Friday, 29 May 2015

Bloody Good Chap goes to France: Introduction

Most stories start from the beginning, and some start from the end and go back to the beginning... flashback stylee (on this occasion the misspelling was intentional). But on this occasion I am going to take an unconventional turn and start from the middle of my trip as it was at this juncture that I found the essence of why I chose to travel solo, across the breadth of France, in the first place. 

Picture the scene: The author of this piece downing shot after shot of slivovitz chased with half pints of Ardennes-style beer on a barge perched on the Meuse. This was ‘Mawhot’ Charleville-Meziere’s main evening hangout, named after a legendary lizard that is said to inhabit the murky river waters that flow through the town. The crowd that evening was lively, and the rare-arrival of an Englishman was something of a novelty, especially one wearing rust-coloured cords and wearing a blue tweed sports jacket... adding to the experience, it could only be the Bloody Good Chap. Patrons decided to try to out-do each other in terms of largess and I was plied with all manner of lethal spirits as Aswad’s Greatest Hits played on the establishment's sound system. 

Just as the band's 1988 smash ‘Don’t Turn Around’ had finished, there was a call for silence as a buxom creature took to the floor with an accordion and started to play Breton sea shanties. This seemed rather odd, considering that we were, perhaps, in one of the most landlocked regions of France, but I went with the flow. Soon we were all dancing arm in arm, my new friends Yvette and Matthieu encouraging me to join in the singing and dancing, then ‘Request for the English! C’mon Marie, one for l’Anglais’... 

I don’t know if you have ever heard Kashmir by Led Zeppelin played on the accordion, and in retrospect I think I committed blasphemy in asking for this 8:28 minute epic to be delivered in such a style but... the fog of plum brandy, brown beer and a pack of Gitanes clouded judgement somewhat. This slow song is, how should I say, much, much slower when played in the style requested, but it didn’t matter, it was all in the spirit of the occasion. We partied that Wednesday night away as the famed rain of the low countries beat down on the roof of the barge, and the bartender got ready to pour another round of liqueurs and small beers. 

We finished around 05:30, and I woke up feeling like death, with a tongue like sandpaper, ruddy cheeks and stinging, crusty eyes, but very happy. I had found out what it was all about to travel solo, meet new people, have new experiences  without the encumbrance of friends or family in tow. It felt liberating and showcased the friendliness and inclusiveness of my destination. 

In this seven-parter series, I intend to take you through each of the seven locations I visited on my journey: Nantes, Angers, Tours, Reims, Charleville-Mezieres, Metz, Nancy and Strasbourg and hopefully give you an insight into each of their unique characters. Perhaps it might even inspire a future visit or holiday. 

Coming up: In part one, I delve deep into the traditions of Nantaise cuisine sampling some delicious food, mulling over Muscadet and trying out some of my broken french! 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Fine French Flair!

Gazette Battersea - Chatfield Road, London SW11 3UY, United Kingdom

I have always believed that a hiatus is a useful way to overcome a dose of writers block. Yes dear readers, I know that I have been too long in typing up a latest set of musings with which to whet my audience’s appetite. Of course, I have paid the price my lax behaviour, followers drop off, visits to the site seem to evaporate into thin air and my writings sink down the SEO rankings... such is life and such are the consequences for lack of blog maintenance. 

However, now I have returned from the valleys of the uninspiring to mountain tops bursting with energy, enthusiasm and above all, entertainment and where better to start than with an account of a superb restaurant that I had the pleasure of visiting last Saturday, Gazette.

Located a stones-throw from the River Thames in the modern Battersea Reach complex, Gazette is a fine example of classic French bistro cooking done well. The occasion was my mother’s birthday and the other guest were my aunt and my grandmother so I was ‘outnumbered’ as they say! The birthday girl had somewhat undersold it claiming, a simple cuisine of roast chicken and pommes dauphinoise - how delicious I thought, but I felt that the initial description did not communicate the triumph of the meal I was about to eat. 

Now, to give a bit of context, I love French brasserie cuisine: hearty fish soups, mountains of crevettes (prawns), brochettes of lamb, coq au riesling, omelette au fine herbes, tarte tatine... you get the picture. Give me this any day over meat cooked in a sous vide, sodden with foams, espumas, consomme and concasse (just an irritating term often used to describing peeled and chopped tomatoes on Masterchef)... I know, I know, I am being a tad unfair but rustic French cuisine is one with bags of strong, pleasing flavours using moreish and often highly unhealthy ingredients. 

Back to the restaurant. I arrived early and as is my custom after the little hand passes 12 noon, I requested that the waiter bring me a beer. Cold, crisp and pleasingly non-descript (I have never liked hoppy lager) it slipped down easily as I chewed on green olives and some bread with a little salted butter, a pleasant start to the meal. 

Looking around I took in the decor, the room was light and airy but had a French sensibility about it with polished tables and chairs, robust linen napkins, banquettes along the walls, an oak bar and plenty of brass railing work. All in all the establishment had a nice welcoming feel without being to overwhelming. 

The other guests arrived, drinks were ordered (theirs a Provencal rose) and the menus were presented. My eyes lit up with delight and desire as soon as I scanned my eyes across the menu with its promises of suckling pig, presented four ways, oeufs en cocotte (baked eggs), confit de canard (duck legs braised in duck fat), cassoulet (a hearty bean stew incorporating the aforementioned confit de canard, pork, sausage), boeuf bourgignon, mussels, oysters... oh I could go on! These were rich pickings and no mistake. A wry smile rose from across the table as my dining companions saw the glee with which I devoured the menu with my eyes! I am often quick to decide but here I was in a quandary, there was so much I wanted to eat! 

Soon I alighted on the fresh asparagus with Bayonne ham and frisee (£7.50), I couldn’t resist. White asparagus is a rare treat in the UK, where green is the norm, and that it was pan-fried in butter made it doubly inviting.

It came to me as three fat spears topped with the chopped and cooked ham and a bundle of dress salad. I am ashamed to admit that I was so ravenous that I wolfed the lot down and, had I not been giving the cheese trolley longing looks, could have ordered a second round of it for pudding. The asparagus was delicate and played nicely against the saltiness of the pig and the sharply dress frisee. 

I was feeling rather traditional that day and so I plumped for a Bavette steak (£14) for my main course, a brasserie classic full of flavour and with a chewy texture. I find alluring and others don’t! I requested it blue (frankly steak should not be cooked any other way!) and with a side order of fries and some green salad.

The steak was all that I thought it would be and more, topped with melting shallots it was all that I thought it would be and more. The salad was pleasing because, unlike most green salads you get in restaurants, this one was a simple affair based on soft, round lettuce with a no-frills vinaigrette. The only criticism I had was when it came to the trite

I have never been a fan of the double cooking/triple cooking method and, truth be told, really, really like the processed chips you get at most steak restaurants. Maybe it’s something in the way they’re made, much like preferring frozen peas to fresh ones! However, the chips came and they were tasty, but not quite crispy enough for my preference. This is a very, very minor negative, more a matter of taste, and certainly not a game-changer. I accompanied my main course with a strong, but plummy red from Languedoc (£6.50 a glass). 

My dining companions had the 1/2 roast chicken (£11), beautiful cooked and presented with a luscious, silky jus, the dauphinoise potatoes and some fine green beans, where as my grandmother who has a healthy appetite tucked into the very tasty looking suckling pig (£17). All claimed their’s was the best choice! 

Pudding or cheese? Pudding or cheese? PUDDING or CHEEEEESE? Hmmm... what to  choose? I think I have given away my decision already but it was a hard one to make, there were plenty of enticing options but, having looked at the cheeseboard on the way in I was somewhat swayed. 

Choosing to go for the judicious four choices for £4.00 opposed to eight options for £8.00, and I was not disappointed. The waitress took me over to inspect the specimens. I have always been a sucker for cheese from North-East France and so a slice of ripe Mariolles (Picardy), a  slick of very ripe Epoisse (Burgundy), a petite wedge of Camembert with Calvados (Normandy) before dipping to centre for the Auvergnaise Fourme d’Ambert. Served with a few walnuts, a trio of grapes and some crusty bread it was a true symphony of flavours. Each cheese had been kept well and coupled with some of the Languedoc, which I had kept back it was almost other-worldly! 

My dining companions sampled a thin, crisp apple tart with a dollop of homemade vanilla ice cream, a thumbs up confirming that it was a good ‘un. 

Cheese gone, I rounded off the meal with a glass of deliciously cold plum brandy from Alsace-Lorraine and a black coffee. The perfect end to an absolutely fabulous meal!