Would You Eat Here?
Sunday 14 April 2019 14:32
Here... being a French out-of-town commercial centre where all the hypermarkets hang out along with mega-sized D.I.Y. stores, furniture shops full of mdf shabby-chic rubbish, and the sellers of cheap car tyres.
Here... being a huge restaurant with neon lit facade behind which lurks seating for a couple of hundred or more.
Here... being somewhere with a menu as long as your arm complete with shiny pictures of luridly coloured plates of food set alongside lists of special offers and low-cost midweek menus.
Would you eat here? Probably not if you are a ‘foodie’ type of person; you’d run a mile (or at least a kilometre) rather than enter these portals. All the signals point towards ‘cheap and nasty,’ ‘plastic place,’ ‘factory food’. But you could be wrong. If you fetched up at just such a place in Chalon-sur-Saône for instance you would be completely wrong and in danger of missing a rare treat i.e. eating what the French, who mostly have exacting standards when it comes to restaurant food, especially the sacred Sunday lunch, eat when out with all the family.
Most of the meals we have eaten in French homes have not been particularly good. They seem to depend on a few standard traditional dishes; here in Burgundy it’s Boeuf Bourgignon and Coq au Vin, which are rarely well-cooked. Before the main dish one has aperitifs - port, whisky, vermouth or pastis to drink - slices of salami type sausage are offered, maybe a few cornichons, gougères, or jambon persillé; this last is rarely home made but bought from the local charcuterie. There is bread on the table at all times during the meal, though no butter or side plates, and it is what you eat with the cheese course. This is always (sensibly in my opinion) eaten before the dessert which will most likely be a tart bought from the local patisserie and served ‘au naturel’ (without cream, custard or ice-cream) and is often provided by the guests. When the French want to eat something different they eat out.
I think there is a link here with the way French people approach the whole notion of entertaining and eating out. Historically ordinary folk would not have entertained at home - this was where the family ate and the food served was rustic and simple. For centuries, in many cases right up to the time of World War II, most homes had just one open fire to cook on, no private oven or any way of roasting foods. As a result food boiled in pots would have been the norm (and still largely is) - simple soups made with stale bread, vegetables and legumes or more elaborate stews of meat or poultry hung above the fire or baked in its embers.
Cooked food bought from traders outside of the home has long been the practice in France and well before the Revolution members of regulated Guilds, which specialised in particular types of cooked foods, were licensed to sell them to the ordinary people. After the Revolution the old style Guilds and the controls they exerted were abolished; then many more people were free to sell cooked foods and to open places where diners would pay to eat. This tradition is longer and stronger in France than anywhere else which means that many quite ordinary families are familiar with the idea and well-used to entertaining away from the home and celebrating family events in restaurants.
When we come as visitors to France we are always hoping to find that treasure of a family restaurant hiding away down a side-street in some small provincial town. In the kitchen, one imagines, will lurk an unknown culinary genius where the food is artfully cooked and served in generous portions. Mother and daughter look after the tables; they are friendly, helpful, efficient and the service is impeccable. In their cellars rest delicious unknown wines laid down long ago and only finally see the light of day when sniffed, poured and tasted at your table. And all this for the price of a few euros. Maybe such places did once exist but nowadays rules, regulations, high costs, taxes and shifting family patterns have conspired in their demise.
What we sometimes miss is that the French have always been good at feeding large groups of people very well indeed. The huge brasseries to be found in most cities and large towns are witness to this fact. Traditionally ‘brasseries’ are a northern thing - places which brewed and sold beer but where food was also to be had. The first ones were opened in the 1870s by migrants driven from their homes by Germany’s annexation of Alsace and Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War. These people settled in Paris and the northern cities. They brought their brewing skills and traditional cuisine with them. They came with their sausages, foie gras and those dishes made with sauerkraut - fermented cabbage - known famously as choucroute in France. Now these popular eating places are spread over much the country and often overseen by some of the country’s great chefs better known for their more sophisticated cuisines in their own Michelin starred restaurants. Paul Bocuse for instance owns several old style brasseries in Lyon specialising in traditional regional cooking but where the standard is very high.
Some of these places are even operated on a franchise system with the same beer and food offered at each. The ‘3 Brasseurs’ is just such a franchise which has been in business since 1986. They brew their own beers on the premises and the dishes served are all freshly made, well cooked, inexpensive and, most importantly, very tasty indeed.
We went to one in Chalon-sur-Saône last Sunday for lunch and yes, it was just across the way from the giant Carrefour supermarket. We were there on the recommendation of a friend but once parked outside found ourselves approaching the restaurant with some trepidation. The building was large, neon lit and displayed a long menu just outside the entrance. I thought I’m not going to like this but here we are so let’s get it over with. Pushing open the door we were greeted by a friendly fellow who offered us a free degustation of this month’s brew before leading us to a table. The seats were comfortable with tables well spaced. The menu comes in the form of a news sheet which proved an interesting read while we were waiting for our meal. Tam chose l’assiette du cochon - a plate of pig no less - comprised of a meaty Toulouse sausage, some ribs and a large juicy slice of marinated roast shoulder which came with a spicy sauce and a generous serving of frites. I decided on the choucroute with cod; this came bathed in a deliciously citrus flavoured sauce beurre blanc. We ordered the beer La Blonde made in the 3 Brasseurs brewery - light but with a yeasty tone. It worked well with both our meals and we did not miss our usual wine tipple for one moment. Puddings were seriously good. I had a crisp concoction filled with lemon cream and a creamy caramel sauce made with la bière blonde. Tam ordered coffee and a cognac which came with a dish of made-in-house petit fours. The whole meal came at little more than €20 apiece. What can I say except don’t let your prejudices trip you up.
Perhaps then it’s time to forget those little family run restaurants of the past and try something, which though less nuanced, is still serving up jolly good nosh in quintessential French style.
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