A month ago, Gaylord and I filled the car, lowered the flat’s squeaky shutters, and drove off on our holiday, leaving the Bonsai plant to fend for itself (it didn’t and Gaylord is now in mourning).
The plan was to take a long drive to Paris, with stops along the way in Ardèche then again in Châgnon, a little village near Dijon to see our friend Chloé who we met in New Zealand, and the trip was idyllic besides Gaylord somehow contracting hand, foot and mouth and needing to spend a week in bed. We arrived in Paris on a cloudy day, yet it somehow felt victorious as though I was crossing an invisible finish line because at last I was there to meet his family and friends – a year and a half late thanks to that pesky pandemic.
Over the last month we drove through tiny towns with spindly church towers, past rolling hills full of cows, and wild flowers along the narrow roads. I didn’t realise how accurate Belle’s song in Beauty and the Beast was until I saw the quiet of the country, the small markets and deserted town squares. But, while the atmosphere was calm, my diet certainly wasn’t.
We ate an American barbecue feast at altitude, I finally sampled the unusual French delicacy snails and found myself quickly devouring them, and in the last month, more pastries, eclairs and tarts have past these lips than fruit and veg. My five a day are now in pastry-form. So, sit back and let me whisk you away to the French countryside where a feast awaits…
Ardèche: American Barbecue
Ardèche is a region in the middle of France, and due to its altitude and all those surrounding mountains, is a curious pocket of chilly terrain so Gaylord prepared me – ‘Take a coat.’ ‘But it’s July-‘ ‘Take a coat.’
And with that, for the three days of our visit, there was an unnatural heatwave and abundance of sunshine.
Gaylord’s mother grew up in Ardèche, so he spent multiple summers there with his siblings, exploring the woods and terrorising the sheep. One year he climbed Mont Gerbier de Jonc, and he was probably about seven and you know, bouncier – it’s more difficult to break bones. Now, twenty-something years later, he decided to climb it again with me. If you’ve seen Free Solo, then that’s what it felt like. I was clinging to rocks, testing my balance, staying far away from the edge, while Gaylord was like a mountain goat galloping ahead. The descent was worse, and most of which was done unglamorously on my bum as it’s a useful cushion for falls.
After that short bout of exercise and enough to keep us going for another year or so, we decided we were worthy of a reward. Fay-Sur-Lignon is one of those little villages adorning the mountains; when you’re driving through those winding valleys, you see the spires of the churches outlined against the setting sun. Perfect photo-fodder depending on 1) how fast you’re driving and 2) how full you are, because even beautiful views can’t distract you after an American barbecue feast.
We did not expect to eat American-style in Ardèche; I planned to eat a lot of saucisson because those enormous sticks of meat are a delicacy there, and yes we have demolished a whole one already. L’Auberge La Traverse is owned by chef Mike Rich of the USA, who speaks French in a refreshingly slow manner with an easy-to-understand American twang. His French was probably the only French I understood throughout the whole trip, so thanks Mike.
Gaylord and I, along with the only other couple in the cosy stone-walled dining room, were served one menu starting with watermelon, feta and mint salad presented on serving platters, but apparently they were individual portions. Portion sizes are on a different scale at L’Auberge La Traverse, so maybe fast for a day before you go. Following this, Mike appeared with a plate full of meltingly tender, sticky pork belly, a side of black beans and corn speckled with red peppers, onion and coriander, and another of potato salad. The pork was coated in salty-sweet glaze, and the meat simply surrendered to my knife. Mike, if you’re reading this, please bottle and sell that barbecue sauce. I will invest shares.
After a slab of tarte tropézienne, basically two slices of soft brioche sandwiching chantilly custard, I couldn’t walk. A sandwich isn’t necessarily my course of choice after a gut-busting barbecue, but Mike kept saying how ‘light’ it was, and after my first mouthful it was like I was a girl possessed and devoured the whole thing, scraping the plate clean of chantilly. Our friendly dining companions, who incidentally were stick-thin, ate everything. We on the other hand, went home with a doggy bag of leftovers. Living at altitude seems to help with your food intake.
During that drive home, our only thoughts were on our heavy stomachs.
Food: 8/10 (minus 2 for the food sweats)
Chloé’s cottage, or rather her grandmother’s cottage, is snugly nestled in the middle of the countryside. As you drive through the forests and along hedge-lined roads, miles away from any civilisation, and the GPS says, ‘you’ll arrive at your destination in less than one minute’ you wonder whether you’ll be sleeping in a hollow tree for the next week.
However, it appeared to be a little white bungalow with creeper covering the gate, rose bushes in the front garden, and inside it is compact, because after all it belonged to her grandmother. The doors are concertinas so there is no way to discreetly open them in the night when you go for a bathroom run, and there was no wifi understandably, but the lack of internet was good for me, the bed was cushion-soft, and the view from the back windows overlooking the pretty town of Château-Chinon was breath-taking.
While Gaylord shivered in bed for a week, taking strong painkillers and shuffling around like a little old man, every morning Chloé would nip into the town to buy breakfast treats of almond croissants, so crispy and caramelised yet soft and gooey on the inside. The best one had a stick of chocolate inside too. Bless you, boulangerie gods and for your skills in using up leftovers.
Chloé and I enjoyed a week of tranquillity. We took picnics of charcuterie and beer to the nearby lake and went swimming. We explored the town, picking up local beers, cheese and potted meats to try. She found a jar of her favourite crémeux d’escargot, which is exactly what you think it is – snail cream. Because I like to talk the talk and act like I can eat anything, I tried a smear on a piece of baguette. It had the texture of pâté, but that flavour was unusual and I was therefore daunted for the snail consumption which was sure to come soon.
Once Gaylord was on the mend, we all drove to Chloé’s favourite little restaurant which, she claimed, served the best snails. Biting the bullet, in maybe more ways than one, I followed Chloé’s instructions on how to use all that snail-eating equipment – tongs which look a bit like forceps and used in much the same way – and extracted my first snail drizzled in garlic parsley butter. I put it in my mouth, chewed and swallowed. Then, I reached for another. No doubt it was due to that garlicky goodness, but even the texture was pleasant, a little chewy like a piece of steak.
To celebrate Gaylord’s recovery, on our last day we ate a final brunch together, concluding a week of delicious meals of charcuterie and cheese with baguette by finishing the entire contents of the fridge, along with curry-fried eggs and sausages.
Food: 9/10 (while I might not buy crémeux d’escargot any time soon, I will definitely try snails again, and those almond croissants oh la la)