FOOD & DRINK / A culinary shrine: Nicholas Faith honours a family-run restaurant that has attracted French gastronomic pilgrims for three generations

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The Independent Culture
ALAIN PIC vividly remembers his grandfather's amiable habit of handing out apricot ices to the local children clustered outside the back door of his restaurant. At the time, 30 years ago, ices of any description were a rarity in Valence, and Pic's were something special. They were made from the apricots which grew wild on the hills above the little town on the Rhone, 60 miles south of Lyon.

Today, the wild apricots are no longer available. But Alain Pic can offer enough of the other dishes created by his grandfather, Andre, by his father, Jacques, and indeed by himself, to justify the retention of the third star Michelin first awarded to his grandfather in 1937. The accolade was lost after the war, regained by his father in 1973, held continuously until his sudden death last September at the age of 59 and retained by the son, probably the first chef in the history of Michelin not to have lost a star when his predecessor died.

Michelin's stars remain one of the few awards in France that are not corrupted by patronage or politicised (or both). Indeed, in the past couple of years the rubber man has reaffirmed his adherence to tradition by removing its precious third star from two chefs whom the French would describe as mediatiques, fonder of their books and their television appearances than their kitchens.

But Alain Pic represents the third generation of a far older and more honourable tradition, of the family restaurant which relies on the chef's talents and not on gimmicks or flash premises, which knows that French people of all classes will travel miles for a fine meal.

Pic's restaurant remains unknown to non- gastronomes, tucked away behind a blue neon sign opposite an Audi showroom on the otherwise unremarkable Avenue Victor Hugo. But, until the motorway was built, the Avenue was on the N7, the main road between Paris and the Riviera, and played a crucial role in the history of French gastronomy. Before the war, as members of cafe society drove to the Cote d'Azur, their stately progress would be marked by stops at a select group of restaurants.

The uncrowned king of the N7 was Fernard Point, owner of La Pyramide at Vienne. A few miles further south was Andre Pic, he of the apricot ices. His first establishment was a modest relais de chasse in a village above the town, which specialised in cooking the game brought to the restaurant by the local marksmen. Once Andre Pic moved down the hill he joined the small group of chefs, headed by Point, who experimented with new recipes that formed the cuisine nouvelle of pre-war France. They were not light, although they did eschew the use of flour in their sauces, and they concentrated on retaining the taste of local produce in dishes like Pic's gratin d'ecrevisses or his much-imitated poularde de Bresse en vessie, chicken cooked to rich tenderness in a bladder.

But 'Papie', as Alain calls his grandfather, could not cope with problems of success, with the unending hordes of customers: 'He gave of himself,' says the grandson, but at times he simply slammed the door on customers with predictable results - the family still winces at the memory of one particularly unfavourable article written a mere 40 years ago.

In 1957 Jacques returned home and took over, while his father, stouter by the year, installed himself in a glass cubicle at the entrance to the kitchen to ensure that standards were retained. There he stayed, growing steadily less mobile, until his death in 1984 at the age of 91.

Alain claims that his own fidelity to family tradition was partly habit ('I started earning pocket money washing up when I was 13'), partly a matter of failure to shine at school. But he did train at a hotel school before embarking on a traditional apprenticeship in leading restaurants. As his father's son he had his pick of three-star restaurants and spent a few months in a number of them, but he remained faithful to the family style - though he admits learning the science of restaurant organisation at a leading establishment in Alsace, as well as learning the art of the pastrycook - previously unknown in the family.

Michelin's confidence in Alain Pic is based on the decade he spent working with his father. Before his father's death, he seemed nervous, twitchy, giggling at the slightest joke. 'It was much more difficult for him than for his father,' says one sympathetic observer. But the grief of bereavement has been replaced by a new-found confidence, a clear notion of his role: 'In the provinces we must remain independent while keeping up to date. But we have always ignored fashion.'

Alain Pic remains slightly bemused at the numbers of gastronomic pilgrims he attracts from all over the world, and he is happy that he retains a local clientele, the family parties for Sunday lunch, and the Saturday night blow- outs for old friends. He looks to his family, not fashion, for his inspiration. His natural inclination is 'a return to Papie', mentioning in particular his own strate de boeuf au foie gras - by cooking the foie gras he avoids any excess of richness in a miraculously balanced combination. His only worry: that other raw materials, like the poularde de Bresse and the sea bass for the familial loup au caviar, will go the way of Papie's apricots.-

(Photograph omitted)