Part 1 of 3
Over Easter, Esther and I decided to visit France. At the same time, Esther’s mum also decided that that was the perfect time to come and visit her daughter in England. Nevertheless, we weren't going to spend our Easter in dreary old Hertfordshire - Esther told her mum that she was going to have to have a French and English holiday and so we booked tickets for three. All hopes of a romantic escape scuttled I decided to invite my English aunt along as well - she had been very hospitable towards Esther and myself when we first arrived from the distant antipodes - and so we booked tickets for four.
Our itinerary was simple - 9 days, 3 cities and France’s super-fast, ultra-modern Trains à Grande Vitesse were going to take us around in luxury and style. On our previous trip to Nice we had sampled some tasty French bistro cuisine and eaten at some nice French restaurants with an Italian Niçois twist - but Esther wasn’t convinced that we had tried the real, authentic French cuisine which is so famous world-wide. So we set off again on a quest - the quest for le repas parfait.
French breakfasts by the way are miserable - I am completely uncertain as to how the French survive on such peasant fare, especially when winter in most of France is only marginally more agreeable than the winter which rolls onto English shores from the rainy Atlantic. A cup of coffee and a cold croissant (or Viennoiserie) is more or less standard. For which you can pay 2.99EUR or as much as 8EUR in a nice cafe with sunny outdoors tables. Generally you will get an orange juice as well, perhaps some bread rolls and a "fruit salad" that consists of 3 or 4 desiccated pieces of some different types of melon in a plastic cup. Happily, almost all cafes also offer a "petit dejeuner Anglais" or "Americain" - forget about being in France and wanting to eat like the French do and go for this option. Somerset Maugham is quoted to have once said in order “to eat well in England” it is necessary to “have a breakfast three times a day” - i.e. breakfast is the only meal that the English do well. Well in France the exact opposite is the case - a French breakfast will definitely not constitute le repas parfait.
Of course the French make delicious crêpes - just not for breakfast.
Chapitre Un - In which our protagonists scour the capital of Aquitaine in search of le repas parfait.
So the trip began with our intrepid knights-errant taking a British Airways flight to Bordeaux - a city famous for its wine, but what of its restaurants? I should add here that three and even two Michelin star restaurants were beyond the budget that the heroes of our quest had set aside for the perfect dinner. Occasionally Madam (as her mum ironically calls her) and I like to delude ourselves that we can afford the best through expensive and painfully extravagant splurges. However, our more mature relatives anchored this particular odyssey firmly to the middle-to-working class ground from which we receive our wages. So for the most part our merry band dined in unpretentious bistros and brasseries, occasionally at charming restaurants as well.
Thinking of Bordeaux I can’t help but picturing Bilbo and the Dwarves escape from the Elvenking of Mirkwood. Perhaps it’s just the image of all those wine barrels floating down stream. Or perhaps it’s because Tolkien’s characterisation of elves, at once arrogant and stand-offish whilst at the same time merry and hedonistic, doesn’t seem at all dissimilar from the French. In either case, it’s an association that our actual visit to the city was unable to shake.
In Bordeaux, Madam and I found a restaurant that would definitely find itself in the “charming” category. But, as the name suggests, La Casuccia, was simply too Italian to constitute the perfect French restaurant. The actual restaurant was a gorgeous old sandstone building and it is situated not far from the waterfront and Bordeaux's spectacular Miroir d'Eau and Place de la Bourse. The pizza we ate was very nice - and a very affordable option; but being Bordeaux the real prize-winner was the wine that was recommended by our hosts. Unfortunately I can't for the life of me remember its name and wish I had taken a note of it at the time. Mains were in the 15-30EUR range. And I'm sure that if such a restaurant existed in Sydney its popularity would ensure queues outside the door - but nevertheless we still hadn't found our repas parfait.
In our next chapter our band of intrepid travelers leave for Provence and Le Palais des Papes - encountering a train service en grève and reaching Avignon too late.