A gastronomic audience with Gerard Depardieu: The actor is stepping into the crowded world of French food television

Philip Sweeney manages to negotiate a meeting with Depardieu in a meadow outside Méréville, France's self-styled capital of watercress, where the actor unleashes a tirade of abuse about Jamie Oliver

Philip Sweeney
Friday 12 December 2014 18:00 GMT
Laurent Audiot and Gérard Depardieu at a watercress farm in Méréville, France
Laurent Audiot and Gérard Depardieu at a watercress farm in Méréville, France

Early morning in a meadow outside Méréville, France's self-styled capital of watercress, 70 kilometres south of Paris. I'm killing time talking to grower Serge Barberon and his sister Marie-Claire, the watercress queen of 1962, when a black SUV makes its way down the track.

From the passenger seat emerges the impressive bulk of France's greatest thespian, draped in a voluminous black jacket, slightly stained and missing a button, and a pair of purple suede shoes with unfastened white laces. "Lock up the women and animals, le bête est arrivé!" quips a technician. Gérard Depardieu greets the assembled company, and reaching me, unleashes by way of bonjour a tirade of abuse about Jamie Oliver. It's like being mock-charged by a full-grown silverback.

I discover later that nobody had reminded Depardieu that an English journalist would be present and, taken by surprise, he came over a bit aggressive. As Depardieu has chanced upon the hack probably least disposed to defend Jamie Oliver, this is easily surmounted. No problem with the next volley either. "Your colleagues were not very nice to me!" observes Depardieu ominously. A reference, obviously, to his latest UK press fracas, when pictures of Depardieu, whisky glass in hand in a Hebridean pub, appeared after he'd cancelled an appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, implying he'd been too busy boozing to honour his engagement. In fact, the photo was filched from the TV film he was making about Skye whisky, and he'd cancelled the evening round-trip to Edinburgh exhausted after a long shoot with a dawn start the next day. Yep, lamentable reporting, I say, I apologise on behalf of the UK press. "Oh, je m'en fous," shrugs Depardieu amiably, "I'm used to the connards (bastards) of journalistes. That's why I wrote the book, to answer some questions. Usually the journalists just make up the answers otherwise."

The book in question is Ça s'est fait comme ça, just out (only in French, so far), in which Depardieu speaks rather eloquently of his dirt-poor childhood, his meteoric success, his marriages, his four children, the tragic death of his son Guillaume, his semi-mystical affinity with Russia and friendship with its despot Putin, once a potential delinquent like himself. The book is highly convenient, because extracting serious information from a notorious interview-phobe, in competition with 12 filmmakers, six cress growers, a camera drone and a small band of hangers-on is going to be uphill work.

Nonetheless, we move seamlessly on to Depardieu scandal No 2, the Aircraft Urination, via Depardieu's love of British food, from the watercress of Sous-Sex to the mint sauce he thoroughly approves of with gigot d'agneau. "I have lots of friends in the UK. And Ireland. Where incidentally I recently pissed in a plane..." Yes? "There was this air hostess, un peu depressive, and I urgently wanted a piss, we'd been delayed 45 minutes, there were seven planes in front of us, and the hostess blocked me with her foot, so I pissed in a bottle... luckily all the police at Dublin airport know me." Before I can move on to scandal No 3, the Great Lion Slaughter, Depardieu's called back to the cress for a panoramic shot, booming theatrically "Mais où est le droooone??!!".

My date with Depardieu in the cress bog is the culmination of a long quest, beginning with a petition to his press office on the release of the film Welcome to New York. No chance, they reply, he does hardly any interviews. Then I meet Laura Briand, producer of a TV series in which Depardieu and his associate Laurent Audiot explore the food of Europe. It might work if you stick to food and wine, Laura said. Talk to Laurent, he could fix it. Depardieu, it transpires, runs his professional life through a network of confidants. The top agent Bertrand de Labbey for theatre, Bernard Magrez, the Bordeaux magnate, for his wine estates, and a childhood friend, Michel Boyard, aka Nounours – Teddybear – for the portfolio of houses and businesses Depardieu owns across the globe. The epicentre of the latter is the superb 1820 Hôtel de Chambon in the Rue du Cherche-Midi, which is Depardieu's Paris HQ. For matters culinary, Depardieu relies on Laurent, old friend and chef of the restaurant the star bought with his then fiancée, the actress Carole Bouquet, some years ago.

I meet Laurent at La Fontaine Gaillon, a 17th-century townhouse built for Louis XIV's treasurer, now a set of soberly elegant dining rooms, dark panelling and mirrors enlivened by erotic prints. A week later, Laurent confirms I'm in. A long wait ensues, punctuated by conflicting reports. Depardieu's gone filming in Las Vegas, or holidaying in Italy. He's scouting premises for his new restaurant in Moscow, or hanging out at an apartment in, of all places, the central Russian city of Saransk, where he was befriended by the director of the local film festival. All this presumably contributes to his seven months' annual foreign residence for tax purposes. Laurent goes worryingly quiet. As back-up I seek out Priscillia, the bubbly Sicilian ex-actress who runs Depardieu's other Paris restaurant, the bistro-like Le Bien Décidé (The Determined) at 117 Rue du Cherche-Midi. Depardieu's fish shop, Moby Dick, at No 50, where the patron sometimes serves behind the counter, is closed, otherwise I'd get Bruno the poissonnier on side as well.

By July, still no word, and I'm in the southern Belgian town of Tournai, looking at a huge photo of Depardieu covering the window of a former department store, supposedly soon to open as L'Insoumis (The Rebel), a Depardieu wine bar. Along with his admiration for Vladimir Putin, Depardieu's Belgian residence is a source of controversy in France. Two years ago, Depardieu bought a house in Néchin, a cross-border bolt-hole for rich French exiles from the Socialist government's 75 per cent tax rate. A Depardieu wine shop in the village of Estaimpuis followed, and the brasseries of Tournai currently hum with rumours of Depardieu investments in restaurants, property, an estate agency... When I mention L'Insoumis down on the cress farm, however, Depardieu replies dismissively, "I've changed my mind. I was escroqué [conned]. I'm thinking now I'll open a gallery there, Belgium has such great illustrators..."

The TV series, Depardieu's own idea, is his first step into the crowded world of French food television

Wellingtons in place of the purple suedes, Depardieu goes to work in the watercress, bringing out information easily with improvised but erudite questions and an inexhaustible supply of risqué jokes. Cresson (watercress) is slang for pubic hair, I learn, unfortunately for the former prime minister Edith Cresson, whose name features in one of the many sequences destined for the cutting-room floor, along with a blizzard of scurrilous references to President Hollande, and a regular leitmotif of Jamie Oliver digs. Between shoots he jokes with the crew, distributing the produce, so that my recordings are punctuated by the munching of terrine de cresson tartines and the distinctive Depardieu tones, at once husky, mellifluous, and loud: "Allez, mange, mange!".

Depardieu's social fluency is fuelled by 65 years of picaresque life, often charmed, sometimes cursed. His earliest culinary memories include pig lung, cooked by his illiterate drinker father, and the old Romany favourite of hedgehog baked in clay. He was a big, tough youth, briefly imprisoned, whose life was transformed by a succession of influential benefactors who discerned in him artistic sensitivity and charisma. When his role as a dangerous drifter in Les Valseuses propelled him to stardom in 1974, he was sought out by Bernardo Bertolucci, from whom he cockily demanded, and got, the same fee as Robert de Niro for 1900. A prolific and lucrative career combining classical theatre and popular film has made Depardieu a legend. "He's among the 10 most famous French people," a TV cameramen tells me, "up with Joan of Arc, above Edith Piaf. I normally direct my own films, but I leapt at the job of cameraman to work with Depardieu."

In 1989, at the suggestion of another legendarily bon vivant actor, the late Jean Carmet, Depardieu bought the venerable Château de Tigné on the Loire, spent 10 million francs in updating and expansion, and kick-started a rise in the status of the wines of the Anjou region. Since then, teaming up with the tycoon Magrez, Depardieu has added choice parcels of vignoble in the Bordelais, Languedoc, Spain, Algeria and Argentina, marketing their products under names such as Le Bien Décidé and L'Insoumis. His wine operations are not vanity, but believed to be profitable. I asked a Paris food writer if Depardieu was selling wine at an exalted price on the strength of his name, and was told no – he's getting a fair price for wine which used to be undervalued.

The star presenter exhibits boundless knowledge, interest and, of course, appetite

The TV series, Depardieu's own idea, is his first step into the crowded world of French food television, replete nowadays with Gallic versions of British shows – Great British Bake Off transformed into Le Meilleur Pâtissier – sub-foodie entertainments categorised by Depardieu as gastroporn. "We could never have got this series commissioned without Gérard's name," says Briand, "though actually the Putin and tax affairs made French state TV shy-off at first." What does Depardieu see as his subject-matter? "The remarkable stories of ordinary people producing great food," he says. The films cover promising ground, from baguettes and Basque pork to Skye whisky and cabbages grown with race-horse manure, the star presenter exhibiting boundless knowledge, interest and, of course, appetite.

It's during a discussion of how the taste of rat compares with hedgehog that I realise Depardieu has just mentioned blanquette de lion. Lion? Not those lions, he ate them? "Yes," says Gérard. "We broke down on a track in the bush, in Burkina Faso. The two lions waited in front of us and wouldn't move. Hours passed, we couldn't get out of the car, the African driver was very afraid. We had no choice, we had to shoot them." The ire of animal-lovers doesn't move him. "The English are hypocrites. I explained to Jonathan Ross how I kill a little pig, I caress it first, then kill it very suddenly, to avoid any stress. There are abattoirs where the treatment is horrifying, but Jonathan Ross was... eugh! Does he eat meat? Yes! Hypocrite!" The situation with regard to photogenic endangered species may require more robust advocacy, judging by online comments on the lion episode, which include variants on the epithet connard.

The TV cortège leaves the cress field for more locations, a peppermint grower in Milly-la-Forêt, then the magnificent Château de Courances whose kitchen gardens are being converted to produce organic pumpkins and rare-breed tomatoes by Valentine de Ganay, a sort of French equivalent of Lady Bamford, dressed in what looks like a gardening outfit by Hermès. By now, Depardieu's knees are playing up badly and he's progressing by electric golf cart, but he seems as fluently engaged by the subject as ever.

Depardieu see his subject-matter as: "The remarkable stories of ordinary people producing great food"

I ask Depardieu if I could go back to Paris in his car, and, cranking up the charm, have a look at his remarkable, important, historic house. To everybody's surprise he agrees. As the SUV pulls out, the crew all wave goodbye.

We stop outside the great green door of 95 Rue du Cherche-Midi. In the paved courtyard we unload bundles of cress and cases of wine. We pass a full-size hotel kitchen: the house was on sale recently for €50m-€100m, several times the price Depardieu is said to have paid for it. Entering the darkened salon, a great art deco theatre auditorium, crammed Xanadu-like with objets d'art, exotic souvenirs, we head towards a huge black Aga and a vast glass fridge cabinet dwarfed in a corner. Breathing stertorously, Depardieu selects a bottle and starts using a Ferrari-red slicer to cut a heaped platter of ham. Culatello from Cuneo, he says, the best. The wine's from the Vallée d'Aoste, a small producer, a work of great precision. We sip and Depardieu makes desultory answers to my questions. The Cuban flag? Castro gave it to me when I was investing in Cuban oil. He looks tired, after 12 hours' work with a theatre engagement ahead. Let's go, says Laurent, and we do. I should have hung on and badgered Depardieu on tax avoidance and Putin and lions but I'm just not connard enough. I head for the Bien Décidé to see if there's a table. Certainly, says Priscillia, Depardieu just rang to say you might be coming. Touching, I thought. He wouldn't have done that for Jamie Oliver.

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