THE ROAD TO REAL FRENCH FOOD: Part 2
Since we last spoke to you, we’ve thrown all our plans out of the window. It’s happening and who knows where we’re heading. My wife and I, together with two small children, and a rather wide buggy, are now roaming France in a more ‘on the hoof’ kind of way. Planning just a few days in advance, stopping when we smell fine produce, scaling mountains for food, and visiting some of the most prestigious French masters.
It’s full steam ahead to Provence.
The more mustard the merrier
Quite by accident, there seems to be a mustard theme running through this entry. Look out for it making appearances in various dishes. We told you we’d be heading to Dijon, and we do. I actually don’t know much about Dijon, aside from its world-famous mustard. But you may also be surprised to learn that this is where you find another world-renowned French culinary institution – bouchons. Bouchons are traditional French bistros, inside which you’re served real old-school French dishes.
Trouble is, our double-breadth buggy has no chance of making it through the quaint doorway. That’s not to mention that this pocket of France is very organised. There’s no hope of making it into a bouchon without booking – buggy or no buggy. Defeated by organised society and beautiful yet tiny entranceways, we end up in a brasserie. It’s delightful, but no bouchon.
On the road, in Dijon, we are discovering cheesy chips à la française. We’ve clocked a few menus that all read alike, and feature a lot of chips. So I do what I usually do in this situation, and revert to cheese. In this case: Epoisses. This is a particularly stinky favourite of mine. I’m sure it could be used to defend a small country. For now, it goes beautifully with chips. Thus proving that every situation can be turned around with cheese, in my opinion. I also find a new use for the double buggy. It makes for a great vegetable wheelbarrow. On this trip, you can see me hurtling around markets filling it up with produce to push it back to wherever we can cook up a storm (or hoard something delicious for the road). This pram is as much a part of the adventure as we are. It’s been up mountains, on beaches, in restaurants (the ones it can get into), on boats and even onboard a mini tourist train.
I also find a new use for the double buggy. It makes for a great vegetable wheelbarrow. On this trip, you can see me hurtling around markets filling it up with produce to push it back to wherever we can cook up a storm (or hoard something delicious for the road). This pram is as much a part of the adventure as we are. It’s been up mountains, on beaches, in restaurants (the ones it can get into), on boats and even onboard a mini tourist train.
The river fish of Annecy
I’m lucky to have an incredibly patient and ever-supportive wife. She’s pretty chilled out and balances my workaholic tendencies and fussiness over food. She forgives me my Frenchness. So, when she suggests (read: insisted) that we should visit Annecy, I’m just as keen.
So, what is Annecy like? Well, it looks like a place you could only imagine. The town itself is nestled in a dramatic mountainscape, and at its heart is a breathtakingly beautiful lake. Not only is the place itself a dream world, but it’s also home to three-Michelin-star chef Marc Veyrat. Here is a chef obsessed with traditions and gastronomy, and dedicated to using plants and herbs that grow on the mountainsides. He also shares my love for river fish. Annecy is a place where you’ll discover fish like omble chevalier and perch. My penchant for river fish was perhaps my downfall on Masterchef, but I have always loved it. In my youth, I used to fish for clearwater crayfish during summer holidays in the Loire, and my dad has always fished for carp and pike. I was voted off Masterchef for cooking a river fish called zander. It may not have been to Gregg Wallace’s taste, but it’s a cuisine that’s close to my heart and roots. I’m feeling all the love for it again here in Annecy.
Mountains of cheese
In the spirit of Marc Veyrat, we decide to venture up the mountain and see what culinary delights present themselves. Now, I’m scared of heights. And, I don’t mean a little bit. I’m terrified. This mountain is 1,600 metres high, so it’s perfect timing when we find a farm selling its own homemade goat’s cheese. I’m momentarily distracted from thinking about how far I am from the ground as we push the double buggy up to the front door of the farm. Then I forget completely about my phobia as we try a freshly made goat’s cheese that is soft, tangy and utterly delicious. We sated our appetites to a background theme tune of cowbells ringing in the distant fields.
As we all quietly eat and daydream, I’m reminded of my friend Matt Feroze – a man who gave up the rat race of London to pursue his dream of making cheese. He spent months on a remote goat farm and trained with a cheese master in Lyon, only to (accidentally) become the best fromagier in France! He’s written a book about it called the Cheese and I, and he would definitely be turning green with envy to see me now. He’d also tell me exactly the reason for this cheese’s particular flavour. It’s all down to the maturation process and, of course, the goat’s diet. With all the lush countryside around us, it’s no wonder this cheese tastes so heavenly.
Our taste for dairy continues the next day, as we hear on the grapevine that the ice cream shop we’ve passed a couple of times is the sixth-best in France. Well, it would be rude not to! We try a multitude of local specialities, ranging from local honey, wild blueberry, salted caramel and more – it’s ice cream that certainly lives up to its reputation.
The memory of Matt’s cheese adventures has also put Lyon in mind.
Life goes on…
Lyon is the Holy Grail of our food adventure – and it’s the next stop. Unfortunately, this is where life back at home makes an appearance. I have to fly back to London for an important interview with a well-known artisan coffee house, and this cuts short my visit to this food-rich French city.
Leaving France and my family, I land back in London with a bump. After weeks on the road, following my nose through open spaces, fields and up those aforementioned mountains, the barriers at the Underground Station are a sudden shock. But my body remembers. My feet automatically pick up the pace (and so does my heart rate). I feel that commuter frustration as an unsteady tourist fusses over their ticket, holding up the flow. Looking around me, a sea of faces in grim lines as they check the time. How many seconds have we lost? So, you see, it takes only a few minutes of London life to feel as if you’ve never been away.
Lucky for me, I’m back out of the city that evening and in a bouchon to enjoy a meal back in Lyon with my family. My wife has been to the market while I’ve been away and has a spread of cheeses and charcuterie and treats, ready for us to try on my return.
Love in Lyon
Food in Lyon is all about tripe, sausages, pâtés. It’s about using the whole animal and staying true to traditional methods. Some of the culinary legends are Lyon-based – think La Mère Brazier and Paul Bocuse. That brings me to the market of dreams: Les Halles de Lyon.
Bocuse’s indoor market is world famous for hosting the best culinary artisans, and it really is a feast for the eyes. We let them gaze over amazing cakes, cheese, charcuterie, oysters and fresh fish. Those river fish I’m so fond of make another appearance. This is what I was bringing my dish back to – back to my own roots. I’m reminded of how important it is to cook from your heart. Not only was river fish a homage to my home country, it was influenced by my wife. I feel a rush of love and gratitude for my family as we sit down to yet another traditionally French meal. This time it’s got some really recognisable French elements: snails, for example. A saucisson brioche features salty pork sausage in brioche bread and is served pleasingly warm. Onglet with shallots, pan-fried offal with deep yet tangy mustard sauce and pike quenelles gratinéed in shellfish sauce are examples of traditional peasant food. We could keep eating.
And we do! I’m in heaven and piling on the pounds. But who cares? We’re off to Avignon; double pram at the ready for the next city…
Could this be the best meal of my life?
Avignon is on the list for its famous bridge and papal palace. Avignon also boasts some of the best vegetables in the country and sweet honey. By now, the weather is getting hotter, we are getting browner, and we’ve added immensely to the supplies that we began with in Lyme Regis. Our travelling parlour now features coffee, pickles, saucisson, many different types of butter, ales and Champagne, so space is at a premium. We’re wedged into the car, tucked up with all these treats. As we’ve abandoned the idea of route planning, we only made the decision to visit Avignon a few days before. We luckily check into a rented apartment and do a quick scan for local restaurants. It’s a clear choice: Ginette et Marcel, to try the local tartine.
Nestled in the stunning square (the pope previously lived in Avignon and, as such, it has simply beautiful architecture), this little café had a modestly sized menu. I always find small menus reassuring. Tartine is a simple dish of open, sliced sourdough bread where the toppings take the spotlight. My wife plumped for open Croque Monsieur with kettle-boiled ham, Emmental and mustard. I have two tartines (we’ve established that I’m the greedy party). The first featured rare roast beef with Fourme d’Ambert cheese. It was pleasing, but soon out shadowed by the best rillette I have encountered in my life. The second tartine was covered in duck rillette. It was rich, peppery and full-bodied. And as someone who grew up in its place of origin, I know my rillette. All through childhood, I’d make pork rillette with my mum. We’d simmer the pork bones and trimmings left over from a pig specifically butchered for the winter. I remember my parents would take it turns to wake up every two hours to keep stirring – that’s dedication to your food. It also meant we had jars of rillette to eat through the colder months. Although this is duck rillette, it’s both delicious and nostalgic.
It’s also hands-down one of the most delicious meals on this trip. Can it be topped? That’s the question. Having thrown our previously made plans to the four winds, we’re about to take to the seas… You might be reading from the captain’s log next time. Stay tuned.