Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Bloody Good Chap goes to France: Nantes a care in the world...

Nantes rarely seems to get much of a look in on the tourism agenda, yet, having spent the first 24 hours of my trip in Brittany’s former capital, I must say that I highly recommend it to those looking for a short weekend break, or a destination from which to start a big adventure. It could be anything from dipping down the Atlantic coast or following the Loire as it contours through the French interior to a leisurely drive/cycle through Breton pastures. 

I will warn those culture vultures and Medieval maniacs that Nantes is not a ‘pretty’ place, rather a working one, built on fishing, shipbuilding and biscuits (LU’s Petit Ecoliers come hail from here). It bursts with affluence and the glitz and glamour someone might associate with a major city, yet it is only a minor player. 

The layout is stereotypical, grand boulevards cut through sections of non-linear streets, punctuated here and there by squares teeming with ornate churches, casual cafes and rip-off restaurants. 

Arriving at 9:00am on a Saturday, I found that the city was yet to awaken - it was deathly quiet as I pitched up at my cheap, but very cheerful hotel! Dumping my bags, I headed off to explore and grab a cup of coffee. The local square was characterised by a large fountain and families enjoying their baguettes avec buerre et confiture, the sky was ominous, the climate hazy. Having only had four hours sleep the night before, I was in need of something to perk me up. Alighting on a tabac I found my first opportunity. 

I have never really been a cigarette smoker and had fully intended to enjoy a cigar or two on this trip. However, my eyes alighted on a packet of Gitanes Filtre and I instantly knew that this would be my choice. No longer available in the UK the might Gitane conjure up a real sense of nostalgia, my father’s brand of choice, the smell took me back to the rugged landscape of the Lot-Garonne in the south west of France. 

I quickly found a cafe, “un Muscadet s’il vous plait”, I said with confidence. No one batted an eyelid, the fact that I was ordering a glass of wine at 10:30am seemed entirely normal. Anyway, it was my holiday, so restraint be damned! One wanted to say about the wine that it was ‘Heaven with Gitanes...’ (a Brideshead reference for my more literary followers). All I needed now was a stripy jumper, a plate of oysters and ecrevettes (large prawns) and the look would be complete. After all this procrastination, it was time for lunch.

The Gallette (buckwheat pancake) is synonymous with the area around Nantes and seemingly there was an establishment on each corner offering all manner of sweet and savoury fillings. there was a place the guide recommended, and yes, it was near my hotel. I pitched up, but it looked tacky and soulless compared to the one next to it. So it was that I took the road less travelled by, not for the first time in my life, and went to the smaller, rather less ‘bells and whistles’ establishment. 

As soon as I stepped over the threshold, I knew I wanted one of the famous Breton ciders, clear and flat, it’s served by the china bowl (boelee) and decanted from a pottery jug. It slipped down a treat as I tucked into a Gallette filled with onions, ham, cheese and of course, the obligatory egg, with an irresistibly runny yolk! This was quickly followed by a flambeed crepe topped with rum and raisins. It was a fine meal and a perfect introduction to my quest to sample as much regional cuisine as possible. 

The afternoon was spent pootling around town, stopping every now and then for a refresher. One place, Comedie de Vins, springs to mind where dry white wine played off against a plate of salty sardines and a bowl of saucisson as the sky became clear and the evening sun shone on my brow.

Here I take a moment to pause... as dinner deserves a short, stand alone post, given that it was one of the two big meals that I decided to indulge in on this bloody good adventure... 

Coming up: I delve into the culinary delights of Restaurant Maison Baron Le Fevre. 

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