The final course

Sunday, 26 July 2015

I had a message on Twitter from Gavin Murdock asking why France has such a high culinary reputation when the contents of this blog suggests otherwise. He also says he struggles to get good wine as well as good food when he goes to France.

It’s a fair point. Scrolling back through this blog now the Tour is over, I realise that it’s been a pretty unhealthy and not particularly memorable three weeks, food-wise. Partly that is because of our circumstances. Generally, we are rushing to get dinner before the restaurants close. Often we are in towns made busy by the Tour de France and so we have to take what we can get.

The final few days have been pretty poor, even by the Tour’s standards. On Friday night, we knew we would be late leaving La Toussuire so I had second helpings at the press buffet, which offered a curious mix of polenta with a sauce I couldn’t quite place, dense regional sausage (one green with herbs, I presumed, the other more gristly) and the usual pasta and potato salads.

I felt a bit unwell after the second serving. So, by the time we returned to the restaurant in the Alps that had served me the so-so burger with an egg on the previous night, I was still not hungry and skipped dinner voluntarily. I know, I know, this is unprecedented behaviour but perhaps the Tour, and the heat, had finally got to me? Don’t worry though, I did have a couple of beers instead to ensure the usual restless night’s sleep.

Saturday was not much of an improvement.

It struck me, as we sat in the traffic jam coming off Alpe d’Huez that if the Tour de France did not exist, there would be no appetite to invent it. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the race, I mean that no one in their right mind would devise a sporting event that lasts three weeks and takes place, in the main, when people are at work and unable to watch on television.

When you’re in the Tour’s ‘bubble’, it’s easy to forget what a crazy pursuit it is. The other day we were driving up La Toussuire behind half a dozen team buses and the madness of all these vehicles driving round France, the traffic jams and the controlled chaos occurred to me. And, as we sat in the queue on the valley road between Bourg d’Oisans and Grenoble, I realised that we weren’t stuck in the traffic, we were the traffic.

This year’s Tour required everyone to drive from the Alps to Paris between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, a journey of 650 kilometres, or more than six hours.

The great unknown was how long it would take to get off the Alpe. We decided to play safe and booked a Premiere Classe (not Premier, not Class) on an industrial estate just north of Grenoble. We figured that if we had a speedy get-away, we’d be in time for dinner and if we got stuck in a horrendous queue, we’d at least get to our hotel before midnight.

Dining options on the industrial estate were slim to none. There was just one restaurant, the curious Courtepaille chain. I may be mistaken but I think Courtepaille is above Buffalo Grill in the pecking order. It’s certainly ahead of L’Arche, which is usually only found at motorway service stations, but I noticed there’s a new player in the mediocre grill restaurant sector – Hippopotamus. Perhaps in France they don’t feel the same way, but I have to say that the idea of eating at a restaurant named after a large animal with tough skin that is not usually associated with fine dining was a bold marketing strategy.

Anyway, Courtepaille restaurants tend all to have this conical roof with a chimney, which makes them look a bit like a tagine, which would make sense if they served Morroccan food, but they don’t.

The menu is all meat, meat, meat. Steaks, steak haché (raw mince with a raw egg yoke on top), duck breast, pork and so on. I’ve had some chewy old meat in these sorts of places and I didn’t fancy another night struggling to digest a piece of shoe leather so I opted for another burger, considering it the ‘light’ option.

It was perfectly adequate but it did sort of represent the moment where I’d given up in terms of the Gourmet de France blog. France had beaten me in my quest for a good meal. Mediocrity won out in the end.

And so to Paris, where I had the obligatory over-priced lunch (which I forgot to photograph) served by some very friendly staff, which was a new experience in the capital.

That’s it. The Tour de France is done for another year and all that is left is to award the Golden Knife and Fork for the best meal of the Tour.

There’s really only one contender for victory that stands head and shoulders above the rest but I’ll go through the motions of recalling some of the other above average efforts.

When I think back, the halibut on the first night in Utrecht was good, although the watery brown soup that preceded it was not. The cod at the little roadside restaurant not far from Le Havre was great because it was so unexpected. The Bastille Day bream in Pau was excellent but the two hours it took to eat three courses made it a gruelling experience more than an enjoyable one.

But this Tour will be remembered for two things. Missing cassoulet and the excellent, homely hospitality of Richard’s parents in-law.

Jean-Claude and Elisabeth are the clear winners of the Golden Knife and Fork not just for the quality of the home-reared duck and the following night’s steak but the way they welcomed me, a stranger, into their home and, despite glancing at the size of my waistband, decided I needed feeding properly.

Thank you for reading and thank you to everyone who has donated to help keep the show on the road. If you have enjoyed the blog, feel free to donate and I’ll see you all again next year for the vegetarian Gourmet de France…

The Cycling Anthology

Sports writing at its best

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Courtepaille

Courtepaille

Another burger

Another burger

A late meal in the Alps

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Whenever the Tour is in the Alps, the story is always the same. The restaurants are full and even the ones that are not stop serving at 9pm because their kitchens are overwhelmed by the demand.

After arriving at our apartment in Saint-Sorlin d’Arves at about 9.15pm, we headed to the nearest pizzeria, only to be told dinner time was over. Richard headed to the next place and walked out almost immediately having been told ‘non’.

So we got in the car and drove down the hill towards the heart of the town. I went into a restaurant on one side of the road and Richard went to the other. At my place, I was encouraged by the empty tables, but less encouraged by the speed with which the waiter was moving between the dining room and the kitchen.

I stopped him and asked for a table. He told me they were full. I took an exaggerated look at two of the empty tables.

‘I mean, we’re too busy and we’re not taking any more people,’ he added.

Fortunately, Richard, or rather our car, emblazoned with The Cycling Podcast logos, was spotted by Sky News’s Orla Chennaoui and her colleagues. They had managed to get a table in a restaurant on the other side of the road and had not yet ordered, so we were able to join them.

The service was very slow. It was as if they had been completely unaware that the Tour de France was in the vicinity and that demand might be high for these few days.

I was ravenous when we ordered. I thought a pizza might be too lightweight and I didn’t fancy a second tartiflette so I went for the ordinary hamburger à la cheval – a burger with a fried egg on top. By the time it arrived, approximately four hours later (I exaggerate only slightly), the hunger had passed and I picked at it.

The mountain routine of searching for food and then waiting an incredibly long time for it to arrive has another couple of nights to run.

Then it’ll be on to Paris for a hideously over-priced salad.

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Burger

Burger

Tartiflette in Barcelonette

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Our hotel for the night was just 400 metres from the Tour de France press room, offering the hope that we might eat at a civilised hour.

That was until we endured the most eccentric check-in procedure ever. Monsieur stopped short of giving us the full guided tour of his hotel in Barcelonette, but he did explain three times that the small blue key would unlock the main door and the larger key was for the bedroom. He also took us into the breakfast room and ran through everything that would be on offer the following morning.

‘Here’s the coffee machine. You can have coffee with milk, or without.’

‘Thanks, that’s good.’

‘Or latte, or cappuccino or hot chocolate.’

‘Very good, thank you.’

‘Here is the juice machine which does apple or orange.’

‘Fine, thank you.’

‘There will be bread and croissants…’

‘That’s good.’

‘…with jam. There will also be cheese and cold meats as well as yoghurt and fruit.’

By this point I wanted to shout: “Yes, thank you, I know how breakfast works.’

He continued in this way when showing me the room. He explained how the curtains should be pulled together and how the windows opened. He explained how the shower worked and that the flush button on the toilet must be depressed fully (even though there was a sign above the toilet, in three languages, stating this).

I’ve had less thorough guided tours from estate agents when looking to buy a house.

Anyway, after this peculiar game of show and tell, Richard and I headed into town and opted for the larger bustling restaurant in the main square that wasn’t a pizzeria. After checking the menu for tartiflette we asked for a table.

The menu had a strong Mexican influence which was explained by the fact that between 1850 and about 1950 quite a lot of people from Barcelonette emigrated to Mexico. Some returned and brought with them a taste for Mexican food.

Greg LeMond, his wife Kathy and some of the Eurosport television team were sitting at the next table. Greg LeMond, the American three-time winner of the Tour, used to drive his French team bosses and journalists mad by eating Mexican food during the cycling season. They thought it meant he was not serious and was not embracing the monastic lifestyle of a professional cyclist.

Now, given that the alternative was a boiling hot dish of bubbling cheese, potatoes and fatty bacon pieces accompanied by what can only be described as a meat salad, it’s probable that Greg had chosen the healthier option.

Still, after missing cassoulet all together during this Tour de France, it was good to tick tartiflette off the list, even if it wasn’t a classic example of the dish.

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Tartiflette aka hot cheese

Tartiflette aka hot cheese

Meat salad

Meat salad

Still no tartiflette

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The second rest day of the Tour de France was not exactly restful. We were up at 7am to have breakfast and then drive nearly 70 miles south from our mountain retreat – this makes it sound a lot better than it actually was – to Sisteron for Team Sky’s press conference.

Their hotel was an Ibis on a roundabout next to a motorway junction. Apparently, it backed onto an abattoir – at least that was the explanation I was given for the incredible number of flies buzzing around the place.

I thought for a moment about how tired and irritable I felt and then I realised that at least I wasn’t trying to ride the Tour de France while staying at a hotel that backed onto an abattoir and was full of flies.

The regular rest day routine is of team press conferences, a bit of work and a search for a laundrette and in that respect everything went to form. The laundrette search was successful but the washing was left undone because the machines would only accept the exact money in change and all the functions were eccentrically priced – the small machines were €3.30, the soap powder was €0.25 and so on. I only discovered this once I’d fed four euros into the machine and received neither change, a working washing machine or a refund.

I did at least manage to have lunch in the town square with a couple of colleagues from the American magazine VeloNews while we recorded the latest episode of The Cycling Podcast. The sight of salad loaded with green leafy vegetables was quite a welcome surprise although two large slabs of rich, irony blue cheese probably over-ruled any of the good they did me.

Dinner was a typically below par. The company was good – we met up with TV’s Ned Boulting and his crew – but I do think that a tomato and mozzarella salad ought to come with mozzarella rather than Generic Yellow-Coloured Snacking Cheese.

The menu was a bit underwhelming – fine for lunch but a bit on the limited side for dinner – so I opted for the faux filet with pepper sauce. Although I know this is sirloin steak, I always pause because I don’t think anything that’s designed to be eaten should be designed as ‘false’. Who wants to eat ‘false fillet’ or ‘false chips’ or ‘false tomato’. Mind you, if they’d described the mozzarella as ‘false mozzarella’ I would at least have avoided that disappointment.

The search for tartiflette goes on…

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That's not mozzarella

That's not mozzarella

False steak

False steak

Pizza in the Alps

Monday, 20 July 2015

When I think of the Alps, I think of tartiflette, raclette and fondue and basically things oozing with cheese with just the acidic bite of a handful of coronations to provide a cutting edge. After missing out on cassoulet in the south-west, I’d hoped for a few good days in the Alps but the first night was a disappointment.

Tartiflette is a magnificent dish made with sliced potatoes, Reblochon cheese, bacon lardons and onion and it’s served scorching hot, often with slices of paysanne ham, cornichons and sometimes a token lettuce leaf. Raclette and fondue are basically excuses to eat molten stringy cheese without feeling too guilty about it. When the Alps follow the Pyrenees at the Tour, it’s sometimes the thing that powers me through to Paris.

In hindsight we chose badly. Corps, the little village 40 minutes or so north of Gap, where we’re staying, had a busy little street but all the restaurants looked to be pizzerias.

The pizzeria we chose was not even a particularly good one. There’s nothing quite like a large pizza with a well-baked, crispy thin crust and a rich tomato sauce and the pizza we were served was nothing like that at all.

I went for the chorizo pizza, which also promised merguez sausage, but the small, stubby pieces of meat and the wafer-thin slices of meat were so generic I could not tell which was chorizo and which was merguez. The base was peculiar too. Instead of a crisp snap it had a dry, crumbly texture.

Like the Tour, the food must look up as we head deeper into the Alps.

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Crumbly pizza

Crumbly pizza

A Tour sans cassoulet

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Every now and then we end up in a hotel that is also being used by one of the Tour’s teams.

Hotels are allocated to the teams by the race organisers, so they have little or no choice in where they are staying, and the quality of the accommodation is supposed to balance out over the course of the three-week race. Each team should get its fair share of good, bad and indifferent hotels.

In Florac, we were in the same hotel as the Bora-Argon team and I only hope their riders slept better than I did. Again there was no air-conditioning. Again, opening the window only had the effect of letting in more heat. It was another restless night.

It was a quirky old hotel. The US Postal Service team stayed there during the 2004 Tour and a large photo of Lance Armstrong took pride of place on one of the walls.

Our evening meal was perfectly adequate but contained some strange and old-fashioned touches. I ordered the omelette aux cêpes only to be served an omelette packed not with lush cêpes but with mushrooms that were suspiciously like the tinned, button variety.

Ignoring the rule about not eating fish so far from the sea, I opted for the monkfish on the basis that I wasn’t sure I could stomach the offal on offer. I once made the mistake of ordering rognons de veau, not realising they were little veal’s kidneys with the texture and consistency of button mushrooms. They were stubborn things that took a lot of chewing. Early on in the meal I was reduced to counting how many were left and I decided that getting further than halfway through would be a decent result. I also ignored the tripe and a sausage that I assumed would be gristly and difficult.

The disappointment, of course, was to miss out entirely on the cassoulet. I think this makes it only my second Tour sans cassoulet since 2001.

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Omelette with button mushrooms

Omelette with button mushrooms

Monkfish in a rich sauce

Monkfish in a rich sauce

At a chateau with French 'Oleg Tinkov'

Friday, 17 July 2015

As I have said before, the buffet lunches provided for journalists at the Tour de France press rooms vary in quality tremendously. With temperatures nudging 40 degrees in Rodez, the last thing I really wanted was three large hunks of meat and a huge helping of the local specialty, aligot.

Aligot, for those who don’t know, is mashed potato loaded with so much of the local cheese that it goes stringy like good melted mozzarella. The ratio is so skewed in favour of the cheese that it’s not really accurate to describe it as mashed potato at all. The meat – two pieces of rare beef and a piece of rare lamb – were very nice, as was the aligot, but the combined effect made for a drowsy afternoon in a stiflingly hot, dark indoor sports arena, which served as our press room.

People often ask how and when we book our accommodation for the Tour and what our criteria for a good hotel is. Generally, we try to book as much as we can in October, when the route of the race is unveiled by ASO, the organisers.

As for the criteria. Location is key. The Tour involves around 5,000 kilometres of driving as it is without adding on unnecessary journeys at the beginning and end of each day. Sometimes we try to locate ourselves near the stage finish, to cut down on travel time after a stage and give ourselves a good chance of an early dinner. Other days we head a bit further down the road and give ourselves a slightly more laid-back morning. Generally speaking it is tough, though not impossible, to book into a stage start or finish town but usually those hotels are all full up with Tour teams and officials.

Cost is also a factor. It costs around £1,000 a week in hotels, food and fuel to cover the Tour, so the more money that can be saved on hotels the better. There is a limit, though. Any more than the very occasional night in a Formula One or Premiere Classe hotel is terrible for morale. Likewise, the number of nights sharing an apartment should be kept to a minimum for the sake of good relations with travelling companions.

We set a daily budget and try to stick as closely to it as possible. This means that half a dozen cheapish nights mean we can push the boat out on a better quality place.

After the stage to Rodez we had our most expensive night of the Tour at a chateau deep in the countryside. It was an impressive-looking place and we were greeted by the proprietor, a man who looked exactly like Oleg Tinkov, the owner of the Tinkoff-Saxo team, and was wearing loose white linen trousers and shirt.

French Oleg Tinkov showed me to my room, which was an eccentric suite in a separate building to the chateau. He had left a portable air-conditioning unit on in an attempt to cool the room down from ‘blast furnace’ to ‘frying pan’. Unfortunately, he’d left it set to 30 degrees. Although technically cooler than the outside temperature, it was not making the room any more bearable. We turned it down to 16 degrees and he shrugged and said he hoped that would do the job.

We sat and had a pre-prandial drink on the lawn outside the chateau. Music was playing from somewhere and the playlist of classics took a more popular turn when Nessun Dorma came on, sparking memories of the 1990 World Cup (the BBC used Pavarotti’s version as its theme tune for the World Cup coverage) and a chance to remind Richard about Scotland’s defeat to Costa Rica.

Waiters and waitresses came round every ten minutes or so with little canapés – tiny beefburgers in mini buns, strips of smoked herring and cheesey choux buns.

It was gone 10pm by the time we sat down to eat a rich meal of foie gras followed by rare steak in a rich mushroom sauce and dauphinoise potatoes. I am rarely one to cut a meal short but after the cheese and with some kind of lavish dessert making its way from the kitchen I bailed and headed back to my room, which was now only swelteringly hot.

The rich meal and the heat meant I got only a couple of hours’ sleep. At one point I put the mattress next to the air-con unit so I could lie in the chilly breeze but the noise of the machine was so loud I feared I was doing damage to my ear.

I shouldn’t grumble because I am not riding 180 kilometres a day in this heat but the relentless nature of following the Tour and the cumulative effect of the fatigue of simply driving, working and missing out on sleep does make me appreciate what the riders go through.

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A nice chateau

A nice chateau

A slab of foie gras

A slab of foie gras

Steak with dauphinoise potatoes

Steak with dauphinoise potatoes

Some cheese

Some cheese

A disappointing day in the mountains

Thursday, 16 July 2015

If you have been enjoying this blog, you may like the little audio show I made for The Cycling Podcast’s Kilometre 0: Food on the Tour.

The press buffet at Plateau de Beille was an hors catégorie feast of meat. Mountain sausage, paté that was a little bit too much like cat food (and I don’t mind cat foody type paté), and rare beef burgers the man described as l’anti McDo, meaning the anti-McDonalds. It left me craving something fresh and light.

As we left the mountain, we called the hotel to tell them we were on our way. They reassured us the restaurant would stay open until nine. We arrived at ten to.

On checking in, monsieur said he’d have to check with the kitchen that they were still serving. Considering there were still several minutes to go until the clock hit nine, we felt that was unnecessarily irritating.

When we sat down, we were told the cold buffet was at our disposal and that the plat du jour was pork.

Unfortunately, the only thing on the cold buffet cart that resembled salad was some grated carrot and pieces of tomato. Everything else was Things in Mayonnaise.

The main course was a struggle. Some pork ribs in a rich, dark, slightly artificial-flavoured sauce on top of some sautéed potatoes and other vegetables.

The pork was scrappy and bony and the sauce was so thick it seemed to have been designed to disguise the poor quality of the meat. Richard insisted he was enjoying it, but I think he only said that because he knew I wasn’t.

I left almost all of it and moved on to the cheese, which I forgot to photograph, which is a shame because the portion sizes were so small they had to be seen to be believed. The slice of firm white something-or-other was so thin it was see-through.

The irony of all this was that later in the day, I received an email bemoaning the lack of comically disastrous episodes in this year’s Gourmet de France blog. It’s true, it’s been an above average year but today was definitely a bad day. We were a stone’s throw from cassoulet country and we ended up with the worst meal of the Tour so far. I knew the press buffet burgers had been too good to be true…

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Things in mayonnaise

Things in mayonnaise

Pork bones in unpleasant brown gloop

Pork bones in unpleasant brown gloop

Farewell to Pau

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

In all the years I’ve covered the Tour – my first was in 1999 – I cannot remember staying in one place for three nights, other than at the Grand Depart. I may be mistaken but it felt like a unique treat to not have to pack the suitcase and move on.

Doing live editions of The Cycling Podcast on Wednesday nights has a couple of advantages, one being that we get away from the finish of the day’s stage earlier than usual, and so we were back in Pau by 9pm for the earliest dinner since Utrecht.

Sadly, Richard and I both felt so weary we dropped into the first restaurant we saw, which was next to the Hotel de Gramont, where the Etixx-Quick Step team were staying. The restaurant was called the Cantine du Boucher, which suggested a meat-heavy menu.

Despite having a large and varied lunch at an excellent buffet for the press at the stage finish in Cauterets – which featured boudin noir, or black pudding, as we know it – I was hungry.

Being so close to border, there was a slight Spanish influence too and I opted for the five-piece tapas selection for the starter. It consisted of five types of things on bread. There was some kind of organ, pan-fried and placed on cheese. There was chorizo. There was scallops in a fishy sauce. There was cheese with walnuts. And there was some kind of meat, probably pork, with spicy sausage. After I’d polished them off, I wished I’d gone for the 10-piece tapas starter so there would still have been five more to go.

In terms of flavour, the main course was very nice – a slab of pork in a rich, meaty sauce with some well-cooked chips – although the pork was a bit too fatty for my liking.

After that, it was time for bed and an early start the following morning to pack and move on.

There was another food-related development. Daniel Friebe, our colleague on The Cycling Podcast, has joined us in the Jaguar for the middle week of the Tour and his very first act was to leave the rind from the free slab of Pyrenean Ossau Iraty cheese in the boot.

Fortunately, we found it before it could do any permanent damage, although I am now conducting an own experiment with my unopened, shrink-wrapped packet of the cheese. What will happen to it if I transport it round the rest of the Tour and home to England in the car, heating it up to perhaps 50 degrees Celsius in the car boot each day and cooling it down again? Stay tuned.

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Tapas. Five types of things

Tapas. Five types of things

Pork. The flavour's in the fat

Pork. The flavour's in the fat

An experiment in cheese

An experiment in cheese

Bastille night in Pau

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

When the Tour de France finishes at the top of a mountain, the prospects of getting dinner depend entirely on the efficiency of one’s escape from the summit.

Usually there is an official ‘evacuation’, which means accredited vehicles can, with the permission of the police, overtake the regular traffic – which consists almost entirely of fans in camper vans – and get down from the mountain more quickly. The evacuation from La Pierre-Saint-Martin was one of the smoothest I’ve ever experienced and we were back in Pau by 9.40pm.

The city was buzzing with people celebrating Bastille Day. There were light shows, loud music and fireworks and madame at the restaurant looked at us as if we were quite mad when we agreed to eat indoors because all the tables in the cooler evening air were taken.

We were served a very fine meal, one of the best of the Tour so far, but the lateness of the hour meant it felt more like a refuelling exercise than a relaxing experience.

For the starter, I chose the salade paysanne, which was a salad with pieces of duck, gizzards (basically that’s the duck’s digestive organ, which is delicious despite sounding disgusting) and topped with a slab of foie gras.

Things lightened up considerably after that heavy entrée, with a delicately-cooked piece of bream with scallops and a scallopy sauce with some fresh vegetables.

Finally, with the clock passing midnight, a rich warm apple tart with a sticky syrupy sauce and vanilla ice cream. All in all, just enough to keep me awake until the middle of the night.

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Salade paysanne

Salade paysanne

A pleasant bream

A pleasant bream

Appley goodness

Appley goodness

The rest day

Monday, 13 July 2015

The first rest day of the Tour consisted of a four-hour drive from Niort to Pau followed by a couple of hours in the laundrette feeding coins into the machine while some French journalists scowled at me for hogging two of the three tumble dryers.

One bonus of the rest day was that we were able to eat dinner at a civilised hour, after a leisurely beer in the old quarter of Pau.

Having ordered the three-course set menu, I was a bit taken aback by the size of the starter, a plump omelette with cêpes that took the edge off my magret de canard a bit. It was a bit like climbing the Tourmalet from one side only to reach the descent and have to ride back over it in the opposite direction.

The omelette was very good – perfectly runny in the middle and with a good allocation of the rich, nutty mushrooms. If I was to be picky, the duck was a bit overdone.

Dessert was a chocolate mousse, which was excellent but was marked down because it was served in a irritating shell-shaped dish, which meant made it difficult to extract all of the mousse without being terribly rude and using my fingers. (Which I did when I thought no one was looking).

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Filling omelette

Filling omelette

Over-done duck

Over-done duck

Partly inaccessible chocolate mousse

Partly inaccessible chocolate mousse

A sandwich from the petrol station

Sunday, 12 July 2015

There was only one question bouncing around the press room at the Tour de France on Sunday and that was: How far are you driving to tonight?

With the race reaching its first pause in Plumelec, before resuming in Pau on Tuesday, everyone bar the riders, team staff and key race officials faced a 700-kilometre drive south.

Richard and I had already decided to break our journey at Niort, in western France. Others were heading further on to Bordeaux. Our colleague Alasdair Fotheringham and his Spanish companion were going the whole hog and were aiming to drive through the night all the way to Pau. Crackers.

We knew it was ambitious to expect a good dinner but we’d hoped to do a little bit better than a petrol station chicken sandwich, a little tub of Pringles and a Lion bar…

Our fellow podcaster Daniel Friebe and his travelling partner Edward Pickering made a small deviation from the motorway and found a decent little restaurant in a village somewhere. We had left Plumelec almost an hour after them so couldn’t do the same.

So we ate our petrol station food in silence and ploughed on to Niort, arriving at our Premiere Classe hotel after 11. The Premiere Classe is a brand of hotels with a name that surely breaches the trade descriptions act because very little about it suggests premier class.

I feared the worst when a group of people in the foyer told me the automated check-in machine was broken and when it refused to accept our card we thought we were in for a rough night until the machine decided to co-operate.

The Tour de France throws up these huge contrasts. Only the night before, we stayed at a marvellous gîte near Guidel in Brittany with a huge comfortable bed, luxury bathroom and a breakfast buffet that offered fruit, pancakes, meat, cheese and large bowls of coffee. The next night we were in a Premiere Classe. I reckon there are better prisons.

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A sandwich and crisps on the Jaguar's dashboard

A sandwich and crisps on the Jaguar's dashboard

Pancake day

Saturday, 11 July 2015

And so, to Brittany, where every day is pancake day.

Having missed the excellent regional sausage wrapped in a pancake at the press buffet in Fougères on Friday, I was very happy to see they were on offer again at Mûr de Bretagne. So much so, that I had two of them for lunch.

Brittany is famous for its crêpes and every village has a crêperie. It’s amazing, really, how French restaurants have retained their autonomy. Their streets are not (yet) filled with chains the way British towns are. If Brittany adopted the British model, Gestel Plages would have a Crêpe Hut, a Crêpe Express and several other identikit chains.

Having said that, a crêpe is a crêpe, and the toppings are very similar wherever you go. The restaurant we headed for, Les Pieds dans l’Eau, overlooking the beach at Gustel, had the usual range to choose from.

Every time I have pancakes, I always underestimate how filling they are and I always make the mistake of ordering a starter. I opted for the fish soup, which was dense and fishy and came with a lot of bread and garlicky sauce, so by the time my crêpe arrived, stuffed with cheese and boiled potatoes and topped with cold meats and cornichons I was struggling a bit to get over the line.

The other great thing about Brittany is its excellent and very dry cider, which knocks the socks off the bottled ciders we have at home. It’s so dry that it forces you involuntarily purse your lips and then sip some more to quench the thirst. In a way, it’s a genius piece of marketing.

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Filling fish soup

Filling fish soup

Pancake with cold meats

Pancake with cold meats

Almost a missed dinner

Friday, 10 July 2015

The traffic as we left Livarot after the start of stage seven and headed on the D-road towards Caen was heavy. It was also slow-moving as we headed towards the péage, so I decided to get a sandwich and a slice of quiche from the Paul franchise at the motorway service station.

It was my worst decision of the Tour so far.

When we arrived at Fougères, the buffet for the press featured local sausage wrapped in Breton pancake and salad and fresh melon and I was not hungry enough to even have a little bit of it.

Fortunately, I did manage a fruit and vegetable juice, blended to order and filled with apples, carrots, celery, beetroot and enough vitamins to keep the inevitable Tour de France sore throat at bay for a few more days. It was as if the people of Brittany knew what an unhealthy lifestyle covering the Tour can be and decided to do what they could to help. And it was much appreciated.

In the evening, we had an appointment at the Sky team’s hotel. When we arrived we knew we’d be in for a bit of a wait, so we asked if we could eat in the restaurant. ‘Non,’ we were told. The kitchen was serving dinner only for the riders.

Sky’s riders weren’t eating in the hotel. They were in their mobile dining car being catered for by their own chef. The hotel kitchen only had to knock out a few meals for the Bretagne-Séché team so it seemed a bit off that they wouldn’t do two hungry journalists and a photographer an omelette and chips each.

After we’d finished what we’d gone to the Sky hotel for (stay tuned to The Cycling Podcast for that), we headed to our hotel in the centre of Rennes. After the chateau in the countryside, it was a bit of jolt back down to earth – a concrete box with wafer-thin walls near the railway station. It’s also home to the first plastic-concertinaed bathroom door of the Tour. In the 1970s or 1980s, the French must have led the world in the production of plastic-concertinaed bathroom doors because hotels that have gone without a refurb for three decades all seem to have one.

We almost missed dinner and it was so late – gone 11pm – that my appetite had disappeared anyway. So I had a burger and called it a night.

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Five-a-day juice

Five-a-day juice

Emergency 11pm burger

Emergency 11pm burger

La Haie Tondue

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Because of its proximity to the coast, I’d always thought Le Havre was a nice little seaside town, perhaps with an old port packed with little fish restaurants. I was not, until yesterday, aware that in fact it was bombed during the second world war and was redesigned by an architect called Auguste Perret in the 20 years afterwards. As a result, it is a bit like one of our ‘new towns’, built just after the war. There’s a grid system of streets in the centre and everything seems to have been put together using prefabricated concrete, which is pretty ugly stuff.

The city is also surrounded by a Spaghetti Junction-esque network of motorways that merge and separate so much that the sat-nav was having trouble getting us away from the place.

We were running late by the time we left the finish of the Tour de France, and our chambre d’hôte, minus a restaurant, was out in the countryside. I called to explain to madame that we would be late and to ask whether there would be anywhere nearby still serving food. Her advice was to eat en route.

It was gone 9pm when we pulled off the motorway, having not passed not so much as a service station with a Buffalo Grill. I was beginning to fear we were going to miss dinner but as we approached the next roundabout we saw a restaurant – La Haie Tondue – and jumped out to see if I could get us a table.

‘Is it possible to have a table for three people, please?’ I asked hopefully, as I saw some other Tour journalists with smiling, contented faces and round bellies settling their bill.

‘Yes, of course,’ said Madame. ‘You can relax now,’ she added, with a calming gesture of the hands. She clearly recognised the panic in my eyes.

We opted for just one course, so as not to keep madame at the chamber d’hôte waiting too long. I went for the cod with ratatouille, which was excellent and maintained the high standard set by Richard’s in-laws.

After a long, confused drive through the lanes of rural Normandy, and a couple of phone calls to Madame, we finally found our château, set back from the road and surrounded by a gorgeous garden. We were greeted at the gates and, through the gloom, just about made out the swimming pool we won’t have time to use.

After all, The Tour is the Tour.

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Amuse bouche

Amuse bouche

Cod with ratatouille

Cod with ratatouille

A second night at Richard's in-laws

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

We really were spoiled by Richard’s mother-in-law, who laid on a fabulous breakfast each morning and wouldn’t let us up from the table until she was satisfied we’d had enough to see us through the day. Fresh bread (toasted for the British), boiled eggs, home-made yoghurt and jams, cheese and coffee got each day off to a good start.

Our second evening was just as good as the first. For the starter we had boiled egg, wrapped in smoked salmon and all held together with jelly, together with the delicious home-made mayonnaise and after that was some beautifully cooked fillet of beef served with ratatouille. The beef arrived on a platter and there was a piece cooked to suit every taste, from well-done to extremely rare. I opted for a piece that was reasonably rare, which seemed to surprise my hosts.

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Smoked salmon, egg and jelly

Smoked salmon, egg and jelly

Roast beef

Roast beef

The ducks say au revere

The ducks say au revere

Dinner at Richard's in-laws

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

With this year’s Tour heading close to Amiens, where Richard’s wife’s parents live, we took advantage of their very kind gesture to put us up for a couple of nights. Of course, it’s not unusual for people to invite their son-in-law and daughter to stay, but extending that invitation to their son-in-law’s work colleagues and travelling companions is particularly generous.

I was extremely grateful for their hospitality because they treated us to an excellent meal, kicking off with an aperitif, a glass of pastis, served with one ice cube and a dash of water. I was just enjoying my second sip when I received a text message from another colleague who wrote to say he’d been turned away from Buffalo Grill and had ended up in a McDonald’s on an industrial estate somewhere.

The starter was an excellent cross between a paté and an omelette with a shrimp on the top served with fresh mayonnaise but it was the main course that was the crowning glory. Richard’s in-laws rear animals for the table and we were treated to roast duck, which was delicious. My mate Simon the photographer, who is travelling with us until the first rest day, asked whether the animals in the garden were given names, to which Richard replied that the particular duck we were enjoying was called Donald. It was a joke of course, the duck’s name was actually Didier. That’s also a joke, but there’s a serious point here.

I am too squeamish for anything approaching The Good Life, although the lifestyle depicted in the BBC comedy from the 1970s is appealing for a number of reasons. That’s not strictly true. Growing a few vegetables in the garden is something I intend to get round to but I am too soft and sentimental to rear animals for food, even though I eat meat and fish. Buying from a butcher, fishmonger or supermarket desensitises the process of eating meat and makes us care less about how the animals were treated, when it was slaughtered, how the meat was prepared and so on.

The duck I ate last night ended up on my dinner plate but it lived in a nice garden and had a good life. It wasn’t reared in a food factory and it’s growth wasn’t artificially accelerated.

As I said, I know I am too soft to rear animals for food, yet I happily eat meat. I know that I would grow attached to any animals that lived in my garden, I would undoubtedly make the mistake of giving them names and I’d observe the little characteristics that make them different from one another. There’s no way I could go through with the final deed.

And so I have great respect for people who are able to produce food for their own dining table. I also think it tastes better for it. Unfortunately, my French is too poor to articulate that to Richard’s father-in-law, so I hope his wife will translate this for him.

One other point. The photo of the duck may look like a small portion. That’s because I thought it was too rude to photograph food I’d been served as a guest in someone else’s house until someone had mentioned the fact I write this blog (everyone was briefly out of the room when the starter was served). So the photo you see on this page is actually my second helping.

After the duck, we were presented with a selection of cheese better than many restaurants I’ve eaten in, all of them local, or relatively local, and all of them good.

But the best thing about the meal at Richard’s in-laws is that we’re staying two nights and I can spend the afternoon wondering what awaits us this evening.

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Home-made tortilla

Home-made tortilla

Second helpings of duck

Second helpings of duck

Plentiful cheeseboard

Plentiful cheeseboard

Eurotel, Lanaken

Monday, 6 July 2015

After the stage, we headed to a hotel north of Liège where the Trek, Lampre and Cannondale-Garmin teams were staying because Richard and I had a couple of things we wanted to do for The Cycling Podcast. It had been a tough day for many of the riders after two high-speed crashes and the list of casualties included Fabian Cancellara of the Trek team.

As we arrived at the hotel, shortly after nine o’clock, Cancellara Tweeted that he was out of the race after x-rays at hospital showed two fractured vertebrae. A little while later, when Cancellara arrived, walking slowly and stiffly past some of the hotel’s guests dining outdoors on the patio, he was given a sympathetic round of applause.

Not far from the main dining room, a Cannondale-Garmin truck with a difference was parked up. The truck has been transformed into a mobile kitchen for the team’s husband and wife chef and sous-chef team of Sean Fowler and Olga Belenka. They drive from hotel to hotel and set up in the afternoon, preparing the meals for the team’s nine riders. The rest of the team’s staff – sports directors, mechanics, soigneurs and so on – eat whatever the hotel is offering. Fortunately, at the Eurotel in Lanaken, the menu looked pretty good, but that’s not always the case with the hotels assigned to the teams by the race organisers.

Professional cycling teams have been employing their own chefs for years now. I remember covering the 1999 Tour and US Postal Service were one of relatively few teams who had a chef travelling with them. It was a bit of a novelty then, but it’s an essential now. Until recently, the chefs took their chances in the hotel kitchens but, gradually, they brought more and more of their own kit and more of their own ingredients so the next logical step was to have a mobile kitchen too.

At the 2011 Dauphiné, I watched Team Sky’s chef Soren Kristiansen at work one day in a hotel in the French Alps and it was clear he was having to work around hotel staff who were not overjoyed at his presence. Soren, too, was less than happy with some of the facilities he had to work with. He told me that in his time working for cycling teams he’d seen more or less everything, including some kitchens you wouldn’t trust to cook your evening meal the night before a 200-kilometre bike race.

But the most important factor is provenance. If the team chef is in charge of the food, he or she is in charge of everything that goes into it. The nutritional value can be planned, the ingredients can be monitored – whether that’s the quality of the meat or the freshness of the vegetables. And there can be no hidden ‘junk’ calories – extra butter or cream that adds flavour but is also not the best fuel for a cyclist’s finely-tuned engine.

The chefs have to be creative, too. Cannondale-Garmin’s chefs provide gluten-free meals, which rules out ingredients that include wheat. They also can’t do the usual chef’s trick of generating flavour by sauteeing everything in lovely rich, salty butter. And they have to ensure the riders don’t get bored. Food on the Tour is fuel but it’s bad for morale to just shovel in huge quantities of the same thing every meal time. The riders would soon get bored if it was rice every night.

The Cannondale mobile kitchen was not a big space, just the width of the sort of large van you might hire to move some old furniture, but it was well kitted-out and meticulously organised. The food coming out of the van looked good too.

What did surprise me was how late the riders were eating. It was gone 9.45 by the time most of them had come down for dinner after their massage. Apparently, a snarl-up on the motorway had delayed them. I suppose the fact the Tour’s stages start quite late (they’d got underway at 1pm that day) and finish late (after 5pm) pushes everything back, but it did feel late to be fuelling for the next day although I suppose they are used to it.

We decided to eat at the hotel’s restaurant – choosing from the menu, rather than asking the Cannondale chef to knock up something – because our ‘hotel’ for the night was actually a studio apartment 40 minutes down the road in Liège.

I opted for the shrimp croquettes, which are a bit of a Belgian specialty. They do not look pretty but they are always tasty. I had ordered the pork tenderloin for main course but by the time it arrived, at 10.40, my appetite had peaked and it was a bit of a struggle. It was tasty enough but all too late in the day.

By the time we arrived at our apartment in a run-down part of run-down Liège it was gone midnight. Aware that we would arrive late, we had rung ahead in the afternoon and had been given the access code to the building. ‘Put 102 into the code machine,’ we’d been told.

So, we stood there putting 102 into the code machine only to be rewarded with a firmly-locked door. Over and over we put 102 into the keypad. Sometimes adding a star or hash symbol before or afterwards just in case that unlocked the magic door and every time getting a beep that said in a really irritating tone: ‘Wrong number. No entry. Try again.’

Richard rang the telephone number on the keypad for help but no one answered for a very long time. For a few minutes, I wondered how comfortable it would be to sleep in the Jaguar with the seats fully reclined. Eventually he got through to a human being who was able to give us the code to the outer door and we were able to get into our apartment. It turned out the lady we’d spoken to earlier in the day had given us the code for the wifi rather than the door. So, if you ever need to get online in Liège, head to the Smartflats Boverie and punch in 102 when you’re prompted for a password.

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Shrimps croquettes. Not pretty, but pretty nice

Shrimps croquettes. Not pretty, but pretty nice

A roast dinner at 10.30 is rarely a good idea.

A roast dinner at 10.30 is rarely a good idea.

Mussels in Antwerp

Sunday, 5 July 2015

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I do not expect to be catered for as I travel around France but, on the other hand, the prospect the press room buffet offers a daily frisson of excitement. You sense the buzz around the place on the days when our hosts have pushed the boat out by providing a full spread of regional meats and cheese and fresh salad. On those rare occasions when there is a hot offering, the atmosphere is positively giddy.

So, when the email from the Tour’s press department dropped to confirm that there would be a buffet for the journalists everyday between here and Alpe d’Huez, I was happy to know that the number of times we’d have to stop for cold sandwiches at the service station would be very few.

We – Richard Moore, my co-host on The Cycling Podcast, and I – arrived at the finish just as the heavens opened. The rain was so heavy that I was soaked through after the 100-yard dash from the press room to the marquee that was housing the buffet.

When we arrived, the only food on offer was bread and butter. There were crates with dozens of baguettes, a large tub of butter, and nothing else.

I bumped into François Thomazeau, a French journalist who has covered the Tour since 1986 and has written also written about the food he has sampled on his annual journey around France.

‘There is a rumour that some mussels are coming,’ he said in a conspiratorial tone that led me to believe there was no chance of any mussels coming.

As we drove in to the finish, we passed a huge building with a sign that read Neeltje Jans Mosselen but I think the torrential rain must have thwarted the delivery.

I can just imagine the conversation now.

‘The rain is too hard, Jan. We’ll never make it.’

‘But the journalists… the journalists need something. We must take them the mussels.’

‘It’s no use. They’ll just have to have bread and butter today.’

François helped himself to another piece of bread and butter.

‘There were mussels here earlier,’ he said, indicating a couple of shells on a plate on the counter.

‘Have you spoken to anyone who actually had the mussels?’

‘No.’

I’ve yet to speak to anyone who enjoyed mussels for their lunch so this must now go down as the Great Mussel Mystery of Zeeland.

Anyway, to Antwerp, via the first long, frustrating traffic jam of the Tour.

We arrived late, just after ten o’clock and although the pedestrianised streets were still busy we were concerned that the restaurants appeared to be shutting up.

Richard jumped out to try to get a table somewhere, while I headed off to park the car at the hotel. For those who don’t listen to The Cycling Podcast, we are sponsored by Jaguar, who have provided a rather spectacular car for us to travel in. It doesn’t have an ignition for the key, instead there’s a start/stop button. As long as you have the key in your pocket, the doors unlock as you walk up to it.

It’s right-hand drive, though, so as I pulled up at the car park’s barrier I had to put it in park, get out and press the button on the machine to take a ticket. When I got back into the car, it wouldn’t restart because the key wasn’t in the vicinity. Instead, it was in Richard’s pocket as he enjoyed a nice cold beer.

I had to call him and ask him to run up to the car park with the key, which solved that little drama.

At dinner, we finally got mussels in a garlic sauce, with chips. They were delicious

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Mussels in Antwerp, not the Netherlands.

Mussels in Antwerp, not the Netherlands.

The monastery near Utrecht, again

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Kontakt der Kontinenten

Eating in the same restaurant for the second time in three nights presented a challenge. I’d chosen the starter and main course I’d found most appealing the first night, now I had to choose a pair of silver medallists.

As it turned out, the second choice starter was far better than the watery brown soup I’d previously had. First time round, I had rejected the Texas steak strips with salad because I assumed (wrongly) that the Texas steak would come slathered in a sweet barbecue sauce. The bowl that arrived contained rare steak and a very decent salad. The Dutch cheese that accompanied it was a slightly unusual touch because it didn’t taste of much and it had the rubbery consistency of most Dutch cheeses. But all in all, it was amazing that this dish came out of the same kitchen as the soup.

The main course, cous-cous with chicken, lamb and a merguez sausage was on a par with Thursday’s halibut. I’m not a big lover of cous-cous because it’s a bit like eating sand, but I didn’t fancy the vegetable chilli or the vegetable burger, which were the other two choices. The sausage was nice, the lamb portion was tasty but a little bit on the small side and the chicken was a little bit too close to being under-done but the accompanying par-boiled carrots and pieces of onion added nothing.

I’ve been to the Netherlands a number of times and, other than waffles and pancakes, I’m struggling to think of anything that passes as a national dish. The food, certainly where we have been this weekend, has been of a consistent but unspectacular standard. Frankly, I’m looking forward to reaching France, where the quality varies so wildly and at least leaves an interesting impression.

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Texan steak.

Texan steak.

Cous-cous.

Cous-cous.

Madeleine, Utrecht

Friday, 3 July 2015

An army marches on its stomach, goes the cliché, and although the foot soldiers in the press room would make the most shambolic and ill-disciplined battalion, it was nevertheless remiss of the organisers of the Grand Départ not to provide a simple buffet the day before the Tour.

This is not a foot-stomping tantrum from a hack expecting a free meal wherever he travels but, with hundreds of journalists and broadcasters all in one place for the day, you’d have thought the good people of Utrecht might lay on a bit of a spread for lunch and leave everyone with a contented glow about the place.

Instead, we had to fend for ourselves – (I can feel your sympathy from here) – and headed to a café in a warehouse at an exhibition centre. The food on offer was as exciting as you’d expect. Packets of sandwiches left tasteless by the fridge. So, I opted for a ‘meat’ croquette in a hot dog bun with some chips. The meat croquette had the consistency of ‘strange’ and was covered in breadcrumbs.

Generally, I won’t comment on breakfast or lunchtime fare, unless we are presented with a truly spectacular buffet because these are mere intermediate sprints compared to the ligne d’arrivee of the evening meal.

And so, to dinner. It’s always tempting, early in the Tour, to meet up with a large group of colleagues for a meal but the folly of this plan soon reveals.

Eleven of us met at Madeleine, a charming restaurant in the charming old town of Utrecht, near the canal. The streets were packed with Friday night revellers enjoying the combination of warm evening air and chilled drinks.

As we waited for our table, the waiting staff brought past several appetising plates, including some beautifully rare tuna steaks that had me eagerly looking forward to seeing the menu.

Unfortunately, because of the size of our group we were offered a choice restricted to a couple of dishes. I opted for the tuna carpaccio, which was served on a small round piece of bread, making it almost like a little tuna pizza. After that came a white fish which was beautifully cooked in butter until the outside was golden while the flesh remained soft. I don’t know what kind of fish it was. The waitress said it was plaice but I didn’t think it was because plaice is large and flat and this wasn’t.

Although it was a very decent meal, the hour-long wait between courses and the rising temperature in the restaurant made for a less enjoyable experience. Lesson learned. From now on, like the rule about royalty travelling on planes, no party of more than six Tour journalists shall head to a restaurant for fear of bringing the kitchen to a grinding halt.

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Strange tube of meat in breadcrumbs.

Strange tube of meat in breadcrumbs.

Mini tuna 'pizza'.

Mini tuna 'pizza'.

Out of focus fish.

Out of focus fish.

A monastery near Utrecht

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Kontakt der Kontinenten

The first hotel of the Tour de France, and our base for the opening three nights, is a converted monastery tucked away in the woods next to a main road about ten kilometres from the centre of Utrecht.

There’s something rather appropriate about that because covering the Tour de France is a process of voluntarily withdrawing from mainstream society and observing a particular and peculiar routine for three weeks. It’s probably fair to say that’s where the similarity ends, unless monks were in the habit (in the habit, get it…? This stuff writes itself) of ordering three courses every evening. I rather suspect they followed a more restrained lifestyle and probably wouldn’t have had pudding.

Having spent most of the day travelling, the Tour got off to a familiar start and the frantic rush to order dinner before the kitchen closed.

The first meal was like puncturing, getting in a break and then crashing all during the same stage of the Tour. The starter was particularly disappointing, despite looking quite appealing on the menu. An Asian-style vegetable soup was promised. What turned up looked reasonably promising – a bowl of dark, clear liquid, like a consommé, with some beansprouts and vegetables floating in it. Unfortunately the soup had almost no taste, other than a strange medicinal tang at the end.

After that, things improved dramatically with a light, fresh piece of halibut in a creamy sauce, the culinary equivalent of sailing along on a bike with a roaring tailwind.

Ordering dessert was clearly a mistake. Perhaps the spirits of the monks were saying, “Enough is enough, it’s a long way to Paris,” or perhaps the kitchen had run out of white chocolate gateau because what arrived did not fit the description. The small stodgy lump may have been white chocolate gateau but it was very hard to tell. I tried to place the flavour but it kept evading me each time I almost had a handle on it.

Still, the experience of travelling at the Tour tells me that to complain about a restaurant that has served a three-course meal after nine o’clock inevitably stores up a disaster for further down the road.

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Watery brown soup

Watery brown soup

Halibut

Halibut

White chocolate thingy

White chocolate thingy