Saturday, 29 August 2015
It was time to leave the west of France, the majestic Loire, the charming landscape, delicate foods and gentle wines behind and head east. The robust cuisine, the bold wines and the distinctly northern European feel would be in sharp contrast to my previous destination. Having been to Alsace before, I had an inkling of what to expect, but nothing would prepare me for the welcoming people and, frankly, the pointless hedonism that was to characterise this half of the adventure.
The sun shone as I left Tour, armed with a good slab of pate, a crusty loaf, some wild strawberries and a half bottle of red. It was a simple lunch but one which suited the long journey I was taking across the breadth of France. As I finished my customary pint of train station beer, I focused my attention on Reims, the legendary capital of Champagne, the next leg of my French tour.
It was a long journey, with a brief stop in Paris, where I saw the inside of the Metro and Gare L’Est but little else, but I was content having enjoyed that nice, rough and gamey country pate and a light red. An hour later I was in Reims, holding such a significant place in French history, not so much for the famed wine but for its place in confirming the legitimacy of country’s monarch.
In this relatively, gentle landscape, the cathedral dominated. It’s an imposing structure, more built for pomp and grandeur as opposed to beauty. Whatever your feelings when you see this building, it certainly merit a visit. Who can forget the iconic WW1 image of this bomb battered church, implying as it did a sense of stubborn defiance and fortitude in the midst of the destruction.
Where the Loire Valley had been sunshine, the weather turned in the north east, shifting to that close, overcast, drizzly sky, unique to the UK, northern France and the low countries. Outside the cathedral it was not a picturesque town, in fact I found it to be quite ordinary and there was a definite malaise in the air, you could see the terrible legacy everywhere of a city which had been at the centre of many of Europe’s most devastating conflicts.
But enough of bleak history, let’s get down to brass tacks. I got a little diorientated, turning and weaving through these rather uninspiring streets looking for a very unassuming hotel on a very unassuming street.
Hotel Gambetta was finally found after an infuriating series of exchanges with locals who I fear were trying to lead me off on a wild goose chase every step of the way. I arrived, and tried to check in...
“Non monsieur, ne pas le reservation.”
Fuck that, I’d booked a room at this sodding place and I was tired, it was not a mood to cross me. However, I fixed my most saccharine smile, trying to be civil; there must have been some mistake, an error in the booking?
Apparently not, he said looking through his book of printed off reservations. I was adamant, standing my ground, an angry young man quaking in his little boots (or suede loafers). It’s one of the very few times I have felt confrontational but I had paid for the room so I felt a little aggrieved.
By this time, knowing he could speak the lingo, I switched back to English. He kept phaffing and then looking through his database for this booking. He was about to cast me out on my arse but, being a nosey bastard, I craned over the desk and there saw my booking which he had overlooked... oh dear.
There are times to be smug and there are times to think that you might like a room, I chose the latter. Once I had discovered the error it was all smiles and courtesy. I apparently could have the master suite, a privilege, it had just been completed.
Just completed was an apt description, the paint had barely set on the walls. As the proprietor opened the door to show off this new addition to his portfolio, the smell of freshly laid matt emulsion hit my nostrils. It was quite overpowering, my first impressions were that I was going to expire this evening in a mixture of paint and alcohol.
“Sir!” he announced in his very good English, “here it is...”
I surveyed the scene, it was impressive, an eight bedroom apartment, I could’ve had a party in this top-floor cavern. It was not furnished, apart from a single bed and the sockets had not even been adhered to the walls. The paint fumes were almost overwhelming...
“You could cook in here, have a meal this evening...” Said my landlord, pointing at the Meile unit at one side of the living area, very proud.
“On what? The floor?!” I retorted, then pointing to the expanse of unfurnished room facing me.
“Well, it’s yours to do as you like this eve!” He nudged me and gave a disconcerting wink. Creepy as it was, I liked this charlatan who had palmed an unfinished, three room apartment on me to try and make up for an error. I went with it, paint fumes (I soon became accustomed) and all.
Embracing this rather odd situation, I dumped my bags and headed into Reims. Yes, the Cathedral held a mystical charm as did a neighbouring full of medieval and 19th century artifact, but I was here for the gastronomy and I had been well briefed.
First and foremost, I found a little Champagne bar serving a cheeky Blanc de Blanc, non-descript but gorgeous against some shaved saussicon sec and a few salted almonds. I indulged in my book, occasionally looking up to see couples entwining and businessmen in fervent conversation, a working city.
Taking my leave of these rather fun people I made my way slowly, stopping at a few watering holes, to another stand out restaurant L’Alembic... I shall cover this in the next post!
Friday, 21 August 2015
As I sit writing this post, I am in the thoroughly genteel setting of The Albion in Islington, it’s full of trend-setters, of which I am most definitely not one bedecked in a pink-striped shirt, blue chinos and suede loafers. However, the setting does provide welcome inspiration to chart the next step of my French adventure.
Leaving Angers by train, I enjoyed a crusty baguette filled with cold butter, Rosette (a type of saucisson from Lyon) and cornichon with a couple of cold bottles of lager as the hilly countryside around my previous destination gave way to lush, verdant fields implying that this was an area which prided itself on a rich agricultural heritage. I was not wrong, The Touraine (of which Tours is the capital) is one of the most fertile areas of France, famed for its rich bounty of produce from fine wines to vegetables and livestock.
It was boiling hot when we pulled into the city and, huffing and puffing, I attempted to locate my apartment. I had intentionally opted for a self-catering option in Tours as I was determined to head to the city’s renowned covered market in search of my dinner. As I searched for my accommodation I came across the one frustrating stumbling block of Tours, its non-linear layout. It seemed that, unlike so many French settlements which generated outwards from a main square, Tour was pockets of activity within sleepy residential spaces.
I got to the apartment, it was 13:50, I found everything firmly shut, ‘back at 14:30’... merde! It was sweltering and the stupid trundle suitcase I had brought on the trip had a distinct allergy to cobbles. It had taken me a little while to find this place, unmarked as it was on any map and I was a hot and bothered little fellow. I rang the bell, they were going to let me in... not they weren’t. A grumpy looking woman came to the locked door and aggressively hammered on the sign with a digit, ‘Non!’ she exclaimed ‘retournee a 2:30’. Well, I felt well and truly beaten... wiping my brow under the sun I pondered what to do before I returned.
Luckily, as in most of these situation, a bar magically appeared. One which coincidentally enough closed at 14:30 on a Monday (for any layman, France is a commercial ghost town on Mondays), I was parched and the rather unrefreshing brown Belgian beer the proprietor pour me - assuring me that this is what the ‘Englishman’ was partial to - I suppose it was better than nothing. Perhaps I might have preferred a Pelforth from the condensing tap at the bar than a luke-warm Leffe. However, the chap had seen my predicament and gave me the beer on the house, I could not complain and found myself in that awkward situation where I had to respond to his hospitality by drinking with gusto.
With a brown beer weighing heavy on my ever expanding belly, I went back to the apartment. It was rather spare but perfect for what I needed, a base from which I could gorge myself on charcuterie whilst I quaffed deep on the local tipple.
Dumping my bags I set out to Tours famous covered market, Les Halles, to purchase my dinner, the most important consideration of the day. Nothing beats great charcuterie and after ten minutes of walking to the west of the city centre I was greeted with the Mecca of porky products (probably not the most appropriate metaphor). There was everything one could imagine, from fifteen different types of cooked ham and almost as many dried, stacks and stacks of salamis, tantalising terrines, quivering jellied meats, smoked sausages, bowls and bowls of prepared salads... I was in heaven!
I left the charcuterie with mountains of salami, head cheeses, pates and various salad. I then dipped into a marvellous bakery and purchased two warm, crusty ficelles (a thin, crispy type of baguette). Now that I had the basics, it was time to tackle the fruit seller, purchasing wild strawberries, luscious white peaches and plumptious grapes. I was nearly there, all that was needed now was some excellent local wine to pair with this beautiful food.
Tipping into a little independent wine shop, it was just a lucky coincidence that there was one in close proximity to the market. I thought to myself, let’s not go crazy, let’s get a few half bottles, some gems from the area, a little tour through the vintages of the Loire Valley, of which there are many. I plumped for a Muscadet (produced just south of Nantes), a Sancerre (a gentle, sophisticated white from further into the French interior) and a Chinon (a light to medium-bodied red from a picturesque area just to the North of Tours). I was all set for dinner in my little ‘studio’; a rather generous word for the student accommodation I was staying in, which had a vending machine dispensing microwaveable blanquette de veau.
Depositing my spoils, I decided to take in one of the main sites of the city, the cathedral. A most wonderful medieval structure, it was magnificent, easily one of the best that I saw on the trip. It was elegant and exuded sophisticated grandeur, hinting at the wealth of the region in years gone by. it struck an imposing gaze over a settlement which has not been blighted by sky scrapers and still retains some old world charm. Being off-season it was relatively quiet and as such offered a tranquil sanctuary in what was otherwise quite a bustling city, teeming with students.
Following a few late afternoon/early evening pints of nondescript, papery pints of Stella Artois and a shot of Kraken rum at a ‘trendy’ bar which verged a little too much on the Goth side for my liking (perhaps not such a good recommendation from the guidebook) I headed back to the apartment for a self prepared feast of charcuterie and cheese in the company of some very fine drink.
Plating the first course I enjoyed some exquisite Rillette de Tours, the local delicacy. It was unctuous, fatty, strands of soft pork suspended in a savoury mix of spice, lard, herbs and salt. The bone dry Muscadet cut through the grease... a pleasing combination, whetting my appetite for an array of tasty charcuterie.
The ‘Rosette‘ saucisson was robust as I moved onto the light Chinon, pairing well with the goaty, farmyardy Crotin de Chavignol, a small local cheese from the area. The jambon blanc was moist and tender, subtly flavoured and well paired against the stronger flavours of the fromage du tete and monceau (two types of terrine made from pigs head). It was a firework display of flavour, complemented by some cracking bread and a little bit of cold butter, it made the wine slip down a treat.
I could feel my belly expanding as I cast my eyes to the ripe fruit. The Sancerre worked its magic as I tucked in, veritably gorging myself on this excellent produce... what a treat and what a pig I felt. Truly a spectacular meal, I was glad I had resisted the temptation to buy some sausages from the butcher to augment this feast!
With a stomach full and a slightly self-satisfied smile on my face I decided that, rather than try my luck on the Tours bar scene, I would call it an early night and limber up for the next, exciting leg of the trip, which would see me hop over Paris to the very different, North Eastern side of the country. As I drifted off into a food induced slumber, I thought of the delights that would await me when I got to Reims.
Next time: I head to the capital of Champagne where hotel problems, fine wine, exceptional food, Irish pubs and some rather exuberant expats awaited...