VIVE LE FRENCH CHEAP AND CHEERFUL
September 9, 2010 4 Comments
In France lunch is a serious past-time and the four course plus wine lunch is more common than not. It didn’t take us very long to get into the habit, and whether we are eating out or lunching at home, it has become our major meal of the day. Our evening meal, except for when we are out to dinner with friends in mostly a non event.
We are surrounded by “cheap and cheerful” eateries, some better than others, and all with their own character and style. It’s not an expensive exercise, and the menu of the day will set you back about €12-15 per person, often including a carafe of local wine. “Local wine” can mean just about anything, from “chateau cardboard-box” to some reasonable rough red from a local winery. We once asked whether the wine we were drinking was local to be told that it was definitely not, as it came from another village about 5 kilometres away.
The St Martin in Langoiran just down the hill from us sits on the banks of the Garonne river, and in summer sets up a marquee on the waters edge. This location is made the more exciting in winter, as the Garonne regularly breaks its banks, giving a whole new meaning to waterside dining. It has changed hands many times over the years, but this reincarnation is probably the best. We happened to be their first customers on their opening day, and despite the fact that the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, it is still our regular haunt.
Podensac on the other bank and about 10 kms away has the Le Tonneau (the Shed to us) which is basic and quirky, and the building is so ramshackle and neglected that for a long time we thought it was derelict. The first time we went there was in winter and our eyes wouldn’t stop watering from the smoke coming from their pot bellied stove. As no one else in the restaurant seemed to be having the same problem, they must have thought that we were in deep grief.
The Bellevue (and there isn’t one) in Camblane has great food, but they don’t like to be too busy, so it pays to go early to avoid being turned away, despite being half full. The Nord-Sud in Verdelais, which is relatively new, has interesting and creative food, though the violent purple décor is slightly unsettling and Le Cap in Preignac is great in summer when you can eat outside under a large leafy arbour.
We think that the best in the area is Le Chanteclairet d’Anatole in Quinsac, which has fairly recently been taken over by our fishmonger from Latresne, and is named after his English bulldog who wanders around looking for attention. Quite a few English visitors assume that the restaurant is named after the owner, and call him Anatole in an attempt to be friendly. It happens so often that he may have to change his name by deed poll.
Being France you need to be aware that they all tend to take their lunch times very seriously and it will be hard to get accepted after about 1.30. Whenever we have overseas visitors we always advise them that if they want to make sure that they get lunch, they are best to arrive at restaurants sometime before 1.00pm. After that it will depend on the mood of the proprietor and/or the chef, either of whom may decide that they have better things to do in the afternoon.
Unlike Burgundy, Bordeaux is not really known for its cuisine, which has always amazed me, as one would think that as it produces arguably the best wines in the world, it would also be very particular about its food. It is therefore important that you be very selective about where you go, and you can’t always take the advice of the locals, who may often equate good eating with volume. A local cab driver once waxed lyrical about a restaurant on the edge of Portets (about 5 kms from us), and about how wonderful was the “all you can eat seafood buffet”. The place was crowded when we got there but came to a halt when we walked in, with some stopping their forkfuls in mid-trajectory to gape at the “etrangers” who had dared to enter their sanctum. The seafood buffet was mostly made up of some oysters and small prawns, mystery dishes like bright orange crab sticks and rather strange salads obviously thrown together from what hadn’t been eaten the previous day. On top of that the customers looked as though they had come out of an episode of the BBC series, The League of Gentlemen, and from the fictitious town of Royston Vasey. (something out of Deliverance for my US friends). I kept waiting for someone to come up and say “… this is a local shop for local people …”.
In the old days, if you saw an eatery in France that was full of families and workers the chances were that it would be OK. Today, the families are just as likely to be English or Dutch tourists on a budget holiday, and the workers to be Polish or Czech truckies looking for some high volume intake. We have had some of the most questionable (though large) meals when erroneously following the old maxim of “eat where the truck drivers do”.
Unless you are desperate for red meat, I would keep away from the steak in other than an upmarket establishment, or if eating at L’Entrecote in Bordeaux central, where steak is the only main course and is fantastic. The French generally tend not to age or tenderise their beef, and unless you have the sort of teeth that can rip open a tin can, I would stick to the poultry, particularly the duck when you are in the south-west, or an omelette anywhere in France, as they do treat eggs with the deserved respect.
Just remember, as Ronald Reagan said “I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon”.