Sète is one of those places you won't ever seek out, but will delight on finding, especially if seafood is high on your culinary agenda. On the edge of the Thau lagoon, renowned for its oysters, Sète is a seafoodies' joy; its narrow streets crammed with restaurants.
Perched on a limestone hill – Mont St Clair – once covered with oak and pine and rising to 175m (575ft) between the Mediterranean and the Étang de Thau, Sète is the largest fishing port on the French Mediterranean, and catches of sole, sea bass, gilt-head bream, mackerel and rascasse come in daily to be auctioned off. Nearby, the old trading port, known as La Marine, has been used for centuries, from a time when its quays were dotted with Catalan and Moorish ships, feluccas, cattle boats and schooners. It has numerous 18th-century façades and Art Deco buildings to go with its reputation for fish soup, bourride, squid, stuffed mussels, and octopus, which find their way into La Tielle, a local delicacy, a pie made with a bread dough and filled with baby octopus in a spicy tomato sauce.
Sète was founded in the 17th century, when it was decided to build a port, making this the outlet on the Mediterranean for the Canal des Deux-Mers, linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. This is no place to hurry. Park by (or arrive at) the station and saunter along the quays on the east side of the Canal de Sète (the west side buildings are favoured by the morning sun), cross the Pont de la Savonnerie and maybe take a coffee and croissant before ambling through the town centre and down towards the lighthouse for no good reason other than you have to come back, which makes it doubly pleasurable. Go down the rue des Marins or the rue des Pecheurs onto the quai Maximin Licciardi, and there you’ll find the quayside restaurants and ample excuse to brush up on your culinary French. By the time you set off back the sun will be illuminating the buildings on the opposite side of the canal.
I arrive in Sète, on the so-called Italian Peninsula, just as my stomach is chiming twelve, and instantly fall foul of the tourism blurb that waxes lyrical about the pleasures of the oysters of Bouzigues and Mèze, and sipping a glass of the local Picpoul-de-Pinet on the Quai de la Marine. Well, there are just so many red rags this particular bull can take before the drive for new culinary experience kicks in. There are numerous quayside eateries in Sète offering a bewildering array of sea food, so many in fact that choosing somewhere to stop for lunch could take all day. In the end I settle for the Restaurant de la Criée, and order a Poëlée d’écrevisses fraiche à la Provençale, very much a hands-on and messy experience, but huge fun, so fresh the prawns are still kicking, and imbued with so much garlic and herbs that afterwards my breath can kill at forty paces.
As I await its arrival a woman passer-by approaches and asks me if I regularly eat here. I fib a bit and say that I do, ‘It’s excellent’, I said.
She and her husband sit at the next table and enjoy lunch every bit as much as I do. As I leave, I glance over and ask, ‘Tout va bien?’. She smiles, ‘Merci, tout va très bien.’
As I saunter away, I couldn't help noticing that a mantle of silence had descended on Sète, disturbed only by subdued conversation, the popping of corks and the irritating sound of young men who charge around the streets on mopeds emitting a noise that is illegally loud in proportion to some inadequacy in their lives. Apart from that, the town is at munch.
60 Grand'Rue Mario-Roustan, 34200 Sète
Tel: 04 67 74 71 71