The heatwave was in full force. Blazing sun and a hard blue sky. Mr T. and I had gone south to escape the confines of my city ‘appartement’ in search of a pool and long views. But there’s only so much swimming and sunbathing you can do when the temperatures are heading towards 40C. And given the heat, there’s only so much cassoulet, confit de canard, and foie gras you can eat before your taste buds also give up. We googled ‘nearest restaurants’ and I spotted the words ‘mozzarella di buffala’. Italian – yes! I love a good mozzarella. The restaurant was only eight kilometres away from where we were staying, so off we went in search of culinary adventure.
The drive took us through steep limestone hills and cliffs with vines filling the valley bottoms. Everywhere, tall dark green cypresses pierced the skyline and the only sound was the cicadas with their insistent screek-screek and the wind in the trees and grasses. We began to doubt the directions; the road got narrower and smaller and we ended up in the small village of Pradelles en Val. We’d clearly missed it. Turning round, we went back and realised we’d driven past the small dirt track leading to the restaurant. There it was. Bourdasso – cucina italiana.
The restaurant is housed in what was once an old wine ‘domaine’ surrounded by vineyards. But the vineyards have been sold off and the large long farmhouse with its tower, along with the high ceilinged barns where they once pressed the grapes, has been given a new life. There’s a strong sense of design at work; someone, it seemed, was happy to experiment with salvaged industrial artefacts and the textures of brute wood, concrete, metal and glass were offset by the old stone and plaster walls.
Inside, the high ceilinged airy restaurant was already full (despite the remote location) so we were shown up to a vertiginously high mezzanine with large windows backing onto the rocky hill behind. It gave us a perfect vantage point to watch the Sunday families below – grandparents and parents, children and friends – all busy eating amongst a happy hum of conversation and laughter.
The first person we met was Giacomo Antonini, the young chef and also, it turned out, the person responsible for the small herd of buffalo we had passed when we’d had to turn round. “Look,” he said, pointing out of the window, “You can see the others on the hill.” I took his word that the faint black specks in the far distance were buffalos. Giacomo explained that they made the mozzarella fresh every day from the morning milk and that what we were about to taste would be quite unlike the mozzarellas sold in those transparent plastic bags floating in salted water which are usually at least a week old before you buy them.
He was right. Our mozzarellas arrived – mounds of creamy unctuous whiteness on a bed of salad with a rocket pesto, drizzled with olive oil and freshly cracked pepper. No rubbery elasticity here – just mouth-watering creamy ‘buffala mozzarella’. We were both in taste heaven and took our time savouring each forkful, accompanied by a local rosé, bottled specially for the restaurant.
When Giacomo returned, our curiosity got the better of us and we asked what had brought him to this part of France. “Oh, not just me – my entire family. The man who brought you your wine is Fabio, my papa. That’s my mama – Cinzia.” The woman polishing glasses behind us nodded and smiled at us. “And then there’s my brother Eduardo and my girlfriend Anastasia, who’s from Romania, and she also cooks.”
He explained that his family came from Rome and had been thinking of starting a new life in France for some time. His father, Fabio, had been an industrial designer – hence the edgy modern furniture and surroundings. Eventually, after looking at many possible locations (including my home town of Albi – “Too cold” said Giacomo) they found the old domaine, bought it, restored it, and then brought the first buffalos across.
Mr T. and I were amazed. It’s so inspiring to meet people prepared to follow their dreams, and it felt like we were being given a chance to literally taste what they had imagined and brought to fruition through a lot of hard work and courage.
But it was time for the next course. Sadly, given the heat, we only managed to eat the Antipasti (the mozzarella) and the Primi course. I settled upon a ‘risotto au safran’ and Mr T. had a ‘parmigiana d’aubergine’. We just felt happy, and that’s what good food does, and why it’s always worth the effort – in this case, a most extraordinary effort. We finished with coffee and were able to take the rest of the bottle home (heat and wine don’t make for good driving). That evening, sitting outside on our small terrace and finishing off the last of the wine, we vowed to return in the winter and do a long hike to merit the Secondi and the Dolci.
So if you’re ever in the region of Carcassone and have also had your fill of cassoulet, confit de canard, and foie gras, then trek out into the hills, and refresh your taste buds.