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Global Foodservice: Local bounty
The small French town of Sète has developed a unique seafood culture
By Anthony Fletcher
January 01, 2013
The town of Sète is a beguiling location. It is a hill almost entirely surrounded by water, with the mussel and oyster fields of the Thau lagoon on one side and the open Mediterranean on the other. While it attracts tourists, it remains very much a working town, and is the largest French fishing port on the Mediterranean.
It is also a French town with a very Italian soul. Some 80 percent of the population (around 40,000) can trace their roots back to the Naples region, giving the place its unique cuisine and character. Sète is far from glitzy and is a world away from the bright lights of France’s Côte d’Azur.
“We speak with a strong accent here,” says Tony Vives, owner of the restaurant Terre et Mer. “There are two reasons for this: One, we are essentially cut off from the mainland, and two, because of our Italian heritage.”
Italians moved to Sète because of tuna. Vives explains that tuna migrate from Spain to the coast off Libya, and Neapolitan fishermen (as people from Naples are known) following this migration found that Sète was ideally located in the middle. After a few local marriages, Italian fishermen began to settle in the town, bringing with them their cuisine and culture.
Cuisine a la Sètoise tends to be sturdy fare, fresh and unpretentious. Perhaps the most famous dish is the tielle, a slightly spicy octopus pie that includes black olives, tomatoes (another Sète staple imported from Italy) and olive oil. It is often served as an appetizer. The tielle is baked for 30 minutes and served immediately, piping hot. It is a cliché, but it is truly a taste of the Mediterranean.
The original recipe is said to have been imported in the early 20th century from Gaeta, a small fishing village located between Rome and Naples, by local fisherman Adrienne Virduci. Each Sète restaurant along the harbor front guards its tielle recipe closely.
Another famous Sète seafood dish is moules farcies, or stuffed mussels. Large mussels are filled with a sausage and breadcrumb stuffing, before being cooked in a tomato and white wine sauce and served with potatoes.
Vives’ restaurant is typical of Sète, taking advantage of the abundance of fresh fish and local preparation.
“The great thing about Sète is that fish is brought directly from the boat to your doorstep,” he says. “This morning, for example, I bought six loup de mer (sea bass), and 10 minutes later they are on the plate.”
His restaurant offers three menu options: an entrée for €18 ($23.25), an appetizer and entrée for €26 ($33.60) and an appetizer, entrée and dessert for €33 ($42.65). “We always have three seafood options on the menu, depending of course on the season,” he says. “For appetizers, we currently offer gratinated oysters, carapaccio of scallops and tuna mousse mixed with olive oil and spices.”
The choice of entrées includes a catch of the day (such as sea bass, sea bream and John Dory), pan-fried scallops and chorizo and a montgolfière de la mer. This last dish is steamed scallops, mussels, prawns and John Dory, served in a white wine sauce.
“It’s cooking your grandmother would recognize,” says Vives. “And I’m very happy to see more and more young people dining out. I think people are getting fed up of eating badly, and are returning to more traditional customs, which is great.”
Sète itself is also changing. Due to government fishing regulations, the number of fishing boats has dwindled; today there are only 14 chaluts (small one- or two-man trawlers) left. Along the coast in Marseille and Toulon, however, there are none. “This is why restaurants from Cannes, Nice and St. Tropez now come to Sète to buy fresh fish,” says Vives.
The famous French writer Paul Valéry called his hometown of Sète “l’île singulière” (the unique, or remarkable island). Despite changing fishing practices, eating habits and a more diversified economy, the town remains close to its seafood roots. Furthermore, the passion to preserve the unique melange of Italian and French cuisine, which typifies cuisine a la Sètoise, remains undimmed. Contributing editor Anthony Fletcher lives in Brussels