All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Is it food to die for?

A friend is arriving shortly, and I am looking forward to the Red Cross parcel she will be bringing. The Marmite, cheddar cheese and fresh indian spices are keenly anticipated, as are the golden syrup and suet. The French may make rude remarks about English cuisine, but I've never known any of them refuse a second helping of treacle tart, while the home made Christmas puddings are now not just accepted, but requested!

The big problem will be finding somewhere to have lunch. These days, I have given up going out for pleasure as I have been disappointed so often, but friends and family have the kind instinct to take out their hosts as a relief from the cooking and washing up. Give me the washing up any day over the overpriced and sub standard offerings which are the norm in my locality!
First, you have to beware of the places that announce their menu by price not by what they propose to serve. One encounter with a cow intestine sausage was enough to ensure I never entered such a place again....if they are too idle to write out their menu it doesn't hold out too much hope for the cooking! Recommendations have to be treated with caution.....a full plate cares much more weight in local opinion than the quality of what is served on it and I don't fancy tired charcuterie and salad leaves washed in bleach solution all bought in from the local supermarket. I can grate vegetables and buy cold meat myself...I can cook a steak the way I like it rather than having it ruined by a chef with his own ideas on what the customer should want and I can have a decent bottle of wine rather than paying over the odds for rubbish and risk being breathalysed on the way home. A place has to be good to overcome all these obstacles and, at the moment, I know of only one.

There is such a place in a tourist town some forty minutes' drive away and it is a great place to take visitors. On a riverside street there is a shabby courtyard surrounded by green painted railings where a brown door alongside leads you to a corridor with a toilet at the far end, a sink against the wall and another door into the bar itself. Here you have an authentic workman's caff of the 1920s, with its huge bar and mirrored display of bottles, while tables and bentwood chairs line the walls and battered iron tables lurk outside under faded umbrellas in the summer. The proprietor is now in his late seventies, a rotund, white haired gentleman in white overall, slippers and, in winter, woolly hat, who shuffles round to take the orders of his customers. The regulars are local workman and some surprisingly colourful ladies, but tourists get the same courteous attention, even if regulars on a limited lunch hour get the fastest service. He offers an unchanging menu...crudites to start, beetroot, potato salad, tomatoes and high class charcuterie - yes, I know what I said about being able to buy it myself - steak and chips, either bloody or just cooked - and I know what I said about cooks with their own ideas on steak - and the unchanging bottle of house red. Yes, I know I have just contradicted myself, but this place has one of the nicest atmospheres I know, and the chips are the best I have tasted outside Belgium. He was kind enough to tell me which brand of oil he uses and the chips on the home front have undergone a distinct improvement following his advice. The waitresses vary from visit to visit.....either delightful young things in exiguous clothing or a woman of a certain age with views on how her customers should behave. The house dog insinuates himself alongside your chair, the regulars help themselves to a drink from the bar as they chat over their newspapers and this is the only place in which, while waiting for a table, I have ever been given a drink on the house, or, come to that, discussed the merits of DAF cars.

There is only one problem....will he still be alive?

I have had far frostier receptions in my time. There is one hotel with restaurant where you are either welcomed with open arms or receive the cold shoulder depending on four elements...if you have been able to reserve in person AND have been lucky enough to meet the chef's dogs while so doing AND like dogs AND the dogs like you, then it is the arms. If not all of the above then it is the shoulder. At least, thinking it over, I can find nothing else to account for the difference. If I am invited by a dog approved person, all goes swimmingly from the moment that Madame - wife of chef - beams as you open the door to the moment that her husband emerges from his kitchen flanked by the dogs to accept the gratitude of his customers for what has been a superb meal. If invited by those not vetted by the dogs then either it is impossible to reserve a table, or if you have slipped through the net by getting the trainee receptionist who believes in encouraging trade then while the food is still superb Madame wants to rush you through your meal, sulks if you resist and the evening is enlivened by the slam of plates hitting the table. As it is a long way off, the necessity of making two trips, one to book and one to eat, ensures that I only go if invited by someone on the dogs' list who lives nearby.

The last expedition to a local restaurant was a sympathise with the Russians fighting on seventeen fronts when you've had this sort of experience. The site was pleasant, on decking over a lake, and the menu did not look too large to be authentic.....when it offers everything under the sun you know that the freezer and the microwave take the majority place in the kitchen. We ordered oysters. Word came from the kitchen that oysters were off. Monsieur et Mesdames did not realise that oysters had to be fresh, so they were not available, we were told, by a snooty young waitress who refused to respond to our French and insisted on using English. Since we had just seen them on sale in the local supermarket, we could only imagine that the staff were too idle to nip down and buy them. We ordered something else as a starter and ordered filet of salmon, fish gratin and steak as our main courses. The salmon was approaching raw, and the steak was an amalgam of gristle and fat, undercooked to the point of having just been defrosted in the microwave. Madame could not eat it, and asked for a doggy bag. The waitress decided at this point that she did not understand in either English or French, and the steak was whipped away. The pud was fine, in fact, assortment of desserts....but the coffee was rank. The waitress was no longer in attendance, being busy patronising another table of English customers, but we finally obtained the bill and were set to leave. Where was the doggy bag? Our waitress had gone incommunicado, so Madame invaded the kitchen, where the steak was lying on the table.....had it been forgotten or was there some hope among the staff that they could palm it off on some other customer? She demanded a bag, scooped up the steak, and we were away. That afternoon, the fish gratin made itself felt with a bout of food poisoning for Monsieur. We cooked the steak before giving it to the dog. He was all right.ri

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