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Noilly Prat

Written by Giles MacDonogh

I had a big treat in the middle of the month: I went down to Noilly Prat in Marseillan. The vermouth is made near Sète on the southern French coast and they are currently celebrating their bicentenary. It wasn’t my first visit, but in my senility I find it hard to put my finger on when I was there last, a British Airways boarding card wedged into the Histoire ancienne et moderne de Marseillan tells me only that I came back on 18 September. The year is not specified, and I travelled in Club – those were the days!

For the uninitiated, Noilly Prat is the vermouth at the heart of many cocktails, not least a classic dry Martini. I came across it first as an undergraduate when we were allowed to top up our 18p measures of gin with as much vermouth as we liked for 2p. This extended form of a ‘Martini’ was called a ‘gin and French’, and quite a bargain for 20p. Mixed with sweet, red vermouth, the drink was called a ‘gin and It’ – gin and Italian. ‘Gin and mixed’ combined green and red. I never saw anyone drink that. It must have been an ugly colour.

Of course the weather helped to put me in the mood. It was lovely in the south. The late September storms had passed and the harvesters were out bringing in the black grapes. Marseillan is on the Etang de Thau, a salt-water lagoon that lies behind a narrow isthmus that runs from Sète to Marseillan. The lagoon is the source for about a fifth of France’s oysters and a certain amount of gilthead bream that feed on their young.

We stayed at the Port Rive Gauche, a collection of roomy flats looking out on the lagoon which, apart from its molluscs, was home to a colony of cacophonous ducks. They knew how to make their presence felt when they thought they might be in for a bit of my – and presumably everybody else’s – breakfast. We looked due south and in the mornings the sunrises were worthy of Turner himself. I woke on my last day to see the sky from the Fighting Téméraire in the National Gallery, only, where the warship is in the painting rose the substantial hills that frame the pretty fishing port of Sète.

The sun was up when we got in from Montpellier Airport at three or so, and I went for a walk through the little town. It was equipped with a new quay for the colonial trade with North Africa, but there is an ancient core. I passed the usual codgers playing pétanque and a cluster of old buildings near the church. The shops around the stone market were just opening after the midday lull, and I was able to find a piece offougasse and a beer. I was hungry: no food on Sleazyjet. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

We reconvened for dinner at the Taverne du Port in Marseillan: a party of three Italian barmen and two hacks plus attendant PRs. As Marseillan is so intimately linked to oysters, they crop up everywhere: here they were offered as a ‘mise en bouche’ with the ineluctable glass of Noilly Prat, which – yes, they proved their point – worked quite well with them. Then I had some pumpkin soup, the sweetest of scallops deglazed with Noilly Prat and some prunes soaked in armagnac with vanilla ice. I then left the bartenders to their merrymaking: too late for me.

The trip proved to be a three-day rendez-vous with the local Picpoul de Pinet white, and as luck would have it, one of the base wines of Noilly Prat. First at dinner there was a 2012 from the Domaine de Bridau, which, with its sappiness upstaged a Château de la Mirande of the same year. Better, perhaps than both was the Bergerie from the Domaine de l’Hortus. The Taverne, by the way has a most astonishing collection of whiskies and other spirits, and the owners close up shop at regular intervals to go on buying trips.

The next morning we met Jean-Louis Mastoro, the charming cellarmaster at Noilly Prat. He had set up a tasting of Picpoul and Clairette wines on a table in the vines above the lake. In the distance we could see the half-submerged wooden scaffolds of the oyster farms, and there were oyster shells everywhere in the soil, a constant reminder of the primary vocation of the lagoon. Noilly buys in its wine, but only these two varieties are used. Picpoul gives the body to the blend and Clairette the length. Italian vermouth charcoal-filters the base wines, but Noilly respects them more, making for a far more vinous vermouth.

Back at the firm’s headquarters, Jean-Louis filled us in on the history of the firm. It was founded by Joseph Noilly in Lyons: a more probable place to find a vermouth company than Marseilles. Vermouth (after all) comes from the word ‘wermut’ meaning absinthe. Absinthe was culled from the mountains, along with the herbs and flowers used to flavour the ‘vin cuit’ or ‘vino cotto’ of Savoy. Claude or ‘Claudius’ Prat, who married Joseph’s granddaughter, decided to move the firm to Marseilles, where he’d be closer to the export trade to the French colonies in North Africa and elsewhere. In 1855, he officially became part of the office furniture and the company became Noilly-Prat. After Claudius’ death, Noilly-Prat was run by his widow, the fearsome Anne-Rosine. The last of the Prats were her two boys, who never married.

The vermouth is a complicated amalgamation of a ‘mistelle’ made from adding grape must to neutral alcohol and wine. The wine in this case are those Picpouls and Clairettes that the company leaves outside to oxidise in the sun. Some evaporates leaving a gap at the top of the cask and the wine is impregnated with the briny air that blows off the lagoon. The wine is therefore married to the sea. The founders thought they were replicating the process of ‘travelling’ the wine known to the ancients, who thought it improved as a result of a bracing sea voyage.

The next stage is to infuse the casks filled with wine with dried herbs and spices in the ‘salle des sécrets’ or the hall of secrets. Then the casks are stirred twice a day with a an instrument looking like a scythe. This is later blended with some alcohol flavoured with raspberries and strawberries and married up to themistelle. A bottle of Noilly Prat is on average, 16 to 17 months in the making.

There are now three versions of Noilly Prat, but the favourite is very much the ‘dry’, which is flavoured with a blend of twenty so-called ‘botanicals’: they include elderberries, coriander, lavender, oris root, camomile, Provencal herbs and orange peel. A red, created in 1956 with Manhattan cocktails in mind, has a different range of botanicals: traces of quinine, Seville orange, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and saffron. The third blend, the Ambré, is a comparative infant, having been released in 1986. It leads on cinnamon, bitter orange peel, cardamom and lavender.

We had lunch that day at Entre Ciel et Mer, on the quayside in Marseillan. Once again oysters were the first things dished out with our glasses of Noilly Prat. Most of them were fresh, live oysters but there were others that had been grilled with a julienne of leaks, cream and cheese. I had some crab soup, a delicious gilthead bream with a buttery polenta and some fromage blanc with red fruits. Having learned the day before how good the new range of wines from Domaine de l’Hortus was, we had their rosé. It was no disappointment. We whiled away the afternoon playing pétanque with of Jean-Louis, who was both mentor and player. Our team won.

That evening we took our coach into Montpellier for dinner at Cellier et Morel at the Maison de Lozère. It was not the first time I had sat under these thirteenth century arches and eaten the restaurant’s stock in trade of mountain ham and aligot (puree of potatoes with fresh cream and Cantal cheese). It is a bit flashy: the waiters whip up the aligot at your table and stretch it on forks to show you how elastic it is.

The ham and aligot are still de rigueur, but the menu has become more ‘inventive’ with time, ergo fussy; so that we had a steamed, lacquered foie gras served with corn, almonds, ginger and a miso emulsion, a filet of meagre on a fricassee of Paimpol coco beans, preserved lemons, lovage and olives and a ham emulsion; and finally there were some figs poached in Maury, with nougatine, a cream of spice vinegar and a yoghurt sorbet. I wonder if such elaborate descriptions really help? What happened to ‘à ma façon’? Or ‘à la façon du chef’?

Noilly had prescribed different forms of Noilly Prat to go with the menu but we rebelled and drank a 2012 Picpoul from Mas Aubanel instead. The restaurant seemed stuffy, snooty, and in the end, and despite the elaborate presentation of the dishes, not much better than the simple places we had been to in Marseillan; but I am sure that I would be wrong to judge a place on a chance visit like this and to receive a proper impression, you must order from the full menu.

Our next stop was the excellent cocktail bar at Papa Doble in the old quarters of the city. With the possible exception of Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier is the loveliest city in the south of France, full of glorious old palaces that formerly belonged to the nobility of the Languedoc. At Papa Doble, we tried out a variety of cocktails prepared with Noilly and I met a lady from Rheims who gave me excellent advice on bars and restaurants in her home town. It was about two when we left, I had no problem falling asleep on the bus back to Marseillan.

The next day started early, and was mostly about oysters. We went to see a cheerful cove at his oyster farm on the lagoon who explained the process of renting space on the lagoon from the landlord – the state. There are 650 concessions, but some people have a large number of them. You need at least three to make a living wage. A good plot can cost as much as €50,000, with a poor one at a fifth of that. The lagoon is of varying quality, with the best oyster-rearing water in the east near Bouzigues, where it is at its deepest. Marseillan is relatively shallow. It must be for that reason that the commercial name most often used for the oysters from the lagoon is ‘Bouzigues’, although our chap said there was no difference in flavour between the different oysters grown on the lake: all Bouzigues oysters taste alike. Arcachon oysters have an Arcachon taste, those of Marennes, a Marennes flavour and so on. The ‘bed’ gives the nuance of flavour to the oysters.

Oysters grow twice as fast in the warm water of the lagoon than they do in the sea. On the Atlantic coast they take four years to reach an edible size, here two, as it is warm, there is no tide and plenty of plankton to eat. Atlantic oysters, like those I have seen in Britain, are grown in bags made of metal mesh, on The Etang de Thau the seeds are hung on rope.

The oyster has an interesting sex life and one which would go a long way towards stilling the battle of the sexes in homo sapiens: the mollusc changes sex every year after procreation. The reason that we abstain from eating oysters when there is no R in the month is that they secrete an unpleasant milky liquid. This only takes place, however, when the temperature of the sea has reached 25 degrees or more; so British oysters are unlikely to give you any trouble.

So far, so good: our friend was merely reminding me of other trips to oyster beds, but there was news for me too: there is a fresh plague wiping out our oysters. In my day it was called bonamia, and was thought to derive from some product used for painting the hulls of boats, but now the molluscs are stricken with a form of herpes which is killing eighty percent of all young cultivated oysters. The other thing I learned was that, in response to this blight perhaps, scientists have bred a sort of metrosexual, eunuch oyster which grows much more quickly and therefore gives a better return. It cannot, obviously, reproduce by itself. We ate some, and apart from their impressive size, I could not tell the difference between them and the more sexually conventional oysters.

A big snack of oysters and prawns was laid out for us with a few tots of Noilly Prat. Then we got into a brace of speedboats and crossed the lagoon to Bouzigues and our restaurant, La Côte Bleue. I staggered off the boat in a state of shock: I felt as well-travelled as any wine. The copious elevenses of oysters in Marseillan had largely sapped our appetite. We had a classic fish soup and then a couple of platters of shellfish. Lots of molluscs returned to the kitchen uneaten as we climbed back into our bus and made for the airport.

Originally posted by Giles MacDonough on
5th November 2013

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Giles MacDonogh

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