Garrigue is the French name for wild, uncultivated stretches of low shrubland that dot the landscape around Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois. Surprisingly, much of the garrigue has relatively modern roots as a result of changes in agriculture.
In France, there are around 400,000 hectares of garriague. These are found mainly in dry limestone areas in the Provence and Languedoc regions. Around Pouzols-Minervois, you can find interesting stretches of shrubland towards Beaufort and in the natural regional park of the Haut-Languedoc towards Saint-Pons-de-Thomières.
The origins of the garrigue are said to be the ancient white and green oak forests of thousands of years ago. But far from being natural, what we see today is very much the result of over-cultivation since the Late Bronze Age. Garrigue is essentially a degraded forest ecosystem.
The Romans cleared land to create space for their roads, towns and farms. After they left, many of these areas fell into disrepair until around 1000 AD monks in local religious orders started cultivating the region again. They introduced vineyards and olive groves on terraced hillsides and wheat fields on the coastal plains, all of which became characteristic for the Languedoc region. Many towns and villages sprung up in the area around this time.
Much of the ancient forest was chopped down for use as firewood and building material. The land was cultivated using horse-drawn agricultural tools. Regular wildfires swept through the shrubland, ensuring that plants were kept relatively low to make it suitable for grazing goats and sheep.
Historically, the garrigue used as well as a source of firewood for iron and glass kilns and charcoal for heating in nearby cities. Bark was used by tanners to produce leather. After the French revolution, hunting areas were also used for grazing and burned for charcoal.
The Industrial Revolution led to the exodus from rural areas to the towns and factories. When tractors replaced horsepower in the 1950s, much of the previously cultivated hillside land was abandoned because tractors could not access steep hills. This land included most of the vineyards and olive groves. At the same time, gas and petrol replaced charcoal for fuel. This meant that trees were no longer chopped down and burned in the garrigue.
Myxomatosis wiped out 99% of all rabbits in the garrigue in 1954, for centuries a staple of the Languedoc diet. The devastating frost of February 1956 killed off many of the olive trees in the garrigue. Most of them where never replaced. Sheep farming was no longer commercially viable after the common agricultural market brought an influx of lamb from other parts of the world. It became overgrown once again by gorse, juniper, rosemary, broom, wild thyme, sage, lavender and other typical Mediterranean shrubland plants.
The development of the garrigue as we see it today is in other words an amazing and fascinating time capsule. It is constantly being pulled and pushed by – and responding to – a range of factors. The aromatic oils produced by some of these plants leached into the soil for centuries and affected the chances of other plants to grow, especially annuals. This is called allelopathy. The residue from charcoal production reduced the reflection of intense sunlight so much that plants could thrive even if they did not have the grey-haired foliage typical for garrigue plants. A constantly changing, far from isolated wilderness that is well worth our attention.
The term garrigue has also found its way into haute cuisine, where it refers to the resinous and aromatic flavours of herbs and other plants associated with this habitat. Similarly, wine that refer to the garrigue typically have smokey, earthy and strongly herbal tones.
The garrigue reflects millennia of local history, from marching Roman soldiers and pilgrims on their way to Carcassonne to WWII resistance fighters hiding in the shrubbery of the south of France. There are many great walking itineraries available to explore the garrigue around Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois.