is where you not only buy your food but also catch up on all the gossip. I teach half-day cooking classes all summer in Uzès and we start our day right there in the market where I introduce my students to the local ingredients and stall-holders.
It’s very hard to get them to stay focussed as they just want to buy everything they can see, watch the jazz band playing and stuff their faces with fougasse. Southern French food is made to be seen, felt and even listened to before you eat it. It is modest and robust and strong-flavoured – think pissaladière, rabbit with artichokes, brandade de morue salt cod, pélardon goat cheese.
Eventually I drag the students home down my cobble-stoned street to my cooking school where I have to hide my Uzège wine till I’ve made them work a bit. In terms of grapes, think grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and viognier. My favourite wine is from my friend Amy Lillard’s organic vineyard, La Gramière.
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The way to end your day in Uzès is to walk up to the town hall to partake in the tango dancing then slope over to the Place aux Herbe, where all the trees are sparkling with fairy lights, and sip on the last rosé of the day.
Peta divides up her year between Auckland and Uzès, and travelling with her culinary tours.