Le navet de Pardailhan

21 Jul 2009

If you know the word Pardailhan, you’re more likely to think about a knight than a turnip! Your mind goes to that most affable of heroes, the knight of Pardaillan (without the aitch). Created by the pen of Michel Zévaco (1860-1918), the hero of a story set in the times of the religious wars of the sixteenth century, this swordsman, thief and gentleman defended widows, orphans and true justice through an interminable service adventures. But even before Zévaco invented his knight, the navet de Pardailhan (with an aitch) had already gained honors at the international exhibitions of the end of the nineteenth century, with Maison Tronc winning medals for its preserved version. So where is Pardailhan?

About 30 kilometers west of Béziers, in the Département of Hérault, the hills rise up in steps to the Avant-Monts chain, which reaches 800 meters. From Roman times this region has been the realm of the vine. Twenty or so villages along the banks of the rivers Orb and Vernazobres produce the red wine Saint-Chinian, an Appellation Contrôlée since 1982. Then, at an altitude of 250 meters, a few hectares of small-berried muscat grapes in a terrain of white, sun-baked limestone produce a superb sweet wine, Muscat de Saint-Jean de Minervois, AC since 1949. The villages of Saint-Chinian and Saint-Jean are hardly ten kilometers apart. And Pardailhan? It lies ten kilometers from each of them, forming an almost perfect equilateral triangle.

Whether you arrive in Pardailhan from Coulouma to the south or Rodomouls to the north, you’ll enter an enclave. Here there are no longer vineyards nor olive grove. In the space of just a few kilometers, you leave the Mediterranean scenery behind and pass through pastures where cows graze and oak and beech forests. The plateau rises irregularly from its initial 473 meters to the village of Pardailhan on the Pech Mage at 822 meters. The absence of vines can be explained by the altitude and the climate: clouds rising from the Mediterranean are easily trapped by the Pardailhan heights and fog is frequent. The soil itself—very rich in clay and brick-red in color—also plays a part.

These conditions—rain and plenty of fog—are ideal for turnip cultivation, which needs (navets are said to “drink from their leaves”). They are ‘broadcast-seeded’ at the beginning of August on well-worked land, one kilo of seed per hectare, and then await the rains, which usually arrive in the second half of the month. After this the turnips, which aren’t over-vulnerable to disease, usually grow without ant problems, and are picked by hand between early November and the end of January. Pardailhan turnips are white inside, black on the outside and covered with numerous small roots. They can be recognized by the remains of the red clay which sticks to their skins. The variety is called ‘Noir Long de Caluire’ and it has been acclimatized to the region for decades, with seed stocks being renewed regularly.

At the table, navets de Pardailhan are beautifully tender with a subtle, sweetish flavor. Many people who say they don’t like turnips are converted by them, bowled over by their delicacy. They can be prepared in many ways: grated raw and tossed in a vinaigrette, fried in goose fat and a little sugar, or in soups and gratins. They are much sought after on the markets of Narbonne and Béziers, the closest towns, though the scarce quantities on sale these days make them somewhat pricey.

Only 165 people live in Pardailhan. The ones who still cultivate turnips can be counted on the fingers of one hand and not one of them do so as their main occupation. Around 30-40 tons, are grown annually, much fewer in years when it doesn’t rain enough at the end of August to ensure germination—though this risk could be eliminated with a suitable irrigation system. Likewise, a modern transport system would get turnips to their point of sale in better conditions, less than a week from picking.

At present, the navet de Pardailhan sells to a limited market of a handful of admirers. We representatives of Slow Food Languedoc are convinced that it could be much wider. Every time we let chefs or food lovers taste it, they go into ecstasy!

Didier Chabrol is the vice-president of Slow Food France

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