On the Other Hand
Sunday 28 April 2019 14:51
A chance conversation with a French friend produced yet another eating-out recommendation and thus found us, a few days ago, in Vonnas, a village not far from Mâcon in southern Burgundy. We had checked out on the internet the restaurant he mentioned. The Restaurant Georges Blanc boasted 3 Michelin stars and with starters alone costing around 100 euros we decided reluctantly that these prices were well beyond both our pocket and our status. The good news turned out to be that chef Blanc, whose family came from Vonnas, had also breathed new life into the little village restaurant once owned by his parents. It was still open for business with prices much more bearable and a menu which reflected the traditional food of the region but gave a creative nod towards a little modernity.
I phoned and booked ourselves a table.
We made the final approach to our destination along wind-y roads hedged by fields of buttercups full of cows. Nicely bucolic, applauded the townie within me. We had decided to get to Vonnas a little earlier than our reservation in order to explore a bit before eating, expecting only to find a village just large enough to allow a twenty minute stroll around to take in the church, the bread oven, perhaps a restored wash house and the main square. Imagine then our surprise when rounding the final bend we arrived at something which looked more like a film set complete with be-toqued chefs scurrying hither and yon. A notice proclaimed this to be ‘Village Blanc’. Everything was so tidy and clean with well-groomed flower beds and immaculate, imposing buildings painted red surrounding a large tree lined carpark. Over to one side was a small river, the Veyle, crossed by a neat wooden bridge and beyond, a grove of plane trees severely lopped and docked in the French fashion. We circled the place; looked through the windows of the Georges Blanc gift shop and the Georges Blanc boulangerie and strolled past the Georges Blanc hotel and spa. There on the corner stood the elegant Restaurant Georges Blanc. We exclaimed over the menu posted on the wall outside; €255 per head for a five course meal sans wine - ouch! I’m not the envious type but have to admit to a touch of, what I can only describe as, churlish glee when we saw some people entering its portals; dressed more for a bling-y wedding than a meal out - Essex French, I told myself - sniff - wouldn’t want to go there anyway.
We arrived at our own watering hole across the way, L’ancienne Auberge - so charming - the outside seemingly unchanged for generations. Here was the quintissential bar-café-come-restaurant built to serve the hearty tasty food of the region to the locals, mostly chicken farmers coming in to the market, and those en route for Mâcon and beyond. It looked like the sort of place you dream you might still one day find; inside would be red tiled floors, a half dozen or so wooden tables set for a simple meal. Smells wafting from the kitchen, its shelves, glimpsed through the swinging door, lined with shining copper pans of every size, signaling the presence of the archetypal French grand-mère cuisinière who would produce, each day, generous pâtés, rich casseroles and creme brulées to die for. Suitably charmed and excited we made our way inside. Sadly once through the door we found no cosy well worn interior awaiting. Instead, beyond the facade a huge restaurant had replaced the simple bar and dining room we were expecting. The place was decorated with rural artefacts, though so restored and renovated to look almost new. This decor was meant to evoke memories of an earlier time but it was the sheer size of the dining space that indicated that it was designed to service the many visitors who, like us, were attracted to Vonnas by the famous Georges Blanc name but without quite the means to eat across the road.
Nevertheless my expectations were high, hyped by the whole Georges Blanc thing, and anyway hadn’t I only the other day been extolling the ability of the French to serve large numbers of people with very good food indeed? In front of us was an open kitchen filled with busy chefs and beyond were attractively laid tables overlooking a garden, childrens’ play area and a pond.
Perhaps it was my original disappointment at finding myself in Georges Blanc’s carefully constructed mirage of past times that coloured my view of our meal; indeed neither the food nor its cost bore much resemblance to those of a simple village bistrot. Service was professional without engagement; all the servers seemed very young with no obvious front-of-house maître’d to keep an eye on things. No matter this until our first course was served. Tam found a large house fly, still alive, tramping about in the mousseline sauce which covered his asparagus. The servers were nowhere in sight - we waited for one to appear - eventually I went to look. I thought, well at least once I’ve found someone I’ll get to say those celebrated words, only need to change ‘soup‘ to ‘sauce‘. In the event heavily intoned ironic phrases were lost on the poor lad I finally tracked down. Offending plate was whisked away and soon replaced by another. No word was spoken; no explanation given; no apology made. I can only assume flies in sauces (or in soups) just do not happen in the perfect Georges Blanc world.
Now here’s the odd thing. At the end of service a man in chef’s whites paid a fleeting visit to the half-dozen occupied tables saying a brief word as he went by. I was so taken by surprise that before I could muster any words - in French - he had been and gone. It was only the following day that I discovered that this man was none other than Georges Blanc himself! Now I love it when chefs leave their kitchens and talk to their customers at the end of a meal, but here in this milieu it seemed like just another part of the play. He had not cooked our meal; no-one had told him about the fly; he had not come to apologise but simply to receive due praise from his appreciative clients.
I sent him an email but he didn’t reply.
BARGES & BREAD
Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017
ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9
240pp, paperback with flaps
Size: 216 x 138mm
Price: £12.50 Black & white
Where to find some of my writings:
Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.
PPC 96 August 2012:
Food on the Move
PPC 99 November 2013:
Hospital Food - à la française
PPC 101 October 2014:
The Limejuice Run
PPC 104 December 2015:
PPC 110 February 2018:
Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane