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.
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