For those who’d noticed I’d been away – well, I’m back. For those who hadn’t, I’m sorry to have detained you with that pointless information. The former group will probably also be aware that France is the place that I’m back from, and the latter group can now pride themselves on having caught up with the pace.
France, as everyone knows, is the world’s gastronomic heart. Alas, everyone is probably seriously out of date, and France’s heart in these matters is now clogged up with the cholesterol of all those years at the top. One might have thought that bypass surgery would have been the treatment of choice, but unfortunately in this case bypasses are an intrinsic part of the problem and offer the therapeutic equivalent of a well-delivered head butt. France long since sold its heart, gastronomic and pastoral, to the dubious and flashy charms of l’autoroute. Now that one can coast from, well, coast to coast and swap the grey waters of la Manche for the deep blue of la Méditerranée in a matter of hours one no longer has time for the leisurely dinners in hotels that introduced me to proper food when I first made the same trip, over three wonderful days, many years ago. France now makes me feel like the fretful parent of a wayward teenager (which of course I also am – fretful parent that is, not wayward teenager.) You love them dearly, but despair of the way they are throwing their talents away. I’m sure I’ll return to that particular hobby-horse another time, but in this post I want to reflect on just one aspect of my angst; what’s happening to restaurant food in France.
Before France became the country one dashes through on the way to somewhere else even sunnier, hotter, and trendier – Tuscany, in other words – it was the place where anyone serious about eating wanted to go, and needed to go if they were to sustain any pretence of knowledge in the fiercely snobbish world of haute cuisine. Or nouvelle cuisine, which is now neither new nor interesting, nor even a cuisine, come to that. In this last week, I ate at two establishments which demonstrate between them both the wonderful and the heartening, and also the inexpressibly sad, in French restaurants today.
The first was the Château de Bouesse which proves that the experience of eating in France is still sometimes done so perfectly that it makes you want die on the spot just so long as heaven consists of an unlimited supply of equivalent evenings (and of course, that one has been sufficiently blameless to qualify.) Of course it helped that the weather was stunning, and for the truly memorable and perfect eating experience there has to be a conspiracy amongst a host of factors beyond the food itself. The décor and ambience of the dining room must also play its part, along with tables big enough not to make you feel cramped, nor that if you reach for the bread you’ll inevitably knock over your soul-mate’s glass of wine. Actually, on this occasion I was soul-mate free, but you get the point. Those tables must also not be too intimately connected with one another, but rather maintain a respectful distance. The sun last Wednesday evening was playing its part in the conspiracy with aplomb, allowing golden shafts to suffuse the room with delicate warmth without blinding any of the occupants. And of course the service must be simultaneously inconspicuous but ever-present; a difficult trick to pull off, but one which is absolutely necessary to the entire ensemble. Finally, the stage for the whole event should for preference be a mediaeval château in which Joan of Arc once slept (and boy, did that girl sleep around!) Rather like this in fact:
And what of the food strutting its stuff on this perfect stage? In every respect it was fully worthy of its glorious setting. And it deserves spelling out in some detail. The amuses bouches were a little glass of cold cream of cauliflower soup, rillettes de saumon, and a potato pastry. It’s generally a good omen when you are served these not in the dining room, but along with one’s aperitif in a separate drawing room, and when they are of good quality, but even that did not prepare me for the delights ahead. My first course consisted of three of the most perfectly cooked langoustines I have ever tasted. There’s about ten seconds between undercooked and overcooked; these were timed to perfection, and beautifully arranged with a little saffron sauce. I can still taste them. Next came a plain fillet of fish (advertised as “salmon from the lake” but clearly brown trout) along with a delicate tart of spring vegetables and a frothy sauce. For me you can generally keep these ridiculous and pretentious aerated monstrosities that now seem to infest every chef’s sense of self-importance, but this one was exquisite in taste and not too foolish in texture. The main course was a breast of pigeon with the most superb combination of crispy exterior and bloodied pinkness inside, along with a tarragon sauce that was so perfumed it seemed as if one was breathing tarragon in gaseous form. For good measure the meat from the legs of the pigeon had been minced with oyster mushrooms and layered in a little potato sandwich as it were. Stunning. An excellent and generous cheese-board later, dessert was a soup of sweetened green tea with pieces of chopped fruits and topped with a ginger sorbet. I was driving, so no wine unfortunately other than a glass of Coteaux du Layon with the dessert which complemented it with just the right amount of sweetness. So that was – in case you were wondering – the wonderful and the heartening.
And the inexpressibly sad? I went with two friends to a little village restaurant not far from my house. We were the only three diners all evening. The patron produced rustic food just as good in its way as that the Château de Bouesse had provided a couple of nights earlier. He spent the whole evening popping in and out of the kitchen to talk to us, which I suspect had been alternated with glugs from the poison of his choice. But he was enthusiastic about the food he’d prepared, and I wondered just how drunk he’d have got if we hadn’t decided to eat there and no-one had turned up at all. Sorrows like that deserve to be drowned. The first course was a warm and robust tête de veau wrapped in a little crêpe and a tarragon vinaigrette. My main dish was a knuckle of cured pork, all gelatinous skin and melting meat that had probably been cooking most of the week. One cannot imagine food more honest, but yet more unfashionable. My dessert was a horrid couple of scoops of commercial ice-cream in a nasty chocolate-lined basket of cardboard wafer, but that was my fault for not choosing the alternative which was a lovely home-made madeleine de noisettes which I stole from my friend’s plate. When we asked for some digestifs after the meal, at first we were told a long story about how they could no longer dare to serve such things as anyone who drove home afterwards and had an accident would be asked where they had obtained the drink after which they had driven. And then the gendarmes would pay the patron an unwelcome visit and probably prosecute him. I don’t know if that is true, but if so it seems another nail in the coffin of his livelihood. I am no apologist for drunk driving, but blaming the restaurateur seems like pinning the blame in the wrong place to me. It seems inconceivable to me that this little restaurant will still be trading next year. There’s no passing trade to be had because no-one passes – they’re all charging down the A20 a few miles further east. The village is populated with as many English absentee home-owners as French these days, and few English stomachs are up to the challenges of veal head and time-softened pork gristle. And so, when he finally gets fed up with cooking food no-one comes to eat, or gets too drunk to cook anyway (and it’s a race to see which happens first, I suspect) another village restaurant cooking proper food will disappear. There aren’t many left to suffer the same decline. Speed kills, in every sense.