Is this the best restaurant in France?

by Anthony.Peregrine

Without fuss or pretension, a modest hotel-restaurant in a remote part of the Massif Central in France produced one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten

Over two decades of living in France I’ve eaten perhaps 10 restaurant meals that were worth talking about. This isn’t because all the others were indifferent. It’s because I’ve lost the taste for talking about food. I like to eat – but waxing ecstatic about, say, “a divine drizzle of olive oil” strikes me as, if not indecent, then probably insane.

Ecstasy simply isn’t an appropriate reaction to food. The chap who has prepared me a good meal has done just that. He has not established a new religion or converted me to an existing one. He hasn’t created a work of art. He is a creditable artisan who, like a masseuse, has provided fleeting pleasure.

The hoped-for ideal

That said, there are those rare occasions when the pleasure is notable enough to merit a word or two. Food is, of course, not the only element. Other requirements intervene. There must be one, and preferably two, aperitif Scotches. The company should include (ideally, be confined to) my wife. Over-grand surroundings requiring hushed reverence are a no-no, as are bow-tied waiters who hover before serving bread with tongs as if it were radioactive. (I long to tell these guys: “Take the rest of the night off, friend. I think I can manage the bread basket.”)

The discovery

And then, of course, there is the food. It must be remarkably much better than what I usually eat, which is itself pretty reasonable. As I said, I – or, rather, “we” – have come across 10 such meals in France in 20 years. The latest, and finest, was this spring. We had spent the day trolling across the Haute-Loire uplands of the Massif Central. We were driving south-west of Le Puy-en-Velay when the roads became country lanes and the lanes became hairpins, twisting down through a forest.

We ended up in a gap at the bottom of the Allier gorges. Into this gap was squeezed the hamlet of Pont-d’Alleyras. In French novels, this is the sort of place where a beautiful girl disappears inexplicably, rustic life goes on and madness explodes 25 years later. It’s so remote that it gets yesterday’s sunshine.

It is also magnificent: tree-clad rocks rising all around, River Allier burbling urgently past, a scattering of homes hanging on where they can. In the earlier 20th century, visitors came here to fish salmon. That’s banned now – and if the owners of the only remaining hotel-restaurant were to rely on passing trade, they’d be filling the place with sheep.

So Philippe and Michèle Brun don’t. The Hotel Le Haut-Allier brings people in by repute rather than chance. One of their key achievements has been to create four-star luxury whilst keeping the establishment looking like a fisherman’s inn from the 1930s. Which, from the outside, it does: solid and in honourable agreement with a setting several decades behind the rest of France. Within, though, contemporary design has lightened things up. There are big tree sculptures where you’d expect a mounted salmon, swathes of ochre, oriental touches and, in the middle of the restaurant, a metal installation work.

This is, in truth, a lovely room, with loads of light, bamboo and flowers, both real and painted big on the (British-made) chairs. It is overseen not by an automaton in a waistcoat but by Madame Brun herself. She is a warm and witty woman who knows all about wine, and also when to talk and when not to. This is a good start.

The meal

It gets better. How to describe the food, while remembering that it’s still food and not spiritual enlightenment? Let’s just say that it is the best seasonal produce filtered through the considerable imagination of Philippe Brun. The several flavours in each course are separate but harmonious. It’s all dished up with a pretty sense of style.

And a dab of humour. There are, of course, amuse-bouches – those little pre-starter confections served on the curiously French assumption that your mouth needs entertaining or it will never agree to eat a full meal. Here, the first is a stone in a cocktail glass because, says the waitress, “times are hard and stones are cheap”. It turns out to be a potato glazed with clay to look exactly like a stone. It’s the first amuse-bouche I’ve ever had that is actually amusing.

A chicken pinion (the outer wing) follows with a coulis of herbs, and then a terrific square platter of asparagus: three sorts, one ‘breaded’ with pistachio, plus morel mushrooms, a morel sauce and a nest of macaroni stuffed with foie gras and more morels. The balance of tastes – and of tastes and presentation – reminds me that I’ve got sensory equipment not routinely tested by my daily bread.

As do the subsequent scallops, attended by a sparse design of spring peas, tomatoes and cress. Main-course local lamb comes in two servings, one on the bone with baby veg and herbs in an olive-tinged sauce, the other slow-cooked saddle with tiny peppers. Cheese gives way to a pre-pud of baked apple with mint, orange and a sauce including beetroot and red cabbage. Who would have thought that that might please? Pud itself is an arrangement of strawberries with vanilla pannacotta.

It is over. There hasn’t been a false note. Wines by the glass from Sancerre and the Midi have mellowed the mood. We haven’t noticed time passing. We are replete but not bloated, so can still move to the bar, for a comparative tasting of local verbena liqueurs. (“They are all green,” I conclude.)

Nothing at all has changed, least of all our lives. But, for a couple of hours (perhaps a touch more) we’ve been happy – happier than I can recall ever having been at a restaurant table. One can ask absolutely no more of a meal.

What it costs

Hotel-Restaurant Le Haut-Allier has room-only doubles from €85 – but go for those from €110: they’re bigger and have balconies. Menus from €25 to €85.


 

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.