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.”)
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.
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.