French Catalonia, or Catalogne Nord, climbs from a small patch of coastal Roussillon, that includes Perpignan, up into the eastern Pyrénées.
Though local signs identify the regional capital in the Catalan language – Perpinyà la Catalana – this is a recent innovation and somehow you just know their hearts aren’t in it. Catalan was only recognised as a regional language in the Pyrénées Orientales in 2007. If you try the Catalan pronunciation for a place name or a menu item, Perpignan locals will still steer you back to French.
In the mountains, closer to Spain, it’s a different story. The air of the enormous Saturday market in Ceret resounds with Catalan;
the market stalls are laden with Catalan specialities – bunches of vegetables and jars of sauces rarely seen elsewhere in France.
After visiting Ceret’s gem of a modern art museum (Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, Braque), we stopped in a café to try pain à la catalana (pa amb tomàquet), toasted bread topped with ripe tomato and olive oil, and calçots (a charred, sweet spring onion) with romesco sauce, a combination of almonds, pine nuts, sweet peppers and garlic.
A pair of fortified villages high in the mountains
might explain the cultural amnesia that, until its recent revival, turned French Catalan culture into a mountain outlaw….