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  • Writer's picture5 Senses CulinaryTours

Cut the Bull

Breeding black bulls and white horses in the marshland of the Camargue just west of Marseille and at the doorway to Arles, this 367 square miles is like nowhere else in France. The highly diversified ecosystem includes abundance and diversity and is subject to a very fragile balance. It is this fragility that the creation to protect it by naming it a National Reserve in 1927. The region is known for its cultural continuity from both Greek and Roman times, a land where its’ traditions are as strong today as the last few hundred years. It could be said that the locals here are as wild and free spirited as the bulls and horses that live outside year round.

The bulls are bred for sport and cared for as kings, they are too uncontrollable for much else. The best go to the bull ring and get top billing. Razeteurs dressed in white come head-to-head with the bulls to remove a ribbon or tag from its horns. More often than not, it is the Razeteurs that get injured, not the beast. This is more a chivalrous game that requires such values as loyalty and valor from both man and beast. Skill and agility along with a good dose of respect keep the young men in tack. Some bulls have quite the reputation. No blood is spilled in the Camargue bullfight; the Camargue bull does not come to kill or be killed, unlike his Spanish cousin! The young men compete against one another to remove, as quickly as possible, the objects placed between the bull's horns. These are strings, tassels and a cockade which each earn the Razeteur a cash prize upon removing it. Sometimes, the particularly agile bulls will jump over the barriers, making the event even more dramatic and emotional, especially for those lucky spectators in the first row!

As for the horses, they are indigenous and one of the oldest breeds; called grey, as the horse is born black and black skin remains as their coats turn white. These hardy horses are smaller in statue, but have a larger wider hoof adapted to marshland. The cowboys in the Camargue are called Gardians, both male and female. So don’t be surprised if you see a lady in moleskin culottes and Souleiado print shirt out cutting the herds.

This natural frontier is crisscrossed with channels to maintain the constant flow of the sea into the marshland and fresh water from rivers, these areas produce rice, reeds and of course, salt. The important salt works thrives today. Each year, Aigues-Mortes produces 340,000 tons of salt from 6000 hectares making it a worldwide benchmark. The salt production in Aigues-Mortes goes back to antiquity. Peccius, a Roman engineer, was put in charge of organizing salt production. Now much of the salt is used to de-iced roads in winter in northern France. The salt ponds are colored rose from the algae micro-organisms, so it’s not just the flamingos that abound in pink.

The first cultivation of rice in the Camargue dates back to around 1600. There are now 10,000 hectares of rice grown in the region, much of it exported across the world. I know my pantry has bags of red and brown long-grain rice, I love the nutty flavor. When the temperature is right, the fields are flooded, with fresh water drawn from the Rhône River by pumps into canals which feed up to 20 farms. In May rice seed is sown into the shallow water with special tractors on metal tires that won’t sink into the hard subsoil. By the end of May the rice emerges above the water.

One of the joys of spending time in the Camargue is the people; Camarguais are free spirited in a land where tradition happily continues. Many have beautiful classical features of the Greeks and Romans that colonized the territory. Their elaborate native dress is still common to see not just for festivals, but for entertaining on their ranches or homes. Women wear the narrow sleeved delicate lace bodice dresses, caps and the fichu, the ornamental shawl. More importantly the distinctive feature is the meticulously coiffed hair in a complex double chignon and the headdress ribbon caps. What a pleasure to spend time in nature here.

Suggest you stay at Auberge Cavaliere to have an authentic experience.

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