Tastes Worth Travelling For

Imitation may be flattering, but it's never as good as the real thing, says Jenni Muir; and to appreciate the full palate of French gastronomy you have to cross the Channel
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Restaurant Michel Bras, Laguiole

Restaurant Michel Bras, Laguiole

The logo conveys it neatly. Michel Bras chose as his symbol a frond of baldmoney (cistre), a herb that grows at high altitude in the Aubrac and is enjoyed by the local cows: its flavour can be detected in their milk and cheese. This three-star Michelin chef is renowned for his use of wild local herbs and flowers, as well as "forgotten vegetables".

What's "forgotten" in conservative France may not seem so crazy to today's cosmopolitan British diners: Bras likes using green lentils from la Planèze, fresh soya beans, amaranth leaves and quinoa grains, for example.

His signature dishes include asparagus coulis on a milky mousse with asparagus tips and chive flowers; foie gras sandwiches with gomasio, apricot-bean purée, sweet-and-sour reduction and assorted leaves; and barley bouillon with milk curds, baby swiss chard and toast. Even traditionalists are unlikely to cower at spit-roasted fillet of Aubrac beef with bacon, crispy potatoes and shallots in butter, or Bras' famous molten chocolate cake.

The building is an attraction in itself: a granite and glass structure that juts out of the hilltop, designed to highlight the austere landscape Bras adores.

Where: Route de l'Aubrac, Laguiole, France. Tel: +33 5 65 51 1820. www.michel-bras.com

Cassoulet in Castelnaudary, Carcassonne, Toulouse and Auch

Cassoulet is intensely provincial - times ten. Not so much a dish as a mission statement, the correct way to make this slow-cooked bean stew is a subject that divides not just the towns of the Languedoc, but neighbours and families. On that basis, the authentic version simply does not exist although, according to Larousse, cassoulet from Castelnaudary is "undoubtedly the oldest".

It seems the only ingredient everybody agrees on is the white haricot bean, but even this is a 19th-century innovation. Haricot beans are Spanish, and until their arrival in France fresh broad beans were used for cassoulet. Tomato, too, is a comparatively new and highly controversial addition. Some argue its acidity balances the richness of the cassoulet, others think it sacrilege.

They can't even agree on the meats. Castelnaudary cassoulet includes pork rinds, and occasionally other parts of the pig, some of them possibly salt-cured. And perhaps a piece of goose confit. Perhaps.

In Carcassonne you'll find cassoulet with lamb or mutton, and very occasionally partridge. The version from Toulouse is the most complicated, featuring mutton or lamb, plus Toulouse sausage and goose or duck confit. In Auch they say "oui" to duck and goose confit, "non" to tomato and, as to lamb, "sacré bleu!"

Still, there is at least one thing that's certain in this uncertain world: cassoulet is decidedly not ideal summer holiday fare. Alors: you'll find it most enjoyable on French winter breaks.

Afternoon tea at Ladurée

The world's most famous French patisserie and tea-room began life in 1862 as a bakery. Now under normal circumstances, a fussy French gastronome won't buy pastries from a baker, or bread from a patissier. The two jobs are considered diametric opposites, as you need cool hands for making pastry, warm hands for bread.

But anyone who rejects a Ladurée chocolate and pistachio croissant or hazelnut dacquoise on such a basis is surely nuttier than nougat. Ladurée seems to do everything well, and has over the years expanded its operation to include a restaurant and chocolatier-confectioner as well.

If you don't know what to order, go for the macaroons, at least on the first visit. These pretty meringue-like cookies with delicate domed shell and chewy interior are made from almonds, sugar and egg white. It was Pierre Desfontaine, the grandson of Louis Ernest Ladurée, who had the brilliant idea of sandwiching two of them together with creamy ganache in the early 1900s. Since then Ladurée has developed over 20 flavours in an array of gorgeous colours, and changes the range seasonally.

Depending on when you visit, you may be offered lime and basil, violet, rose petal, chestnut, orange, salted caramel, black liquorice, or strawberry-cornflower, and life really will be sweet.

Where: 16 rue Royale, Concord, Paris. www.laduree.fr, Tel +33 1 42 60 21 79.

Also branches in Saint Germain des Prés; avenue des Champs Elysées; and Printemps on boulevard Haussmann.

Bouillabaisse, Marseilles

The coastal regions of France abound with fish soups and local ways of preparing them, but none has achieved the renown of bouillabaisse.

It was originally devised by Marseilles fishermen, as a way of using the broken, small and unpopular fish such as rascasse, which were unsuitable for sale at the market. They boiled the fish on the shore in sea water to create a thick soup.

Over time, the dish improved, local chefs became interested and they too tried to make improvements - most importantly the broth was developed to give a richer, rounder flavour.

In Marseilles there are plenty of bouillabaisse tourist traps that use fish from the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean, and add supposed luxuries like rock lobster which increase the price rather than the flavour.

There are two ways to serve bouillabaisse. The most common is all-in, as a soupy stew; the second option is to serve the broth on its own as a first course, followed by the fish and vegetables. Most important is to serve it in the authentic southern spirit. Bouillabaisse is a dish to have casually, in the sun, on the terrace, with a glass of pastis and plenty of joking - the Marseillaises are known for their joking. Dessert is a game of pétanque.

Visiting the Champagne Houses

We may all enjoy the occasional bottle of sparkling chardonnay in the privacy of our own barbecue parties, but let's face it: nothing says celebration like champagne. Yes, it's the long, grand history of the stuff that gives it such prestige, and that's precisely why touring the cellars of the champagne producers (or houses, maisons) is such a treat.

There are two key centres: Epernay and Reims. Epernay is in the heart of the Champagne region and dug into the chalk beneath it there are more than 200 miles of cellars. Indeed, some say that there is nothing to the town except champagne, and some would say that's not a problem. Moët et Chandon, the world's largest producer, has a gigantic maze of cellars here that can't fail to impress. Also in the vicinity: Pol Roger, Mercier, and de Castellane.

In Reims - which offers distractions such as a cathedral - the gothic Maison de Pommery is considered one of the most satisfying houses to visit. Tattinger's chalk cellars are very picturesque; Mumm and Veuve Clicquot also welcome visitors.

Note that cellar tours are run most often during the summer months. In winter, the houses typically cut back the frequency and may close for the season.

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