November 27 2009
It is fashionable, in London restaurant circles, to remark that there are no good restaurants left in provincial France – at any rate, none serving food of the sort that Elizabeth David described in French Provincial Cooking. You are more likely, the argument runs, to find a proper pot-au-feu or an authentic andouillette in a London restaurant than in their spiritual home.
Well, up to a point. You may well enjoy a better meal at Le Café Anglais, for example, than at a tourist-trap brasserie on the Champs-Elysées, and laziness and cynicism infect some regions of France, too. Witness the horrors of factory-made cassoulet being dished up in the blighted bistros of Carcassonne, or the tinned fish soup masquerading as bourride in Sète.
There are, however, plenty of good restaurants which remain, or have sprung up, as I found out a year or two ago, when I was in Beaune with Michel Roux Sr. After an arduous morning spent tasting wines from Lucien Le Moine (30 or so burgundies from the 2005 vintage, straight from the barrel, and exceptionally good – I was like a child in a sweet shop) we decamped to a smart bistro called Ma Cuisine, just off the main square.
The restaurant is owned, appropriately, by M and Mme Escoffier (the great French chef of the same name called his most famous book Ma Cuisine), and it is dedicated both to the pleasures of simple but beautifully judged local cooking and – naturally – to the joys of Burgundian wine.
I have never seen a broader grin than that which wreathed Michel’s face when his main course of veal kidneys with grain-mustard sauce arrived – the Cheshire Cat would have seemed glum in comparison.
His smile was just as broad as we left, having sampled some ancient Chartreuse from the wine shop. As a restorative of one’s faith in French cuisine, lunch at Ma Cuisine is unbeatable.
Perhaps the quickest fix is an hour’s drive the other side of the Tunnel at the magnificent Château de Montreuil (pictured), whose chef/patron, Christian Germain, used to be Michel’s head chef at The Waterside Inn. Montreuil-sur-Mer is a jewel of a medieval town although – despite its name – it is no longer very close to the sea.
Monsieur Germain’s cuisine is fiercely local and seasonal, which, on my visit in early spring, meant firm, sweet white asparagus, line-caught turbot with sea-spinach, and a sublime roast teal, its legs confited with cream and nutmeg. The family-run hotel is luxurious, but laid-back, and is a perfect base to explore France’s Opal Coast, its villages dotted with restaurants serving great seafood. Rumours of France’s gastronomic demise, you may conclude, have been greatly exaggerated.