Culinary conversion on the road from Bolton; PARIS DAYS

John Lichfield loses his soul and stomach to haute cuisine in a child-infested chateau chambre

In my early days as a reporter, I won only one distinction: I held the record at the Bolton Evening News for the most rapid consumption of bacon, eggs and chips in the office canteen.

I have retained an attachment to food, good and plain, preferably in generous quantities. But, until this week, I never had much interest in, patience for, or willingness to invest in, haute cuisine.

Three things happened in the past few days to modify that. One was the appearance of the 1997 Michelin Guide, which aroused my curiosity about the status of the leading French chefs, who are almost as feted as movie stars. Another was the discovery, from another newspaper, of a French cut-price system for posh meals, modelled on the airline system of economy flights - a kind of culinary bucket shop. But my first gastronomic experience of the week was accidental.

After two months cooped up in a Paris apartment, with occasional day trips for good behaviour, the children had been demanding to go to the countryside. We were recommended a chateau in Burgundy, which offers cheap weekend breaks.

After two hours on the road, in a slow-moving Amazon ofcars, we had reached Fontainebleau, 40 miles south of Paris. Two hours later we reached the Chateau de Chailly: a fairy-tale castle with pointed turrets and smartly converted stables for guests.

Three things became clear. First, we were the only people staying in the chateau, or the chateau stables, that night. Second, the chateau restaurant, an ambitious, gastronomic establishment, had been kept open exclusively for us, and was about to close. Third, the children, force-fed on the road, had no intention of going to sleep.

The dinner-suited waiters looked crestfallen. Plainly they had hoped for grander visitors. But Gallic pragmatism and rural French friendliness triumphed. Room service was not normally provided but, since we were the only guests, they would bring the restaurant to us. We could hear the trolley bumping over the ancient cobbles of the chateau courtyard for several minutes before the food arrived.

With Clare screaming that her bedclothes were an inch too far to the right and Charlie watching a German version of Noel's House Party on television, we ate an extraordinarily beautiful meal: a meal that was delicate and simple, in the way that strings of pearls are simple; a meal that was meant to be eaten slowly by candlelight with great concentration, as if listening to music.

When the 1997 Michelin Guide emerged on Monday, our chateau was mentioned only as a hotel, not as a restaurant. This implies that there are 4,000 better restaurants in France, which must be an injustice. But what would I know, with my taste buds ruined years ago by steaming mounds of bacon, eggs and chips?

Having caught the bug, I decided to try out the service provided by Degriftour, a French economy-travel company, which offers a kind of Super Apex service of cut-price haute cuisine. With the economic crisis in France thinning their clientele, a score of top French restaurants joined the scheme two months ago. You can book only through Minitel, the on-line booking and information service operated by France Telecom. All the restaurants available have at least one star in the Michelin Guide. To eat at such a restaurant usually costs between 1,000 and 1,500 francs (pounds 110 to pounds 170) a head for a full a la carte dinner with wine. Degriftour offers the same thing, but with a set menu, for a maximum of pounds 55 a head.

We booked at Montparnasse 25, a Michelin one-star restaurant, where we had six courses for slightly less than pounds 50 a head. Six courses sounds greedy but they were small, delicate courses - and all magnificent, though to my corrupted taste no more magnificent than those we ate in our child- infested bedroom at the unstarred chateau.

Food is such an elemental human need that the whole concept of an elite cuisine at refined prices is bound to raise moral problems: how can you justify paying pounds 170 a head for a meal when the same amount might feed a family for a month? In response, functional arguments are deployed: that by striving for the best, the elite chefs keep up standards; that the best chefs are consulted by mass-food producers on how to improve their lines.

But the justification for haute cuisine has to be something more amorphously cultural. The pleasure of going to a place like Montparnasse 25 is an artistic pleasure. Like the highest art of any kind - great acting, great painting, great writing - the pleasure of great cuisine is the pleasure of performance: witnessing something simple pushed to an evidently higher level, while maintaining, at its best, a kind of simplicity.

The concept of cooking as an art is a French invention and, like many things French at present, feels itself under threat from modernity. Le Monde this week bemoaned the fact that "social penury" was threatening French cuisine. "Substitute technologies, the banalisation of tastes, the changing behaviour patterns of the clientele," said the newspaper's food writer, Jean-Claude Ribaut, "favour the invasion of foreign approaches".

For which read McDonald's, which opened 100 restaurants in France last year; while a three-star restaurant went bankrupt for the first time and several one-star establishments closed. "Good food is the identity of a civilisation," Mr Ribaut asserted. The Michelin Guide was trying to force back the hordes of barbary, he said, but could, in the end, do no more than "uphold the memory of a golden age".

I think that maybe Jean-Claude protests too much: with 81 starred restaurants operating in Paris alone, the burger-barbarians have not yet laid France waste. I defy him to name anywhere in all 20 arrondissements, or all 96 departements, where you can get bacon, egg and chips.

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