Monday, 20 July 2015
Raider of the Lost Fromage: The French adventure so far...
For those of you who want to recap before I resume my epic quest of Northern France, here is a little reminder...
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.
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...
chose Le restaurant Baron-Lefèvre having read some very glittering reviews of the establishment on Trip Advisor and, having taken a look at the website, I was captivated by the modern, airy look of the restaurant. Plenty of exposed brickwork, steel railings, a playful green house on one wall and an open kitchen on the other, it looked inviting and contemporary. I then read their philosophy of staying true to local Nantaise cuisine, taking advantage home grown vegetables (for which the area is renowned), the abundance of the sea and river, lamb reared on the salty marshes and time-honoured techniques of classical French cuisine. I made an advance booking.
I arrived at Le restaurant Baron-Lefèvre and was ushered to my table for one. The nice thing about France is there were a couple of other lone diners and I was not made to feel unwelcome or a spectacle as so often happens in UK restaurants. Nor was I given a reduced level of service which also seems to typify dining solo.
The menu was full of interesting preparations, a few classics, a couple twists on classics and some house originals. What I immediately noticed was the simplicity of the preparations and an emphasis on 2-3 core ingredients, proudly stamped with local provenance. There were plenty of mouth watering plates from a simple platter of langoustine (Dublin Bay Prawns) served on crushed ice to a traditional salt marsh rack of lamb with spring vegetables. However, there were a few things that leaped out at me. Here’s what I went for:
White Asparagus with Sauce Mousseline
Loire Valley Cremant (sparkling wine)
White asparagus is not nearly as popular in the UK as it is on the continent where it takes precedence over the green variety. It has a subtler flavour, with a faint taste of oysters. Perfectly cooked, each part of the vegetables was tender and accompanied by a foaming, decadent sauce Mousseline, which is essentially a Hollandaise with the addition of whipped cream. Deliciously decadent, but judiciously portioned, it whetted my appetite for my main course. The dry, sparkling cremant was a light counterpoint which worked well.
Eels in a parsley and garlic butter sauce with Nantes spring vegetables
A Carafe of Muscadet
Eels and apprehension go hand in hand in the mind of the Englishman and I do think this a sad state of affairs, as there are few greater pleasures that the taste of eel flesh with its tender, oily flesh offset by a reassuringly organic earthiness found in river fish. The Loire abounds with Eels so this really is the place to eat it. This time, I had it prepared in a very classic style in a parsley, garlic and butter sauce surrounded by tiny new potatoes. It’s a winning combination and made even more special with a small cocotte of turned carrots, fresh peas and green asparagus tips. Wanting to drink the local tipple, I went for a carafe of Muscadet, where its fresh, slightly acidic taste worked well with rich food. A truly stunning dish.
Rum Baba with Tropical Fruits
Given the richness of the main course, I was tempted to pass on pudding until I saw that one of the specials for the evening was a traditionally made Rum Baba. Although a speciality of Lorraine (where I visit later in the trip) I could not resist - it’s one of my favourite puddings, a sure way to my heart. I was presented with a light doughnut type pastry on a bed of pineapple carpaccio and raspberries, topped with a generous portion of Chantilly cream then liberally doused with white rum (which soaked into the pastry). With each mouthful I felt my stomach agreeably expanding! It’s highly alcoholic so there was no need for a digestif but I a well made black coffee cut through the richness!
The total bill was €57, which, given the amount I had consumed was not to bad at all. It was a superb meal, if you are in Nantes, I thoroughly recommend making the time to visit.
It was time to leave Nantes, so stopping off at a bakery on the way to the station, I grabbed a baguette filled with saucisson and cornichon and a black coffee to stiffen my resolve. Although the night before had not been too heavy, I had enjoyed a few nicely chilled beers and a couple of glasses of eau de vie in the buzzing city centre at the popular Circle Rouge. Being a solo traveller I had attracted a bit of attention with my trusty book in hand, ‘Ad Men and Bad Men’ and of course played the role of affable tourist answering a stream of questions on my English credentials.
Arriving at the station I had a little time to kill, so I opted for the first of many customary train beers. As the rather sub-par Kronenbourg original (non of this 1664 rubbish) slipped down, I kept hearing the the opening bars of Shanice’s 1991 chart topper ‘Smile’ to a point where it became quite irritating. Of course it wasn’t the R ‘n’ B classic but a weird jingle for the constant stream of announcements from the team at SNCF. It was a sound that was going to characterise the trip as I experienced the French railway system.
The lush countryside of the Loire Valley unfolded before me as we wended our way to Angers and I munched away on that delicious sandwich, full of cold butter, cured meat and piquant pickle. Before I knew it, the ancient city of Angers revealed itself and it was time to enjoy the second destination on the trip.
Any fans of medieval history will be familiar with Angers, the seat of the legendary Geoffrey of Anjou and a wealthy dukedom. It houses a number of treasures, including a set of UNESCO tapestries of the Apocalypse and a great collection in their museum of fine arts. Furthermore, the city is beautifully preserved full of fine architecture so there is plenty to see and do. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday so the town was somewhat sleepy, but that didn’t stand in my way too much.
I dumped my bags at the ever reliable Ibis Hotel, a French institution and hit the town, but not before I had a discouraging exchange with the hotel’s concierge, who told me that the only place to eat in the whole place was the rather uninspiring hotel restaurant. I’m sure the food would not have been that bad, but I was not hear to dine in the bar at a chain hotel. I knew I could do a bit better, even when taking pot luck.
It was time to explore the town, take in the cathedral and, have a glass or two of the local tipple, Rose d’Anjou. A strange wine, this beverage is not that popular in the UK and is a little bit rough and ready, however, it goes down quite agreeably on a piping hot day when chilled, especially with a bowl of finely sliced saucisson in a well-appointed square in the shadow of an ancient tower.
An hour in the Fine Arts Museum was rewarding, especially for the small but impressive room of 16th and 17th Century Flemish old master paintings and some sombre but beautifully crafted 12th and 13th Century iconography. It was well worth the 6€ ticket and I recommend popping in if you find yourself in Angers.
I become a habitual snacker when I go on holiday, making the most of the change in cuisine and, pottering around the quiet Sunday afternoon streets, I found the most amazing of fast food emporiums: The rotisserie. It was an emporium of meaty wonder and a rare place of activity as the sultry sun beat down.
I entered and the enticing smell and site of chickens ‘turning and turning in a widening gyre’ or rather spits greeted me. But that was not all, there were trays of Rillons (confit pork belly), sausages, Morteau, roasted lamb, bowls of sauteed potatoes, pots of homemade mayonnaise, chopped hard boiled eggs...
This was real fast food! Rather than the disgusting array of draft soft drinks, there were half bottle of wine and plastic glasses, cans of beer or freshly squeezed juice. We desperately need this in London for the masses. I went for a Rillons sandwich with a can of lager, it was unctuous and delicious, sticky, slightly gelatinous, slightly greasy, utterly deliciously. If sex was a sandwich, this would be it!
Dinner soon came around and despite the Rillons sandwich, a little aperitif of Rose de Anjou and a bowl of olives whetted my appetite for a simple plate in an equally simple restaurant. Yes Basserie de Gare (opposite the station as you might guess) was basic, but not unpleasant. It was a fine evening so I took a table outside. Scanning the menu and looking at the rather pedestrian offering I saw something that had long been on my bucket list of things to try, Andouilette.
For American readers this is not to be confused with the Cajun Andouille which is a spicy pork sausage, this one is actually made of pigs intestines rolled into a cylinder and bound in more intestines. It has quite a high, offaly smell and an acquired, chewy texture. It’s not for the faint-hearted and is certainly an alien taste to the Anglo-American palate. I ordered with some trepidation, and the waiter was rather surprised, ‘really?’ he said. This made me more determined, ‘of course!’ I replied, ‘d’accord’ returned, he went away shaking his head, probably thinking I was made. I ordered a glass of Sancerre (another Loire Valley wine) and awaited my fate...
I must say the dish that arrived did look very inviting, a rustic white sausage with appealing grill marks, a pile of fries and some simply dressed lettuce arrived. I tucked in, and I must say that I don’t know why I was so apprehensive. Tasting the andouilette dispelled any negative illusions that had been communicated to me by others who had tried this delicacy. Yes there was a slight barnyard-y element to this, as one would expect of anything associated with the digestive tract, but it was not unpleasant. I love chewy, gelatinous textures and I consumed my meal with gusto, almost as soon as it had arrived, it was gone!
I did not go for a pudding, I didn’t need it, instead I went back into town for a digestif, in particular a glass of Cointreau, another local tipple (it’s produced on the outskirts of Angers). Luckily, bars are open on Sunday evenings and so I was not disappointed. It was a great way to round off the day, accompanied by a half-pint or three of beer. Another perfect ending to another delightful day...