Camp Followers of The Greasy Spoon will have noticed that Yours Truly has been away for the last few weeks. I'm not especially apologetic, as The Girl and I have just spent the first half of August on a driving holiday around North Eastern France (destination Alsace Lorraine), Belgium, Luxembourg and the western reaches of Baden-Wurttemberg, which of course, as you all know, is in sunny Deutschland.
One of the raison d'etres of the holiday was the food. I was curious about the cuisine of Alsace- which has a fantastic reputation, and is partly Germanic, partly French (Alsace and large parts of Lorraine were annexed by the newly created German Empire after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870). It didn't fail to disappoint. But more of that later.
First stop was at a chateau close to the Somme battlefield, near Arras. Lovely house, but an immensely sad place, being as it was only a few kilometres from the former Front Line. After all these years, the ghosts of those desperate battles of the summer of 1916 still linger on. The breakfast table was graced by a glass bottle of pure, filtered apple juice, made by the local villagers. Apples, and that means cider too, are a feature of this area, which slightly surprised me, thinking as I did that this sort of stuff was more commonly found in Normandy.
We had a fantastic dinner at a low-key restaurant, La Cote d'Agneau, in the small town of Doullens. Service was pretty dopey, but By Gum, the food was good: lovely, intense flavours- a fabulous foie gras terrine, and rich, roasted tomatoes left to stew on the vine.
I noticed that the French tend to flavour their food far more than we do in England; they're generous with their salt and pepper; and I suppose that this is one of the reasons why they tend not to have salt and pepper pots on the table. This is a tip we can easily copy in our own kitchens.
Despite current opinion, I still reckon that French food is generally far superior to British food. Here in London, we've got lots of excellent (and expensive) restuarants patronised by the reasonably affluent, and well-off; but if you drive out to the English countryside, it can be a very different story. In France, the general attitude is different. You can eat in some dusty restaurant in a deserted ghost-town of a village, and the food, although not necessarily superb, will still, generally, be pretty darn good. Shops sell local produce of a superior quality (often organic), and the standard offered by supermarket shines in comparison to the unimaginative, chemical blandness of British supermarkets.
After a night of sin at the ultra haut bourgeois Chateau d'Etoges (serried ranks of shiny cars, pushy wine-waiters, a superb dinner, and a much needed bottle of the excellent local Borel-Lucas champagne) we sped on to Epernay, where we shacked up at the Pierson Whittaker Champagne House.
The Champagne industry is centred on the two towns of Rheims and Epernay. We toured the celllars of the House of Tattinger, founded relatively recently in 1932. They were extraordinary. The offices of Tattinger are on the outskirts of Rheims and above ground are both modernist, and extremely slick. But directly underneath this temple of corporate efficiency is a labyrinth of ancient monastic cellars, stocked with thousands of bottles of maturing champagne. Incidentally, in case you're wondering, Champagne is generally cheaper in the local supermarkets of the Rheims area- and there are definitely some bargains to be had out there. However, in the rest of France, the price of champagne is almost up to UK levels- and that means it's currently pretty expensive.
Tomorrow, in the next exciting installment of The Greasy Spoon: werewolf country, the delights of Colmar, and the gothic horror of German "cuisine"...