Why you should visit the home of France’s answer to Shakespeare


The latter was (is) a masterpiece, performed just once in 1664 at Versailles before Louis XIV. The Sun King apparently enjoyed it, but had it banned immediately: its pungent attack on casuistry outraged clerics whom the monarch needed to keep on side. The play finally reappeared, toned down, at the Palais Royal in Paris in 1665.

Meanwhile, Molière was working like the clappers – writing plays but also musical comedies, some 30 in all in 15 years and including all the classics: Le Misanthrope,  L’Avare, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and the rest. He took the lead in most, fought off competition from rival theatre groups and ferocious criticism from prominent figures who felt themselves under the playwright’s knife. These people stooped very low, spreading a rumour that Molière’s promiscuous wife was his own daughter.

He finally worked himself into an early grave, dying at 51 shortly after starring in a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire.

Back in Languedoc, Pézenas was sliding towards backwater status. Clive of India livened local life up a bit, spending three months there in 1768, en route home from his governorship of Bengal. Legend has it that he was accompanied by a Hindu cook who taught a Pézenas baker how to make little pies from mutton, sugar, lemon, raisins and spices. Legend is apparently wrong.

The cook in question was Scottish, not Indian, and the recipe based on mince pies. That needed clearing up, and the fact is that the petits pâtés have been Pézenas’ speciality ever since. They look like cotton bobbins, taste good when well made with the correct ratio of filling to pastry, go down well with a salad or at the aperitif hour but are, frankly, ambitiously priced at €1.20/£1 a throw chez Alary (9, Rue Chevaliers Saint-Jean).

As usually happens, though, backwater status has kept classical Pézenas looking good. It’s wonderful wandering through the mix of scurrying streets and ancestral grandeur. Push the door of the Hôtel des Barons de Lacoste on Rue François Oustrin to see the scale on which Languedoc worthies lived. The multi-vaulted vestibule, columns, loggias and monumental staircase make today’s luxury townhouses look a bit naff. You’d need the staff, mind.

The narrow old streets are, unsurprisingly, punctuated not so much with butchers and bakers as candle-stick makers – plus ceramists, potters, creators in leather and stained glass, painters, cutlers and other folk selling stuff that no one needs but quite a few people might like. At least, I hope so. I’m always mystified by how arty artisans in picturesque spots all make a living. Perhaps they don’t. Or perhaps there’s a bigger market for hand-crafted abstract lampshades than I thought.

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