On our travels my family particularly love discovering restaurants that are off-the-beaten track, small establishments not written up in guide books or blogs, places we feel we have stumbled upon by sheer good luck. Such finds are the gemstones of a holiday, leaving us feeling a heightened sense of wellbeing, adventurers with secret knowledge.
One year, on a visit to the Ile-de-Re, my husband arrived back from a cycle having sighted a small outlet selling oysters. No time was to be lost in following up such news. The next evening we set out on our bikes – a lovely time of day for a cycle as the sun remains high but the temperature is beginning to cool. We pedalled along a beautiful coastal path with the sea right alongside, the tide low, the sea appearing utterly still, the sky a steely blue.
As we rounded a bend we found what we named `the beach shack’. It was indeed an oyster outlet, the tanks out the back. A small wooden structure contained a tiny kitchen that provided for the few lucky visitors sitting at plastic tables on a concrete forecourt. No frills. We grabbed a table, sat overlooking the sea and began to feel as chilled as our carafe of rose. There was no menu, just a few items recited by a young woman who emerged periodically from the shack bearing plates of shellfish.
My husband and I sampled the oysters while our sons tucked into plates of bulots and huitres farcies. All so fresh and deliciously simple that we advanced to a plateau de fruits de mer. In fancier establishments this magnificent dish is served ceremoniously on a tower of silver platters along with fingerbowls, crackers, scrapers and all manner of paraphernalia. Here simplicity was the order of the day. Spankingly fresh crustaceans served with a few lemon wedges, a small plastic bowl of mayonnaise, paper napkins and a bowl of toothpicks. For all the lack of pomp we may have been eating fish and chips, except that we were devouring the best offerings of the sea only yards away from where these creatures had recently crawled.
Sharing seafood in such an environment, the sun slowly sinking into the sea, feeling happy and somewhat blessed, realising how very fortunate we are. Cycling home tipsy on rose, we watched the clouds turned briefly pink, illuminated with a flash of gold at their edges by the setting sun. Priceless.
Returning to the island the following summer, we lost no time in seeking out the beach shack. On the way home from a long day of cycling, we leaned our bikes against the wall and made straight for a plastic table. Looking around we noticed that something had changed. The place had been damaged by severe storms that had affected the island a few months before. An old boat that had previously sat on the forecourt, adding an air of eccentricity, had been destroyed. Without it the tables sat somewhat forlornly on an expanse of bare concrete. However, our joy at being back was not to be dimmed. We ordered a carafe of rose and sat back in anticipation.
No sooner had our drinks arrived when a young woman got up from her table and, having taken a couple of steps, collapsed at our feet. At first we thought she had tripped. Her face had caught the edge of a concrete filtration tank and was bleeding profusely from a nasty gash. It soon became clear that she was very drunk indeed. She managed to sit up and lit a cigarette while blood flowed down her cheek onto her white t-shirt, all the while insisting loudly that she was fine. The owner of the shack called an ambulance which eventually arrived and took her away despite her protestations.
We sat transfixed by this sequence of events as if extras in an obscure French film. The owner came over to talk to us and explained that he had recently taken over the shack when the previous owner retired due to leg trouble. We told him how much we had loved the beach shack and he assured us that we should return and listed what he would have on his menu. We thought about returning but the kids felt somewhat traumatised by the sight of all the blood. The magic was gone.
I guess that should have taught us not to repeat wonderful experiences but rather to savour them to the full and store them in our memories for cold winter’s nights. However, hope tends to triumph over experience as we discovered recently on returning from our latest trip.
A few years ago we discovered a very beautiful and quaint village in Normandy. St Ceneri le Gerei promotes itself as one of the most beautiful villages in France and, since we were needing to stop for the night in the area, we decided to make a detour. We were delighted that a string quartet was to perform outdoors in a magnificent garden in the village. As the concert began at 9pm we would have plenty of time for dinner. I began to investigate where we might eat in the village and found there were two restaurants to choose from. Neither was written up anywhere so I reserved a table at the one with the more interesting name, L’Auberge des Peintres.
Arriving early in the village we had time to stroll around what is a genuinely scenic spot.
Numbering only 140 inhabitants, it contains in a very small area a Romanesque church with original frescoes, 15th century chapel, a shrine and grotto to a saint, some beautiful gardens and a picture postcard stone bridge spanning a river on which kayaks floated past. At 7pm the Auberge opened its doors and we were ushered into a cosy room on the walls of which hung paintings by local artists. I suspected we were on to another one off our ‘finds’.
The menu was typical of that found in any good French brasserie yet the quality was as excellent as the service was friendly and brisk. We started with Rilettes de Maquereaux and a salade mixte containing hazlenuts, red onion, salad leaves and baby tomatoes. Other options included ouefs cocotte, assiette de saumon marine, pate de maison and various salads. Choosing a main course made for a challenging set of decisions. Having eaten fish and seafood for the previous three weeks, my husband and I chose a pave de bouef – a thick, tender and juicy piece of beef that had not spent any longer than absolutely necessary on the grill. The meat was perfectly accompanied by a simple beetroot salad and halved potatoes which had been roasted and then brushed with a garlic puree before being browned under the grill. One son tucked into a magret de canard served pink with an earthy mushroom sauce to balance out the richness of the duck. My other son chose a gratin du mer, a creamy fish and seafood pie served with quinoa – an unusual touch in rural France. A carafe of the house Merlot was smooth and caused us to reflect on the good quality of many house wines in small French establishments. Other choices for mains included andouilletes, boudin noir, cote de bouef, entrecote, brochette de st Jacques and gambas. Not much fun for vegetarians I suppose.
Considering how excellent the meal had been thus far we valiantly made space for dessert. The only disappointment was that the kitchen had run out of fondant de chocolat crème vanilla. My sons had to make do with charlotte au chocolat avec cerises amareno – layers of biscuit and chocolate mousse topped with amareno cherries. My younger son quipped that it was just as well it was served with cream on the side else it would have been too rich! Making a mean tarte tatin myself, I tried the house version just for the sake of comparison. It was delicious, if a tad too sweet for my not-very-sweet tooth, and was accompanied by cream and Chantilly cream. My husband had the enigmatic Mystere de Grand Marnier – a small, flat and rounded meringue surrounded by a vanilla icecream which had been topped with finely chopped nuts.
By the end of the meal we were full of the sort of good cheer brought on by a meal of simple food excellently executed. We rounded off the evening with the string quartet playing Vivaldi, Bocherini and a few modern, Latin works. while we sat outdoors in a majestic garden surrounded by 800 tea lights lining the gravel paths of the 9 interleading garden rooms that make up the Maison des Masonieres. Our summer holiday had crescendoed throughout the evening to a wonderful climax.
En route home from our most recent holiday we secured a room for the night in an 18th century building alongside the Auberge des Peintres. Hardly able to believe this good fortune – there is almost no accommodation to rent in the village- we reserved a table 6 weeks in advance at the Auberge and felt very smug about having secured a delicious dinner on the way home. On the appointed day, the car laden with bikes and holiday gear, our appetites grew as we neared St Ceneri. Arriving in the village, we noticed a distinct absence of people taking an aperitif on the patio of the Auberge. In fact it was deserted. Worse still, a notice on the front door informed us that the restaurant was closed for a week! How could they take a holiday when they knew we were coming? What about our 6 week old reservation? It took a few moments for the awful truth to settle – our dinner was to remain a fantasy.
Despite our bitter disappointment we were determined not to ruin the last night of the holiday. We nipped next door to book a table at the only other eaterie in the village, Auberge de la Valee, a very large restaurant with a panoramic view of a carpark. We suspected that an establishment this size catered for busloads of tourists who overpopulate this beautiful spot during the day but are mercifully absent in the evenings when the village belongs to its few inhabitants and lucky people in the know, people like us. Nevertheless we proceeded with optimism despite the large room being reserved for us alone. To celebrate the ending of our holiday we ordered two kirs and a couple of cokes for the boys. The waiter, a serious but friendly young man, slowly approached from behind the bar with a small tray laden with glasses and coke bottles. On reaching our table he removed the first glass from the tray. In doing so he unbalanced the rest and, as if playing slow motion dominoes, we watched as each glass fell against its neighbour before crashing to the floor. Fawlty Towers comes to France ? We moved tables – fortunately there were many to choose from – and began again. This time two waiters were dispatched to deliver the drinks. What with 2 chefs being in attendance, we were having the equivalent of one-to-one service.
By now our appetites had begun to wane somewhat so we skipped the starter menu which was not tempting and moved straight on to the main courses all of which were meat. The provenance of the meat was said to be both locally reared and butchered so perhaps things were looking up. The chef appeared in the main room to whack our steaks onto his charcoal grill and we began to relax. Sadly unmemorable, the beef had a better life than we had a dinner. For dessert the boys had Magnums from an ice cream fridge near the door which told me all I needed to know about the likely quality of the other offerings that would emerge from the kitchen. We paid the bill and noted sadly that the total was almost exactly the same as we had forked out the year before at the neighbouring Auberge that had so thoughtlessly closed its doors on our pleasure.
That night I lay awake due to the lumpy bed possibly having survived the 300 years since the building was first occupied. Through my indigestion I reflected on the two Auberges, side by side in a village, fraternal twins resembling one another only in name but sadly not in demeanour or temperament. Having now spoilt the memory of two treasured finds I resolved to be satisfied with the ephemeral experience. I have learned my lesson – that magic moments are like fairy dust, glittering and then gone.
Copyright 2012, Madeleine Morrow
All Rights Reserved
ALL IMAGES TAKEN BY MADELEINE MORROW
IMAGES ARE COPYRIGHTED UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW