Le Gourmet de France 2014

Salvo’s, Headingley, Leeds

Thursday, 3 July 2014

This is the 12th Tour I have covered as a journalist. My first was in 1999, I had a break for a few years in the early 2000s but have been at every Tour since 2006, usually following the race from start to finish. I am no longer a baby in the press room although I am many years behind some.

Nevertheless, the Tour has thrown up something new for even the most seasoned veteran this summer. Holding the Grand Départ outside France is not new but this is the most northerly point the Tour has ever reached. One thing that never changes is the hungry journalist’s need to eat…

A recommendation from a fellow press room refugee sometimes amounts to very little. After all, our requirements are simple and the bar is often set low. PA reporter Matt McGeehan said he’d eaten at Salvo’s, an Italian restaurant on the road out of Leeds in the direction of our apartment in Bradford. He informed us that they kept serving until 10.30pm and that it was good. He wasn’t wrong. Our antipasti was a sharing platter of salami with marinated vegetables and a balsamic dressing.

The main course was an early contender for Le Gourment de France’s top five. A moist hunk of cod wrapped in salty ham, served on wilted peppers and new potatoes. The bar has been set and my fear is that the best meal of the Tour has already been enjoyed. My photographer colleague Simon helped himself to this badge as a reward for a clean plate.

Affettato Misto

Affettato Misto

Cod wrapped in Parma ham

Cod wrapped in Parma ham

If you eat all your dinner, you can take a badge

If you eat all your dinner, you can take a badge

Akbar’s, Leeds Road, Bradford

Friday, 4 July 2014

One of the best pieces of advice when searching for a restaurant is to go where the locals go because people will rarely give a poor place a second chance. So, when we stepped into Akbar’s, the self-proclaimed best curry house in the north of England, it was good to see it reassuringly busy. Every table was full and there was a crowd of expectant diners waiting in the bar to be seated. The whole time we were there people kept on coming, pouring out of minibus-sized taxis.

The service was rapid – essential to keep tables turning over with the constant arrival of customers – and the food was excellent.

Photographer Simon (who, I should point out, is not responsible for the blurry iPhone photos of the food) and I shared a couple of chicken balti dishes, a tarka dahl and a mushroom and paneer cheese bhaji but decided against the giant naan breads the restaurant is known for.

These were huge blanket-sized breads hooked over what looked like a chainsaw blade. Well within 40 minutes we’d finished and were back out on the pavement.

Before I’d even put my jacket on, customers were being seated at the table we’d vacated. Perhaps they should install a revolving door.

A disappointing lunch

I know many people imagine life on the Tour to be all glamour and excitement and at this early stage maybe it is. Before we’ve truly got on the road, before the clean clothes get mixed up with the dirty laundry, before the stresses and strains of trying to live, work and socialise in a car kick in, it can be easy to get lulled into the idea that this year it’s going to be a holiday.

The days leading up to the Grand Départ are like being in the blocks on the start line for the 100 metres but knowing there is a marathon to run. The motor is revving despite the brain yelling at you to calm down, slow down and pace yourself.

On the road, there’s usually a buffet laid on for the journalists in the press room. Sometimes they are excellent, often they are more than acceptable and on occasion we arrive late to find that everything has been hoovered up by the Belgians and all that’s left is a hardened piece of bread and a curly piece of vegetable matter.

In Leeds there was a hot dog and burger van. Against my better judgement, I ordered a hot dog on Friday lunchtime because I was hungry and couldn’t spare the time to walk to the nearby café where the pace of service is the polar opposite of Akbar’s. We were in there half an hour trying to get a coffee and a bagel in the morning. Richard had been the day before and had been served a lukewarm coffee. When he asked for a hot one they said: ‘We serve our coffee at 55 degrees.’ Richard restrained himself from saying: ‘In Scotland, we serve our coffee hot, son.’

Anyway, the board on the hot dog van said hot dogs were £3.50. The man in the van asked for £4.

‘It says £3.50 on the sign,’ I said.
‘That should say £4,’ he said.
‘When it says £4, I’ll pay £4,’ I said, handing over £3.50.

A small but important victory. If I cave in now, the next thing I know I’ll be meekly walking away from a restaurant in France just because they closed the kitchen 20 minutes ago. I promised my press room colleague Simon Richardson of Cycling Weekly I’d post this picture of me ‘enjoying’ a hot dog that reminded me of a trip to Millwall’s old ground.

Friday night curry

Friday night curry

It’s all glamour, I assure you

It’s all glamour, I assure you

The Real Junk Food Project, Chapel Road, Leeds

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The first day of the Tour is always busy and a bit stressful. Saturday was also long.

I was up at 6.30 ready to drive into Leeds to interview UCI president Brian Cookson for The Telegraph Cycling Podcast. (The interview will be played in an episode during the coming week). The working day ended at about 9pm after I’d filed a couple of pieces for the Sunday newspaper I write for and once the latest episode of the podcast was in the can. You can listen to that here.

We’d been invited to dinner by David Walsh, the chief sports writer of The Sunday Times, but as we left Harrogate all I could think of was going back to our apartment and getting some sleep. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was in danger of being awarded the stylo citron (the lemon pen), for sourest journalist.

I am glad I changed my mind, after a bit of pressure from Richard. All I knew beforehand was that David’s son, Conor, was involved with The Real Junk Food Project, a café serving food that had been thrown away by supermarkets and restaurants and was bound for landfill. You can probably imagine what I was thinking.

We were last to arrive and as I sat down I had a look around the table. It was quite a guest list. There was three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond and his wife Kathy, Olympic and world champion Nicole Cooke, Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters (two members of the 1999 Tour de France-winning team, as David pointed out with tongue in cheek), journalists Orla Chennaoui and Lia Hervey from Sky, Rupert Guinness and Gregor Brown, Garmin-Sharp’s director of communications Marya Pongrace and finally Richard and Simon.

The food was great café style fare, the conversation was fun – I was sitting next to Greg, who is one of the nicest, friendliest people and has the ability to make everyone he meets feel like they’ve known him for years. I couldn’t resist telling him he’d been one of my heroes in the 1980s and he talked with such enthusiasm for cycling.

There was a choice to be made from the menu board so I opted for the French onion soup for a starter. This was rich, deep, thick with onions and very tasty, with a large crouton forming an island in the middle.

For the main course, I opted for the meat (of course) and had a slice of pork and a slice of lamb with a potato cake and a neat quenelle of pea puree. This came with a very hot and very tasty gravy.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of the dessert, which was a lemon creme brûlée and had a very crisp top and was silky smooth underneath, as it should be. So, there I was, happily eating away, with a vague idea of the concept behind the café. It wasn’t until Conor introduced the chef and one of the driving forces behind the project, Adam Smith, that it truly sank in.

Without getting too sentimental about it, Adam’s explanation put into perspective the mildly challenging day I’d endured. He spoke rapidly, passionately and with the heart of a true chef and his message was incredibly powerful and very moving. He talked us through the menu of food we’d eaten, explaining that everything had been salvaged – or intercepted – before it could be thrown away by markets, restaurants and supermarkets, and before it had gone off.

Adam explained that he’d encountered the concept in Australia and decided to recreate something similar in Leeds in 2013. He said that he’d rescued the onions from a vegetable market in Manchester, that someone dropped in a large bag of quinoa for the other starter option because they didn’t have any use for (let’s face it, who does?) and that the meat had been thrown out by a supermarket.

They then turn all the ingredients they get for free, into tasty, healthy, nutritious meals. The café now caters for dozens of people a day, sometimes hundreds, and their Pay As You Feel policy means that some of the most disadvantaged people in Leeds have somewhere they can go to get a hot meal even if they have little or no money.

Instead of paying in cash, people can wash up, tidy up, do a stint as a waiter, clean the windows or help in a host of other ways. This is public service in its purest sense.

Adam told us a host of moving stories – about a guy from the Newcastle area who was released from prison in Leeds after being cleared of manslaughter. He had no money for food or transport and stumbled across the café where he got something to eat. He admitted he’d have committed a crime in order to eat that day had it not been for the café.

Another person who was contemplating suicide came into the café, ate a meal, got involved in the project and turned his life around. Adam believes, in fact knows, that the café has saved lives in this run-down part of the city where food poverty affects so many.

It was at this point that I think I got something in my eye.

Adam continued to talk, his audience captivated by his energy and vision. He works 100 hours a week, the staff are all volunteers and he has plans to help others set up similar cafés in other parts of Britain.

But it was revelation about the scale of wastage that really got to me. He talked of tonnes of food being thrown away when it could be used to feed people who struggle to pay for enough to eat. He explained the problem of supermarket expiration dates, which mean mountains of perfectly edible food heads to landfill rather than to people’s stomachs. The figures were jaw dropping, particularly when he explained that sometimes they’d like to save more food but often simply don’t have the space in the van to take it all.

Afterwards, the café’s staff played some wonderfully eccentric music with an instrument that might have been a xylophone and one that was definitely a trombone.

At the end, I’m pretty sure all the guests gave as generously as they could and there was such a positive, upbeat feeling in the room that it masked my guilt at not previously appreciating what a wasteful bunch we are or doing enough about it. I will try never to throw away something because it’s a day or two past the sell-by date.

This blog is supposed to be a light-hearted look at the food I eat as I cover the Tour. I make no secret of the fact I like a nice meal and I know that there are people for whom food is not taken for granted. If I miss dinner at some point during the next three weeks I will try not to complain, although I fear I’m just not a good enough person, but I will at least think of the café and the people who turn up with next to nothing and are fed well by volunteers.

The Tour always throws up one extraordinary night out with colleagues but I’ve never experienced anything quite like Saturday evening. It reminded us all, I think, that the Tour de France is just a sporting event, and that we are incredibly privileged. It also made me think that there are people doing so much more worthwhile things with their time.

Conor said something about being proud to have us as his guests (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to me, to be honest), but I think it was the other way round. I felt privileged to learn more about their project. It was a stroke of genius to serve us a tasty meal and then tell us that the food had effectively been taken from the bins of big corporations.

My thanks to David for the invitation, to Conor and all the staff for their hospitality, to Adam for the food and the inspirational message and to my fellow guests for the company. If you want to find out more about the café, they’re on Facebook.

The Real Junk Food Project café in Leeds. Photograph by Simon Gill.

The Real Junk Food Project café in Leeds. Photograph by Simon Gill.

Le menu

Le menu

French onion soup

French onion soup

Meat and two veg

Meat and two veg

Nicole Cooke, Rupert Guinness (in trademark Hawaiian shirt), Greg LeMond, Orla Chennaoui, Gregor Brown, me, gesturing like a berk. Photograph by Simon Gill

Nicole Cooke, Rupert Guinness (in trademark Hawaiian shirt), Greg LeMond, Orla Chennaoui, Gregor Brown, me, gesturing like a berk. Photograph by Simon Gill

Maidstone Services

Monday, 7 July 2014

On Sunday night, I stayed at home, which was a peculiar experience during the Tour. Alas, heavy traffic on the M1 meant dinner was a sandwich from the services rather than a nice home-cooked meal.

As I drove into central London on Monday morning, I heard the news that there had been some sort of electrical fault in the Channel Tunnel and knew immediately it would cause havoc.

By the time we made our way slowly through the south London rush-hour towards the coast rumours were of six-hour delays at the Channel Tunnel so, when we got to Maidstone Services, we decided to cut our losses.

The sign outside the Days Inn hotel said ‘Rooms from £25′. This is the sort of marketing promise I was pretty sure I shouldn’t trust. True enough, the lady at reception said the rooms were £60.

‘But it says “Rooms from £25″ on the sign outside,’ said Richard.

‘You have to book a long time in advance to get that price,’ said the lady.

Now that posed a question. Who is booking a night at Maidstone Services a long time in advance? No disrespect to the Days Inn company but the hotel was not the sort of place you’d go on holiday. (For a start, it seems that a constant succession of guests have ignored the numerous signs designating the corridors, and my room, non-smoking).

The Days Inn at Maidstone Services exists purely as an emergency stop-gap. It is for people whose plans have gone awry and they find themselves either too late to get across the channel to France or, having come across the other way, too tired having to get home. No one is booking a night at Maidstone Services in advance, which renders their ‘Rooms from £25′ sign disingenuous at best.

Thinking we were being very clever, we checked the Days Inn website and a couple of other last-minute booking websites to see if we could find a cheaper price. I amused myself by briefly thinking of approaching the reception desk and telling the lady we’d just asked about availability that we had a reservation. Unfortunately, all the prices were £60, so we checked in.

Behind reception was a tall fridge with a glass door packed with cans of beers and ciders. The message was clear: “We both know you don’t want to stay here tonight but we want you to know we’ve got plenty of booze to help you get through the experience.”

In the adjacent service station restaurant, Richard and I both opted for the fish and chips. The fish had a very unnerving slippery texture and lacked the firmness of a good piece of fish, which led me to suspect it was seafood sweepings from the gutting room floor held together with batter. In fairness, the slippery texture of the fish was perfectly offset by the cardboard chips.

Fish n chips

Fish n chips

Ypres

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Never try to outwit the Tour de France. You won’t win. We thought we’d cracked it by avoiding the six-hour queues at the Channel Tunnel terminal. We thought we’d get in the car at Maidstone Services and be across the channel by mid-morning ready to drive down to Le Touquet.

With colleagues Tweeting that they’d not got to their beds until 4am, we felt rather smug. All we’d succeeded in doing was postponing our six-hour wait until Tuesday. We checked in at around 9.20am and we rolled out of Folkestone on the Channel Tunnel at 3.20pm.

When we got to Calais, we found a bar that was showing the race, then headed straight to our bed and breakfast. t’Wolveneest is on a country lane near Nieuwkerke, not far from the Kemmelberg, the hill that features in the Ghent-Wevelgem classic, about 10km south-west of Ypres. Once we’d recorded the podcast, we headed into Ypres for dinner and went straight for a restaurant I knew, having been there during a trip to Belgium for the Classics earlier this year.

It’s just round the corner from the impressive In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres’ main square. It was approaching 10pm by the time we sat down but the place was still very busy. When I last visited, I had a very thick, rich Flemish beef stew and I remembered waddling back to our campsite (we were travelling in a camper van on that occasion) feeling like I’d overdone it a bit. So I decided to go for the fillet steak, which was soft and perfectly cooked, with a peppercorn sauce. The ideal companion was a bottle of Orval beer.

The steak looks strangely uninspiring but was excellent

The steak looks strangely uninspiring but was excellent

Courtepaille, Denain

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Wednesday was one of those days on the Tour when you get to 10pm and look back to realise that all you’ve eaten are two small bread rolls with jam, consumed at 8.30 in the morning.

The drama and excitement of the day meant that it wasn’t until all the work was done that the stomach could be heard over the din.

I’d headed out on the road with our photographer, Simon, hoping to see the race on two sections of cobbles. However, the traffic on the maze of motorways around Lille was so bad we knew we would miss our rendezvous with the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

So we improvised, first setting our sights on the fourth-from-last sector at Sars-et-Rosières, then realising our best chance of seeing the race would be at Wallers, five kilometres from the end.

I recorded an audio diary for The Telegraph Cycling Podcast, which you can listen to in this episode.

On the verge of wilting as I waited for Richard to bring the car closer to the press room so we avoided the torrential rain, I mentioned my weakening state and hunger to Daniel. “Oh, the buffet was really good today,” he said.

As our hotel was an hour away, in Arras, we knew that the dinner window of opportunity was closing so we stopped at Courtepaille on the outskirts of Denain.

Have you ever been to a Harvester before?

If you’re familiar with that phrase you’ll know what Courtepaille is like. Grilled meats, chips, salad bar, a choice of dressings, waiters and waitresses who have had their personalities moulded by memos from head office.

But it wasn’t all bad. I’ve never eaten beefburgers on toast before, and I don’t think I will again. The burgers weren’t actually too bad but the fact they rested on a large piece of toast, which was smothered with goats’ cheese, was just strange.

In a way, though, it was a fitting end to the Tour’s brush with the pavé. After devouring the huge cobblestones of meat at almost 11pm, I had an uncomfortable night’s sleep on my side, much like one of the race’s crash victims.

Burgers on toast

Burgers on toast

Épernay

Thursday, 10 July 2014

On Thursday evening, I learned that Richard does not like dogs in restaurants. Not to eat, just their presence. We walked into one place in the centre of Épernay to find a large alsatian straining at its leash and slobbering. With a ‘no, not here,’ Richard turned on his heels and we went to a dog-less place over the road. However, my heart sank a bit when I spotted a bunch of fellow Tour journalists at an outside table, not because I wouldn’t want to spend any time with them but because ‘journalists on Tour’ are not necessarily much indication of a restaurant’s quality. That is because the daily race to make dinner is almost as frenetic as the riders’ dash to the finish line. Our friend Ciro Scognamiglio, who makes cameo appearances on The Telegraph Cycling Podcast every few days, fretted after the cobbles that he might miss dinner because his newspaper, La Gazzetta Dello Sport, wanted four pages of coverage after Nibali had extended his lead in the yellow jersey. “I see risks for my dinner,” he said, confirming the following day that he had at least eaten.

The further past nine o’clock it goes, the less fussy a Tour journalist will be. By five to ten, most of us would be content to kneel at an open trough in the town square, butting heads and shoulders to get a mouthful of nutritious swill. By half past ten, bins are fair game. And by five to eleven any wandering cats will be at risk. Failing that, a stop at Quick Burger will do.

So, to answer DollyFeester’s question, Le Gourmet de France is not necessarily about quality. The Tour is about hoping that tonight might be the night we stumble upon a terrific eatery serving large plates of delicious local food. A succession of chewy steaks and microwaved pasta dishes saps morale. One really good meal a week lifts the spirits. Spending three weeks away from home is not a picnic, you know, although sometimes a picnic would come in very handy.

On Thursday night we were in the joint-capital of Champagne, Épernay, home of Moët et Chandon, which I now know is pronounced a bit like “Meuuwet”. God, I feel a fool all those other times I’ve ordered a bottle of “Moway”. I had my heart set on the salmon with tagliatelle only to be told it was all gone, so I went for the fillet steak. If the steak we had in Ypres was the maillot jaune, this was the lanterne rouge. Tough, chewy and with a slightly livery flavour and served on a glass plate with a skillet of chips. No, no, no.

We washed it down with a couple of very reasonably priced bottles of Champagne. The disparity in quality between the food and the drink meant it was like cleaning a 1988 Vauxhall Nova in Perrier.

Nancy

Friday, 11 July 2014

If I had judged Nancy by the part of town near the university where the stage finished or by the Campanile hotel stuck high up on an industrial estate at Maxéville in the suburbs, I’d have said it was a bit of a dump.

We headed into town and stumbled upon a quite majestic square, where we met some colleagues for dinner.

Whenever I see the local specialities on the menu, I tend to go for them so I opted for the quiche lorraine for the entrée. It was lovely, far superior to the supermarket versions we get at home with their dusty pastry and firm almost omelette-like filling.

As Nancy is in the east of France, heading towards the Alsace, the Germanic influence shows itself occasionally. I opted for something that translated roughly as ‘choucroute (sauerkraut) in its container’.

This is what arrived. A kilner jar packed with vinegary sauerkraut, soft boiled potatoes and pork – a couple of slices of ham and two types of sausage, one of which was like a hot dog.

As you’ll see if you scroll down, it was by far the best meal we’ve had since arriving in France and, at last, the Gourmet de France feels like it is underway.

Our Campanile hotel was showing signs of wear. The familiar outdoor blocks were crumbling a bit at the edges. It might be a bit of an exaggeration to say it was like the deserted apartment blocks in Pripyat near Chernobyl but not by much. My room overlooked the motorway.

At least the shower worked properly, unlike a much nicer hotel earlier in the race where the shower nozzle refused to turn on and, in the absence of a plug, there was rubber suction cap to place over the plug meaning it was a race against time to wash before the water trickled away.

But my objection at the Campanile was the price – €138 plus €12 for breakfast – which made it among the most expensive hotels of the whole Tour. What was hard to swallow was that as I checked out and paid the bill, monsieur was replacing the tariff poster in a glass frame above the reception desk with a much cheaper price (€76) now that the Tour de France had been and gone. Good old capitalism.

Place Stanislas in Nancy

Place Stanislas in Nancy

Real men eat quiche lorraine

Real men eat quiche lorraine

Porky goodness

Porky goodness

Gérardmer

Saturday, 12 July 2014

We ended up in a very strange restaurant on Saturday night in Gérardmer. It was a typical mountain chalet-type place, with wooden beams and wooden cladding on the walls but the front section was a canvas and plastic mini marquee filled with people eating, drinking and smoking.

The interior of the restaurant was cluttered with board games and knick-knacks, like a jumble sale. It didn’t inspire confidence but the home-made menu had a certain charm.

Richard and I both opted for the Grande Assiette du Parfait Vosgien which, we were told, would come with all three courses on the same plate. The waiter wasn’t wrong.

It was actually very good, although it was a little confusing to know which order to eat it in. Okay, so it was pretty obvious to leave the little pot of raspberries and other fruit and the cheese to the end but what about the metal pot of cream cheese? It didn’t go with the quiche, or the potato cake or the various Vosgien meats.

All in all, it was an excellent plate of food and the ambience was ruined only by a group who, I suspect, had been drinking all day. Without wishing to guess the family dynamic at play, I’d say that one pair were a couple who seemed to be having a domestic. At one point the man gripped his head firmly, and slightly alarmingly, and screamed a guttural scream.

We drew the menu earlier, sir

We drew the menu earlier, sir

Your starter, main course and dessert, sir

Your starter, main course and dessert, sir

Bartenheim

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Sunday night, a German stage winner, Germany versus Argentina in the World Cup final and our hotel was a stone’s throw from the German border.

We arrived at our hotel at 9.05pm and were immediately concerned by madame’s stern expression which suggested we needed to summon a bit of courage before asking whether we could have any dinner.

A group from the Tour’s publicity caravan were sitting at a long table in the restaurant of Au Lion Rouge. None of them looked the slightest bit concerned that the football had kicked off five minutes ago.

Richard asked if we could eat in the bar.

“There is no bar.”

“With a television? To watch the football?” he ventured.

“There is no television. Do you want to eat in your rooms?”

We didn’t want to eat in our rooms. The Tour may reduce us to living conditions that many students would turn their noses up but we weren’t prepared to eat perched on the edge of a bed.

So we had a choice. Eat or watch the football. We chose to eat in the hope we’d catch the second half and the speedy service suggested that the chef had a similar idea.

Barely had I finished the prawn cocktail than the quail vol-au-vent arrived. Dessert reminded me a children’s birthday party from the 1980s – strawberry, vanilla and coffee ice cream surrounded by cream and meringue. As good as it all was, the €50 bill (per person) we were hit with in the morning seemed a bit steep.

Prawn cocktail, circa 1986

Prawn cocktail, circa 1986

Vol-au-vent, circa 1986.

Vol-au-vent, circa 1986.

Ice cream, circa 1986

Ice cream, circa 1986

Somewhere near La Planche des Belles Filles

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Tour’s stage on Bastille Day was scheduled to finish quite late and ran even later. By the time the riders crossed the line it was gone 6pm. Once we’d finished work and recorded The Telegraph Cycling Podcast, supported by Jaguar, it was getting on 9pm.

Because it was Bastille Day, a French holiday, we knew we had only a tiny window of opportunity if we wanted to get dinner. But we also knew our base for the night, the Chateau d’Epenoux, was almost an hour and a half away. And because it was the Chateau d’Epenoux, rather than a grey Campanile on a ring road, we knew there was a chance they might lock us out if we arrived too late.

So Richard telephoned ahead to let them know we were running late.

Madame didn’t sound terribly amused. “We’re not a hotel, you know.”

Richard said that we could arrive much earlier if she could lay on something to eat. Nothing fancy, just a sandwich and a beer would do.

“No,” she said. “We don’t have enough.”

We decided to stop off at a roadside restaurant, which was struggling to cope with the Bastille night demand. We waited a good 20 minutes before being offered a drink. Then some colleagues arrived and we moved to a bigger table, delaying things futher.

In order to keep things simple, Richard ordered a salad, Owen Slot from The Times – who is travelling with us for a week – went for the chicken and chips and the rest of us opted for the burger.

Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

It was getting very late so Richard called madame at the chateau again. She was even less amused.

Finally, after a 90-minute wait, the burger arrived. I ate it in about two and a half minutes and we got on the road to drive to the chateau.

Not fast food

Not fast food

Château d'Epenoux

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The chateau we stayed in was stunning. I was in the Mona Lisa suite, complete with what I assume was a copy of the world’s most enigmatic painting.

Unfortunately, I left the window open and the mosquitoes got me. After a week of rain, the sun is now shining fiercely and it feels much more like the Tour.

Over breakfast, madame implored us to arrive in good time for dinner, which would be served at 7.30pm. Naturally, the rest day round of press conferences and podcasting and the fact that Besançon was snarled up with traffic meant we arrived 20 minutes late and the rest of the long table in the dining room was filled with impatient, hungry faces.

The meal was very good. The salad starter had pieces of smokey ham, comté cheese, apple and walnuts in it.

The main course was a little piece of boned rabbit leg on a sort of fine ratatouille and a creamy mashed potato.

Dessert was nice, but unusual. It wasn’t quite a mousse, nor was it a cake. It was soft, gooey and lightly flavoured with strawberry. I’d never had anything quite like it.

Footnote: I feel I may have been a bit harsh on the Chateau d’Epenoux. It was a glorious building, the suite was stunning and the owners were very friendly in the end. It’s just that the Tour’s schedule is not compatible with people who want to serve dinner at a fixed time.

An eclectic salad

An eclectic salad

Lapin

Lapin

Strange cake

Strange cake

Bourg-en-Bresse

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

It is rare to have excellent meals two nights running on the Tour de France but a trip to Bourg-en-Bresse gave me high hopes. Bourg-en-Bresse is famous for its chicken, and not in a Colonel Sanders way.

Earlier in the day, I said I hoped we would manage to find the best restaurant in Bourg-en-Bresse. I’d eaten there in 2007, when a Tour stage finished in the town. That was the day Bradley Wiggins spent most of the day off the front of the bunch on his own. It was the anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death but, more significantly for Wiggins, his wife’s birthday. Later that day, Dave Brailsford outlined his plans for a British pro team. Later still, a colleague and I sat down to eat a truly stunning chicken dish, an event almost as significant as the genesis of Team Sky.

Two years later, when the Tour started in Monaco, we decided to break our long drive from London at Bourg-en-Bresse purely to visit the same restaurant.

And so, when we pulled up at our hotel last night to find it was right next to the start village for the following morning’s stage, my day was made complete by the fact that The Best Restaurant in Bourg-en-Bresse was just 200 yards away.

You can tell a hotel or restaurant is good because all the ASO staff turn up in their polo shirts and cream chinos. As we took our seats at an outside table, Bernard Hinault, then Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, then Bernard Thévenet arrived.

The meal was excellent and finally solved the riddle of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

My starter was l’oeuf croustillant – a soft-centred egg, covered in breadcrumbs and fried and then rested in a rich onion gravy with little button mushrooms.

Following the egg came the chicken. A large, succulent and very tasty piece of meat with a cream sauce and a generous handful of dark, earthy morel mushrooms for an €8 supplement.

This was the meal of the Tour so far, just edging out the previous evening’s rabbit dish at the chateau.

Un oeuf was un oeuf

Un oeuf was un oeuf

Volaille de Bresse. The photo really doesn't do it justice

Volaille de Bresse. The photo really doesn't do it justice

Bourg-Argental

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Our lodgings for the evening was a charming little farmhouse at a tiny hamlet called Thélis-la-Combe, a little way out of Saint-Étienne on the Col de la Republique. The more remote the place, the more precarious our dinner chances so I called ahead to explain we were on our way.

I spoke in French, Madame answered my questions in English and I carried on playing this linguistic game of chicken until eventually I backed down and we continued in her (excellent) English.

She explained that the nearest restaurant to her house might be closed by the time we arrived but not to worry, she would phone ahead to a place in nearby Bourg-Argental to reserve a table for us. Now that’s what I call service.

As it happened, Bourg-Argental was where our travel companion Owen was staying, so it worked out pretty perfectly.

We arrived at the delightful little restaurant in a sleepy village and for the second evening in a row were presented with an amuse bouche of foie gras. I forgot to mention this in last night’s review of the best chicken restaurant in Bourg-en-Bresse. (By the way, I’ve been asked the name of that restaurant – it’s the Restaurant Place Bernard in Place Bernard. You can’t miss it).

Anyway, last night’s amuse bouche was a sort of foie gras creme brûlée with a crispy sweet top. Tonight’s was more of a mousse with a sweet jelly on top. If you like foie gras they were both delightful.

We skipped the starters and all ordered the monkfish for a main course. It was fabulous – big fleshy hunks of monkfish with a paella-style rice dish and slices of delicious smokey chorizo. It was at this point I began to worry. Three excellent meals in a row is without precedent – except when in the south west and one can order multiple cassoulets. Things surely cannot continue like this. A rubbery steak or, worse, a missed dinner must surely be round the corner.

For dessert I opted for a chocolate mousse filled with gooey chocolate.

While we were eating, Owen’s phone rang. It was the owner of his hotel, who was sitting at the next table and had heard us speaking English and realised that one of us was their guest. It was the sort of surreal moment you sometimes get on the Tour. It’s like being an extra in the Truman Show, wandering around in the Tour’s bubble, totally insignificant yet part of it all the same.

I woke up this morning to this view from the window of my bedroom (right).

Lotte lotte monkfish

Lotte lotte monkfish

Sticky choccy pudding

Sticky choccy pudding

Not too shabby

Not too shabby

Grenoble

Friday, 18 July 2014

The excellent run of meals had to come to an end sometime, although Saturday night’s offering was by no means terrible. The problem was, I’d had seconds at the press buffet at Chamrousse and wasn’t feeling terribly hungry. It was also a very warm evening in Grenoble, which tends to inhibit the appetite.

When Owen ordered a cool, fresh cocktail glass full of gazpacho, I began to wish I was in the mood for a starter too.

I stuck to the cod, which came slightly overcooked and with firm new potatoes and a butter sauce. It wasn’t awful but after the gold, silver and bronze standard set during the previous three evenings it felt like a bit of a letdown.

Cod have been worse

Cod have been worse

Risoul

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The mountain stages of the Tour de France often present a logistical challenge, unless you strike it lucky and manage to get a room at the resort where the stage finishes. It’s usually quite easy to stay at Alpe d’Huez because the resort is so large. However, Risoul is much smaller. All the hotels were full and the apartments were unwilling to let a place for one night only.

It meant a drive of more than two hours to a remote country village called Saint-Disdier.

We opted to eat before getting on the road. The numerous pizza places were doing a roaring trade – so much so that one place said there was a 40-minute wait and another had run out of pizzas.

Finally we found a place that managed to rustle up some pizzas and I went for the Vesuve, which had chorizo and peppers on it.

We started our descent from Risoul down a narrow unmade road, with the Jaguar’s sat-nav confirming it was the most direct way off the mountain. After a couple of kilometres on the rough, rocky road we began to have our doubts but it was too late to turn back by then. As we headed deeper into the woods, and with Richard’s doleful music playing on the stereo we began to feel like characters in a film – not the Truman Show this time but the Blair Witch Project.

On and on we went for about seven kilometres before finally, much to our relief, we popped out onto the main road the race had used.

Although we were spared a four-hour traffic jam (there’s always one on the Tour – my bet now is that it’ll be at Hautacam in the Pyrenees), it felt like we were back in the Truman Show as camper vans, slow-moving trucks and other eccentric vehicles swung out of side roads to slow our progress.

One particular camper van was, we suspected, toying with us. Either that or the driver was drunk. It would veer from side to side to make itself big and difficult to overtake. It would speed up on sections of dual carriageway barring cars from getting past.

We’d almost reached our hotel when Richard swerved sharply and braked hard to avoid a fox.

“Nicely done,” I said.

“The brakes on this thing are excellent,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied. “I especially liked the bit where my brain slammed into the front of my skull.”

Pizza in a box

Pizza in a box

Nîmes

Sunday, 20 July 2014

I have several unwritten rules when it comes to finding a restaurant on the Tour. Usually, of course, we do not have much choice because we’re racing to get to a place before they stop serving, but on Sunday night we were staying in Nîmes, where the stage finished.

This meant we had the luxury of strolling round for a while, weighing up our options.

Tom from the Telegraph, who joined us for dinner, had been given a recommendation by the receptionist at his hotel. It was, the hotelier assured Tom, ‘fabuleux’. It was also closed.

So, my general rule is to avoid the following…

1 Town squares where there are several restaurants next to each other. Too often it seems the competition does not drive up quality but allows everyone to be as mediocre as their neighbour.

2 Places that describe themselves as a Café and a Restaurant

3 Anywhere serving omelettes for an evening meal

4 Places with long, extensive, diverse menus that suggest they’d be able to knock up a fricassee of squirrel if one keeled over in the street outside

5 Anywhere that attracts busking musicians

Unfortunately, the square just behind the magnificent amphitheatre in Nîmes had a combination of all these things.

We asked a couple sitting at a table at one of the restaurants if the food had been any good. The woman shook her head grimly.

So we took a table at the place next door, only to be ignored for 15 minutes.

Eventually, I went to a third place, asked the waiter if he could accommodate the four of us and sat down.

It was then that the doubts set in. It was staggeringly cheap. Too cheap. The menu was laminated and sticky. The beers we ordered came in those little half-pint jugs with a handle and dimpled sides that made me feel like I was in an episode of a 70s sitcom.

The menu looked pretty uninspiring and we feared the worst so we engineered our escape. We Googled ‘restaurants in Nîmes’, Richard went off on a scouting mission, steering the blue dot on his smartphone to culinary heaven and Owen conjured up our excuses, explaining that we’d made a mistake and some friends were waiting for us in a restaurant nearby.

It turned out to be a great decision. Instead of gristle and chips, we enjoyed a couple of plates of very interesting tapas and a well-above-average entrecôte.

The amphitheatre at Nîmes

The amphitheatre at Nîmes

The colourful menu

The colourful menu

Tapas part one

Tapas part one

Tapas part two

Tapas part two

Steak and chips

Steak and chips

Carcassonne

Monday, 21 July 2014

Somehow, despite being quite touristy, Carcassonne remains a beautiful medieval walled town and has not been spoiled or devalued too much by the shops that sell souvenirs and the restaurants each boasting that they do the best cassoulet.

Such is the competition for customers that one place had a sign on its chalkboard that said “George Clooney is inside”, a claim I’m pretty sure would not have stood up to investigation, although perhaps Clooney is a fan of cassoulet.

For those who don’t know, cassoulet is a speciality of the region. The recipe varies slightly depending on where you are and Carcassonne, Foix, Castelnaudry and Toulouse all claim to be the home of the dish. It is basically a bean stew packed with cuts of meat, usually duck, goose or pork, and a Toulouse sausage.

I always look forward to a good cassoulet and I was hopeful that despite its Australian name, Adelaide’s would live up to its reputation as the best cassoulet restaurant in Carcassonne.

First, I had a baked camembert with Serrano ham, which turned out to be quite a bit bigger and richer than I’d anticipated.

This meant the cassoulet itself was transformed into an hors categorie challenge. I was pedalling squares before I reached the bottom of the bowl.

After that, the pavé of chocolate brownie with créme Anglaise felt like tackling a cobblestone. It was very rich and dense but I focused on the task in hand and polished it off.

At €24.50 for three excellent courses, it represented arguably the best value meal of the Tour.

Baked camembert

Baked camembert

Cassoulet 8.5 / 10

Cassoulet 8.5 / 10

Chocolate cobblestone

Chocolate cobblestone

Arreau

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Every journalist on the Tour suffers a jour sans at some point and the night after the stage to Bagnères-de-Luchon, won by Michael Rogers, was mine.

Perhaps it was because the previous evening’s cassoulet led to a disrupted night’s sleep, or was it because the rest day had disrupted my rhythm? Either way, I was running on empty all day. I spent half an hour wandering around the maze of television trucks near the finish line. I was looking for someone I wanted to interview but I was in a bit of a daze as I tried to stay out of the sun and not trip over the hundreds of kilometres of cable connecting satellite dishes and monitors. I looked in envy at the telly technicians dozing in their camping chairs in the shade without appreciating that this was their brief spell of down time, a chance to rest between the early starts and the late finishes.

The press room was stiflingly hot and airless and the French television commentary had me nodding off, so I went outside for a brief snooze in the shade, only to wake even more exhausted.

When we finally arrived at Arreau and checked into our weird apartment with bunk beds, it was getting late. The town centre was en fête and the restaurants reluctant to extend their hours of service beyond 10pm. The first couple of places turned us away so we were grateful that a crêperie managed to let us have a table after only a half-hour wait.

I was past eating by then, so tackled my crêpe l’Espagnole without enthusiasm. It was nice enough and filled with plenty of chorizo and potatoes but I just wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep.

Pancake day on the Tour

Pancake day on the Tour

Another stunning view. From Arreau this time

Another stunning view. From Arreau this time

Arreau

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

For our second night in Arreau, we decided to book a table in advance. We booked at 9.30pm and, when the stage finished at 5.30pm Tour first-timer Tom scoffed when I said: “If we can get away reasonably soon, we’ll probably just about make dinner.” He thought I was joking, but everything on the Tour, especially in the mountains, takes ages.

We pulled away from the top of Pla d’Adet just after 7pm and enjoyed a clear run for about five kilometres of the descent. Then we hit traffic and sat tight, waiting for an official evacuation. This is when the police gendarmes lead a convoy of Tour traffic – organisers, officials, sponsors, VIPs and press – down the left-hand side of the road past the public vehicles.

‘Unofficial’ evacuations are frowned upon and you can get in a bit of trouble for driving on the left-hand side of the road, overtaking the traffic jam. But when we saw an official Tour van overtake us, we swung out and joined the line of cars passing the queue.

We drove on for about two kilometres before the van leading our ‘rebel’ escape spotted a large bus full of police and pulled back in, sheepishly.

Fortunately, the traffic moved reasonably quickly from then on and it took us only two and a half hours to get off the mountain.

We arrived at the restaurant a couple of minutes before 9.30pm and I had a rare moment of satisfaction when I explained to madame that we had a reservation and we were ushered past a queue of other people who had not booked and shown to a table.

I opted for cassoulet. It was not too bad, but only a second-category effort compared to the outstanding example we’d enjoyed in Carcassonne. There were two main problems – the sausage did not feel very authentic and the breadcrumbs on top had not been toasted under the grill.

Bonus cassoulet

Bonus cassoulet

Lourdes

Thursday, 24 July 2014

In 2008, I swore I would never return to Lourdes. For successive summers, either while working for a French cycling holidays company or while covering the Tour, I got stuck there, sometimes for two or three nights in a row.

Richard booked us into the Helgon Hotel, which actually turned out to be reasonably nice. It was modern and clean, which is not something I can say about many of the other hotels I’d stayed in the town.

If you’ve never been, I won’t spoil it for you but Lourdes is like a cross between Blackpool and Magaluf, with a whiff of desperation in the air and a horrible blanket of exploitation covering the whole place. It is, of course, a town of pilgrimage but long ago it became a place people visited hoping for a miracle. If Lourdes was a place of peace, tranquility and dignity I’d be broadly in favour. But it isn’t. It’s gaudy, tatty and cheap. The gift shops sell junk. The bars and restaurants (almost all of them absolutely awful) compete for attention with their neon signs. It’s about as far from a place of divine intervention as you can imagine.

I’ve never eaten well in Lourdes either. In fact, most of the meals have given me the heebie-jeebies. I usually eat only enough to take the edge off my hunger.

Thinking that there must be at least one good restaurant in Lourdes, I looked on Trip Advisor for recommendations. The number one ranked restaurant in Lourdes turned out to be an ice cream parlour, so we settled on the runner-up, which had mostly positive reviews. Our colleague Ed rang to book a table for 9.30pm, only to be told that would be too late. We booked for 9pm and turned up at 9.15.

As we walked past the bars heaving with teenagers from what must have been youth church groups I got a text from Ed saying: “The restaurant smells a bit musty.”

He wasn’t wrong, there was a strange smell but I figured it must just have been the scent of desperation that had seeped in from outside. After a few minutes I could no longer notice it.

What followed truly was a miracle. We were served three very decent courses. The starter was scallops in a leak sauce.

That was followed by a rack of lamb that could have done with a bit more time in the pan to give it some colour and texture before it was transferred to the oven but other than that was good enough. I finished the meal with profiteroles.

Tasty scallops

Tasty scallops

Rack of lamb

Rack of lamb

Profiteroles. Can't go wrong

Profiteroles. Can't go wrong

St Marcel

Friday, 25 July 2014

Winner of the golden knife and fork for best meal of the Tour

When the Tour de France route was unveiled last October, I received an email from a woman who listened to our podcast. She said she owned a restaurant and guest house in the countryside about half an hour from Bergerac. Would we like to stay there during the Tour?

A quick look at the Auberge Lou Peyrol’s website, and particularly the restaurant’s sample menu, gave me the answer. Yes we would, so we booked in for a couple of nights.

Unfortunately, as Tour fatigue set in and the logistics of the final weekend began to come into sharper focus, it became clear that staying on Saturday night as well as Friday would be impossible. With the women’s race starting in Paris on Sunday lunchtime, I knew we’d need to get at least a couple of hours up the autoroute on Saturday night.

As soon as we arrived, we got a friendly welcome from Fiona, the owner of the Auberge Lou Peyrol. The restaurant was full of noisy, happy chatter – an excellent sign – and as I walked through on my way to my room I almost went straight into a table because I was distracted by a truly sumptuous plate of food being carried by one of the waiting staff.

My room was in the upstairs of the building and was immaculate. I dumped my case and headed straight down to the dining room where we were offered an amuse bouche which consisted of a little pot of gazpacho cream, a little cheesy morcel and something deliciously fishy and deep fried.

For starter, I opted for the crab, which came in a delicate cucumbery sauce and was perfectly light and fresh.

After that came a fantastic duck breast, cooked beautifully pink and with a crunchy peppery coating. This came with ginger-infused carrots and a Dauphinoise potato that was as close to perfect as you can get. Afterwards, we went for the cheese which again was flawless.

It’s taken almost three weeks but unless the service stations on the way to Limoges, or the one between Paris and Calais have suddenly started turning out Michelin star quality sandwiches, it’s safe to say that the Auberge Lou Peyrol wins the golden knife and fork for best meal of the Tour.

I should explain that although we were invited to stay by Fiona the owner, we paid our way. Considering the quality of accommodation and food, it was staggeringly good value too.

Fiona was originally from the Isle of Man and is a big Mark Cavendish fan. She had a framed copy of L’Equipe magazine behind the bar which proclaimed Cavendish the king of the sprints.

My only regret was that we couldn’t stay for the second night and sample some more of their menu.

My bouche was amused

My bouche was amused

Heavenly crab

Heavenly crab

Delicious duck

Delicious duck

Selection of cheeses

Selection of cheeses

The motorway south of Limoges

Saturday, 26 July 2014

It goes without saying that the Tour de France involves a lot of driving. We clocked up just over 6,000 kilometres on our journey from Leeds to Paris and home again. The Tour de France, or rather the town hosting the stage finish, usually lay on a buffet for the press every day. These vary in quality. Some days they are excellent with an array of cold meats, cheeses and salad, other days we’re grateful to have half a baguette wrapped in foil. Even the good buffets have their detractors. My colleague Gregor Brown became exasperated at the lack of a hot meal when he said: “Have the French not discovered fire?”

Sometimes it pays not to gamble on the quality of the buffet and on those days we grab a fridge-flavoured sandwich from the motorway services.

It was fitting, somehow that the final official evening meal of the Tour came at the services on the autoroute. I wasn’t too keen on the look of the pork knuckle or the saucisse de Toulouse that had been resting in its fatty juices. Andouillette was a definite no-no, so I opted for the steak hâche and chips. It doesn’t look great but it was a level above the food on offer at British service stations.

There was one final meal, an overpriced lunch in salad, which was a few coins of goats cheese resting on a plate of peeled, sliced cucumber. For £10. Fortunately it was accompanied by a glass of crisp, dry white wine.

So that’s it. The 2014 Tour de France is over, and so is my culinary journey. When I scroll through the meals we’ve sampled, I can say it was an above-average year. There were 0 missed dinners and nothing that could be considered a real shocker. And the high water mark – winner of this year’s golden knife and fork – was very high indeed.

One final observation… France really needs to learn how to cook and serve vegetables in its restaurants.

Thanks for reading.

Desperate times... but nearly home

Desperate times... but nearly home