I recently wrote that in France you are never far from a good meal. I have since had cause to stop and re-think those words, because on this trip, I have to say, the food was decidedly underwhelming, with some exceptions.
We arrived in France, unpacked in our delightful country hotel in the Midi-Pyrenees, and set off into the small local town with fairly low expectations of a decent meal. It was a quiet Monday night in a VERY small town. I was determined to quaff my fill of Kir Royale over the next three weeks, and to dine like a queen. And this meal exceeded our expectations. I had duck breast so tender you could cut it with a spoon, covered in a glorious sauce, with vegetables that were delicious, and I finished off with an equally delicious crème brulee. Wonderful! We were back in France.
The next night we went to a tiny auberge in the middle of nowhere, as recommended by our hotel owner, and pushed the boat out with another gourmet meal cooked in an understated and yet delicious way. I finished with something called Paris Brest which is beyond description, but completely delicious.
And there we peaked, two nights in. After that we had a succession of warmish lasagne (part of a set meal and we didn’t have any choice), other forms of indifferent pasta, and a fairly plain selection of choices on the set menus of places we pass.
It is as if all the restaurateurs have colluded to provide a blackboard menu that consists of a choice of steak tartare (not in a million years), a salad with prosciutto and maybe some melon or goat’s cheese, the ever present entrecote (tough old steak slathered in a sauce to make you not notice the shoe leather consistency – and the sauce will cost you an additional 2 euros), overpriced hamburgers (often the most expensive thing on the menu) and a fishy dish of some kind.
His Lordship tracked down some snails that were average, and also had a bowl of moules (mussels) that were so small they would be illegal in New Zealand. I enjoyed the odd nice risotto or prawn dish. But on the whole, it’s loads of the dry and flavourless old same. Even when we splash out and go off the prix fixémenu, we get pretty average results. In Antibes on the Riviera I gave up trying and had (very nice) fish and chips at the bar across the square from our apartment.
In one establishment all we wanted was a sweet crêpe, but they wouldn’t serve us that unless we bought a full lunch meal. So we ploughed our way through another listless pile of lettuce with tomatoes, a blob of mozzarella, and some chewy prosciutto. We then stuffed down a dry old sweet crêpe as our reward. In Nice we again craved a sweet crêpe, but without the drama of another full meal to start. The young waitress wasn’t sure if this was allowed, and we prepared to walk away. It wasn’t until the owner intervened that we able to sit down, and this time the crêpes were superb – mine had apple and salted caramel sauce, and His Lordship had pears with chocolate sauce – both sauces home-made. My equilibrium and faith in French cooking was temporarily restored.
But in general, night after night we walked listlessly past all the blackboards hoping for a glimpse of something mouth-watering. I would give my right arm for a nice goat’s cheese tart, or a boeuf bourguignon, or a cassoulet, French onion soup, or even trusty old duck àl’orange. And as for dessert, I haven’t even seen another crème brulée since the Midi-Pyrénées.
The patisseries and boulangeries have not, I am pleased to say, changed a bit. We can still wander off every morning for our fresh baguette and a delightful pastry or two to sate the palette. Sometimes these have been our evening meal also, as we tire of the endless quest.
On our last night in Antibes, after having dined in for a couple of nights during the week, rather than trudge through town yet again trying to find something to tempt our taste buds, we went and fetched a pizza. I even found myself scrolling through Uber Eats to see if there was anything there that was tempting (there wasn’t).
Finally to Paris, we arrived in the evening after taking the TGV from Antibes, and then navigated both the Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord to get to our hotel. Too tired to really worry about starting “the quest”, we climbed into bed with a tube of the French equivalent of Pringles and watched a movie. On the final night we sought advice from the hotel staff and thus found ourselves tucking into delicious and unique pasta in a local Italian joint.
And there, dear friends, lies the key point to all of this in that apart from our first two nights in France, and a lunch crêpe in Nice, the best meals we ate were, without exception, Italian cuisine.