I don’t have many vivid memories of my childhood. For the most part I just have sensations: happy, carefree sensations. But I do have a few that are striking in their recall of detail.
One of these relates to a hotel restaurant in Limoges some 35 years ago. I was with my parents and we were returning from a camping holiday in the Dordogne.
In those days, road trips down most of the length of France counted as quite major expeditions. The network of autoroutes that now covers the country did not exist and the drive from Norwich via Portsmouth & Cherbourg necessitated two overnight stops. Limoges wasn’t far from were we were camping, but it still took most of the day to get there.
What I remember most about this stop in Limoges is the meal we ate. Like many children I was a fairly selective eater, but this evening I had a Road to Damascus moment. I was hungry, this was a no-choice menu, and my parents were in no mood to argue after six hot, dusty, hours on single track roads.
I ate was put in front of me, which was this:
- A terrine de campagne made on the premises and served with home pickled vegetables;
- Lapin aux pruneaux with allumette potatoes and green beans. Later on we got to meet some of the raw material in their hutches out back;
- A small selection of pungent, local, goat cheeses;
- Apricot tart.
At some point my behaviour inspired my parents to allow me a glass of Côtes du Rhone. This was a good dinner. Good, old fashioned, unfussy, French cooking, deftly executed and delicious. I was entranced. It was also, I think, staggering good value, though I wasn’t paying.
As the years passed I kept an optimistic lookout for this kind of cooking – the kind of cooking from which France gained its culinary reputation. It became increasingly rare. Either restaurants went along the path of trying to gain plaudits with ever whackier flavour combinations or by staggering excess when it came to ingredients, or they just opened the Brake Bros catalogue and ordered a complete microwavable menu.
Chefs became either insufferable prima donnas or food technicians. They stopped being cooks.
Of course, this didn’t just happen in France. It was a widespread phenomenon that afflicted large parts of the civilised world. I blame television.
So it is nice to see some signs that the balance may now be shifting back in favour of actually cooking food, cooking it well, and selling it for prices that are actually within the means of a humble gite owner. Oh, and doing it with a smile.
Over the past couple of years we’ve come across a growing number of restaurants that are going back to basics. Our favourite amongst these is the restaurant at a small hotel in Fontenay le Comte called the Hotel de Vendée.
We found ourselves there yet again on Tuesday last. It is an unpretentious kind of place: no money has been wasted on sumptuous décor or expensive furniture. It’s all about the food.
Now, there isn’t actually a menu as such. The co-owner comes up to your table and tells you the selection of dishes coming out of the kitchen that particular day. It changes all the time – the chef makes up what he feels like and when it’s gone, it’s gone. This is one way they keep prices down: there is little waste.
This particular lunchtime we enjoyed a sort of prawn cocktail made with beetroot, a clafoutis of bacon & goats’ cheese (think quiche without the pastry), slow braised beef cheeks, sauté of rabbit with preserved lemon and a traditional chocolate tart. €12.90 for the three courses, excluding wine. The place, as always at lunchtime, was packed. The evening menu is more sophisticated and more expensive, though still outstanding value.
I include a link to the Tripadvisor reviews for the place to demonstrate that it’s not just me. It’s not, as I say, the only place that’s doing the new-old-fashioned thing, but it might just be the best in the area.