Jean-Christophe Novelli's latest venture in northern France is anything but run-of-the-mill. Photographs by Benoit Rajan
Saturday 05 September 1998
in London, the restless,
photogenic Jean-Christophe Novelli has, in a neat inversion of restaurant imperialism, established a colony in Normandy. Not that he's returning home as a conquering hero to be feted by the local population; he already has enough plates spinning - consultancies, newspaper columns, not to mention four restaurants - to keep him in his adopted city of London; and anyway he's not a Norman.
Le Moulin de Jean is hundreds of kilometres from his native Arras, inland from the Cherbourg peninsula en route to the Loire, but just too far (a couple of hours' drive) from the port to rely solely on cross-Channel raiders. Mont St Michel is the nearest big draw to the west. In the other direction, Vire is known for its andouille, the intestinal black-skinned sausage.
Just beyond a ghost farm, Novelli's water mill stands alone on the side of its miniature valley with a large car park and yet-to-be landscaped pastures around the mill pond. A few bedrooms are due to be added in the adjoining outhouse, but with instant pub-garden petunias and Astroturf on the bridges over the mill streams, there are more signs of dashing makeshift touches than hard-nosed commercial planning.
Inside, this modest, rather improbable outpost has been simply and sympathetically converted with Novelli's hallmark purple paint, halogen lights, his logo, a menu written entirely in English, and trusted English-speaking staff with whom he's worked in London to set it up. A framed cover of the trade mag, Caterer & Hotelkeeper featuring le patron, is hung by the bar on the stone- flagged ground floor. Only the trellis-patterned plates, and the prices, which may be promotional but are certainly exceptional, are peculiarly French.
In Jean-Marie Lenfant, the chef in the kitchen and partner in the business, Novelli is counting on someone from the region. Even so, bar the cheeseboard, the produce of Normandy is notably absent. No cream, no Calvados. Though local ingredients play their part, the food is that of a French chef who has developed an individual style away from home - and then exported it back.
Novelli's flourishes are everywhere: the wafer-thin slices of dried tomato that crown the polychromatic layered towers of ingredients, the frondy parsley, the spirals of spun sugar radiating from the puddings. And underneath these, the dishes on the admirably short menu are familiar to Novelli fans. Yes, there's the pig's trotter that has a toe-hold on all his menus, stuffed with a black pudding forcemeat and mushrooms, with potato and celeriac puree of almost pouring consistency, and a dark sticky reduction. Pork knuckle cervelas - a slice of sausage-shaped terrine, with a cabbage casing and a seam of foie gras and shitake mushrooms between layers of fleshy ham, and Puy lentils with balsamic vinegar - was a triumphant version of a London blueprint. The same could be said of a rich terrine of potato wrapped around goat's cheese, stuffed with aubergine, courgettes and peppers.
We were rightly persuaded to have the chef's suggestion - plates layered with almost caramelised red peppers and aubergines, and fried basil leaves, topped with a crisp slice of aubergine. Despite a little too much salt, but helped by a subtle suggestion of truffle oil, it had a knockout integrity.
On a midweek lunchtime, we were the only English people in the restaurant half-full of locals. Of the two Frenchmen manning it, one came from Avranches, the nearest big town. The other, drafted in from Maison Novelli in London, worked as hard to disprove the received wisdom that eating out with small children is encouraged on the continent as the first did to make us comfortable about it. Playing the roles of hard man and soft man, M Doux appeased, M Dur discouraged, as he cleared up around the detritus of baby bottles and jars. If, as it seems to, Le Moulin de Jean wants to make English tourists feel at home, it must expect some of them to bring children with them. Hard man hardly sweet-talked us into puddings, but, though the children were restive, we hadn't come this far to give up two-thirds of the way through. As well as this aspect of the service, the English influence on French custom asserts itself in "creme brulee English style". Sans ramekin, this splendid feat of load-bearing consistency, deeper than the French tendency, and more creamy than eggy, stood unaided. It came with a native tongue - a long, curling langue de chat; we lapped it up. The tarte tatin Novelli-style is a whole apple ingeniously baked in a thin skin of pastry with a layer of caramelised apple slices on top and vanilla ice-cream beside it.
We persisted through coffee, paid an incredible Fr435 (pounds 25 a head) including a couple of glasses of wine for us, and couple of plates of vegetables - heavenly mashed potato, and French beans and broccoli which the two- year-old gobbled. Then we scarpered back to the car with restored faith in eating out across the Channel and relief that we'd got away without causing too much damage (to their tablecloth, international relations and our pockets). M Dur beamed as we left. Service, as is the law in France, is included
Le Moulin de Jean, La Landes, Cuves, 50670 Saint-Pois, Basse Normandie (0033 2 33 48 39 29). Lunch and dinner daily. Two courses Fr95 (pounds 10), three courses Fr135 (pounds 14). Major credit cards. Wheelchair access.
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