Some of our French dining experiences have been, frankly, a little disappointing, which was a big surprise. Overpriced tough grisly steak, bland runny sauces, wilted veggies. What? We had expected every meal in France to be a joyful cascade of amazing flavours and singing angels but that has not been the case. Surprisingly, the French, some of them at least, seem to have a strange fondness for McDonald’s. I know, it’s weird. So we’ve found that asking for personal recommendations is the best way to find a really good restaurant. Also, it’s best not to frequent dining spots with pictures of the food taped to the front window. Dead giveaway.
One morning I was sitting in French class concentrating very hard on the lesson (ok, daydreaming about duck confit) when our teacher asked if I had any questions. “Yes, I do” I stammered in my awkward française. “Can you recommend a good restaurant close by for lunch?” She seemed confused. This wasn’t a question about the futur proche or the passé composé. She quickly suggested the chinese place around the corner and tried to get me back on track, just like the teachers in high school. ‘Non, a French restaurant, if you please”. This was not part of the lesson plan.
She gave us directions to a small creperie called Le Blé Noir. When we walked through the teal coloured french door the owner Christophe said something like “what do you want?” as he hustled between the 14 or so small tables. He had sweat on his brow as he steered us to the table in the corner with a big smile. Salad or crepes. That’s it. But oh, what you can do with salad and crepes!!
Christophe’s wife Natalie was in the kitchen churning out the lightest fluffiest savoury crepes using buckwheat flour or le blé noir. She topped these with different alchemic combinations of local cheeses, herbs, lardons (the little fresh bacon morsels that are god’s gift to humans) spinach, tomatoes or perhaps an egg cracked right in the middle all tucked into a savoury gallette package. She whipped up salads using market fresh butter lettuce topped with your choice of delicately roasted potato sections with melty chèvre, gésiers (confit of duck gizzards), roquefort, roasted chicken or boiled eggs and a home made vinaigrette that had just the right zesty dijon bite. We loved it so much we came back again the next week. And again the week after. One day Christophe poured Cam a glass of Ricard when he had a head cold. “This fixes anything”. We became regulars.
Over small lunch sized pitchers of red wine Christophe and his wife Natalie became friends. We looked forward to their charms and to patting their dog Kelly who waited patiently just outside the kitchen. And as you do with some friends, the gentle insults and kidding around got thicker and more fun. Christophe is from Brittany where the humour is as dry as the apple cider he serves in pottery tea cups. “A french menu for you Tara, and you Lyla”. “Cam, you need the English one…keep working on it”. He knew we were taking French lessons. We were often the last ones left in the restaurant when the regular clientele had to scurry back to work. We had no such obligations. We watched him turn away customer after customer if they arrived one minute after 2pm. “No, you are late, it is all over for today”. Lunch in France ends at 2. Exactly. We would occasionally share a second crepe for dessert. Christophe was very proud of his home made chocolate sauce or fried banana crepes with real Chantilly cream. On the day of our last lunch at Le Blé Noir we were sad to leave, to say goodbye. Good food is best shared with good friends. This was certainly both.
Another recommendation led us to Le Bistro d’Augustin, a big bustling dining room near the Carcassonne train station with a very high sculpted ceiling. Business lunches were conducted over towers of fresh seafood on shaved ice, diners streamed in shouting hellos and the servers literally ran to and from the noisy clatter of the kitchen. “Try the mussels” our friend had said, “a great big pot for just 10 euros”. He was right. The curry sauce was delicately creamy and didn’t overpower the fresh plump ochre coloured shellfish. The server insisted we must have cold white wine because “red wine is not proper with fish”. She said this while puffing out her cheeks and blowing on us in that cute exasperated French way. I thought we were over that, but I guess not. The heaping basket of crusty bread came in handy for mopping up. This is another reason my pants don’t fit any more. As he zoomed by with a tray of drinks the bartender suggested we try the chocolate lava cake, a house specialty. Not being one for desserts I was hesitant…for about 2 seconds…then gave in. It may have been the best dessert of my life. Or it could have just been the PMS. Regardless, the crisp outer layer protecting a warm gooey centre oozing with a combination of high grade chocolate and sticky caramel topped with crème fraîche actually made me gasp. I instinctively stuck out my elbows so my fellow diners couldn’t swoop in with their spoons and interrupt the bliss. “You will never have anozer deezert like zeece, why? Because eeet eeez French!” I love it when they make these declarations. He wasn’t kidding.
One Sunday we road tripped to a village not to far away called Lagrasse. It originated in the time of Charlemagne in 783. These dates have not stopped blowing my mind. Highlights of the town include the Abbey (every village has one…at least) the roman style bridges and the narrow medieval streets now full of artist studios and charming shops. It is also smack dab in the centre of Le Corbières, the largest wine producing region in France. We were on the hunt for a winey diney lunch.
La Petite Maison sits on the main street of Lagrasse under a tidy row of plane trees. The terrace had just one table left when we arrived shortly after 12. Strangely the resto next door wasn’t busy at all. It was a good sign. Aldine and her small friendly staff create daily specials as the market permits. We devoured a wonderful shredded curry chicken burger, duck confit lasagne (dear god!) and a wonderful big salad with a colourful array of fruits, veg, nuts and artisanal chutneys and olive tapenade. Remember, a typical French salad is lettuce and tomato and that’s about it. Our server, who spoke 9 languages causing us to feel quite inadequate struggling with enough French to order, chose the wine. She was a really cool lady.
It was a local bottle, made about 5 minutes away. Les Terrasettes Clos de l’Anhel 2012. The quality was extraordinary. It was so divine we went traipsing around the country knocking on doors trying to find the source so we could buy a few more bottles. Sadly the winery was closed on Sundays. La Petit Maison gave us a fresh and innovative lunch that we hadn’t had in France yet. It was rather ‘un’ French, if there is such a thing. Unconventional and healthy, and we loved it. Again, the warmth of the service improved the experience of the whole meal. I love it when the chef kisses you on the way out.
A list of our favourite meals so far has to include the amazing Restaurant Darracq in Amou. People drive from miles around to savour the simple country classics like duck confit, porcini mushrooms with parsley and foie gras beautifully prepared while sitting on the stone terrace watching life go by. So remarkable we went twice. Another was the exquisite dinner we enjoyed recently in Corsica at The Hotel U Palazzu Serenu. I still drift off sometimes dreaming of that creamy chestnut and wild cèpes soup followed by a wild boar moussaka. The Corsicans are no slouches in the wine department either.
We’ve been lucky to sample a vast spectrum of delicacies in the first three months of our travels. Yummy market finds wrapped in paper eaten leaning against a wall, late night Spanish cooking lessons and high end dining straight out of the Michelin guide books but my favourite meals have been the ones we throw on our backs and take along. The simple spreads of cheese, ham, tomatoes, olives and bread roughly slapped together in a park or on a beach. These family picnics munched on as we breath in the fresh air and gaze at the sky or the sea while chatting about what we have been lucky enough to see make my heart swell. They give us time to reflect and appreciate the simple gifts of this experience and the quiet pleasure of just being alone together. To look for shells or do a few cartwheels between bites is the best entertainment. They teased me about it at first but I’m so glad I brought the tupperware.