Travel: Rough Guide - 'The chef of kings and king of chefs cooked for Napoleon.'
Sunday 21 February 1999
In France, traditional means family recipes prepared with respect. Each region has emblematic dishes: cassoulet in the Languedoc, choucroute in Alsace, bouillabaisse in Provence or coq au vin in Burgundy. You can tell where you are in France from the menu. But things are changing in culinary France.
Best bistro cooking
The market in Dijon teems with humanity buying everything from fake designer handbags to sublime duck foie gras produced locally by Pascal Lapree of Mont Saint-Jean. From the terrace of the Bistrot des Halles (tel: 00 33 380 49 94 15) you can watch the poor scavenge produce dumped by the stall holders, scooping up discarded vegetables and fruit to feed their trailing children. In the bistro, chef Jean-Pierre Billoux produces flights of culinary imagination: a terrine of smoked herring with leek fondue, snails served with chestnuts and perfumed with star anise, beef cheek braised with pickled gherkins and a slab of pork in a honey and vinegar caramel served with white kidney beans. The house speciality dessert is creme brulee with spiced bread. The pedigree is indisputable and lunch costs as little as pounds 11.
Antonin Careme was the chef of kings and king of chefs - at 17 he cooked for Napoleon. He founded "la Grande Cuisine", French classical cookery. Paul Bocuse is the prince of that tradition in Lyons. The restaurant named after him has three Michelin stars and is virtually impossible to get out of for less that pounds 50 a head, without wine. But if Bocuse and his colleagues, Orsi, Lacombe and Chavet, in Lyon provide the haute couture of culinary art, they're also moving into the off-the-peg market. Bocuse has three restaurants where you can savour his art at reasonable prices: Le Nord, L'Ouest and now Le Sud (tel: 00 33 472 77 80 00), where the dishes capture the sunshine of the south with roasted aubergines, pickled peppers and Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons. You can eat a brilliant meal with a glass of wine for just under pounds 15.
In the village of Le Veysset, near Condat-en-Feniers in the hills of Auvergne, is one of the smallest hotels in the world. The Hotel-restaurant Che Marissou (tel: 00 33 471 78 55 45) has only one, wood-panelled room with a sumptuous, four-poster bed and chilled champagne in the fridge. You can eat in the restaurant, stay for a night and enjoy the bubbly all for pounds 55. Marissou and her husband serve only Auvergne specialities - charcuterie, ham hock with lentils or stuffed cabbage and fruit tarts cooked in the ancient bread oven. Afterwards there's a selection of matured cheeses to go with a glass of wine made from late-harvested local grapes. The hotel's simplicity comes straight from Auguste Escoffier, the greatest French chef of the early 20th century. Revered and imitated by his rivals, he would break a recipe down to its fundamentals then take punctilious care in recreating it.
Best country hotel
Below the hillside city of Cordes in the Tarn is the tiny village of Les Cabannes where Chef Claude Izard runs the two-star Hostellerie du Parc (tel: 00 33 563 56 02 59). He took a 19th century country house in substantial, wooded grounds and made it into a charming, 17-room hotel. But this chef is no sleepy country cook. He established a national association, l'Arche de Noe de la Gastronomie, to support the small producer. "Industrialisation in food production is killing the artisan, the charcuterie butcher and the pastry cook," he says. At least 70 per cent of the members' ingredients must be locally produced and they must prepare everything they sell. At the Hostellerie you can savour the results in the terrace restaurant under the shade of ancient cedars. Chef Izard serves snails with smoked, salted pork liver - a delicacy only produced in the region; local mountain lamb appears regularly on the menu and rabbit with cabbage is a speciality that appeals to everyone.
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