Lunch in France? Oui

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“Shall we have lunch in France today, darling?”

It’s the type of phrase we antipodeans fantasise is entirely commonplace here in Old Blighty. And while I do realise that such country-hopping isn’t exactly practical or economical – even when the distance to cover is less than that from Sydney to Bathurst – it is certainly possible. At least so I discovered on a recent assignment for my current employer, which had my husband Paul and me taking an overnight ferry from Plymouth (in Devon, UK) for a pre-booked three course lunch the next day in Roscoff, a small seaside village in Brittany, in northwest France.

The only catch, I should add, is the experience might be less of the envisioned jetsetting glamour and more running around in a tiny, rocking cabin in your underwear at an ungodly hour hoping that that disgruntled French crew member won’t pop his head through the apparently-not-locked door again and tell you to please ‘urry up!

Anyway, to go back to the beginning, I want to point out that I’m rather getting the hang of this job – that is, visiting stately manor house hotels and restaurants most months to write up small content marketing pieces for Food, a free magazine that promotes food and tourism in the South West of England. When it comes to food, a country backwater the South West is not; rather it is home to renowned chefs such as Rick Stein, Nathan Outlaw and Michael Caines. In other words, my tastes have become rather elevated lately, perhaps unusually so for half of a modest single-income couple of expats renting the loft space in the home of Bideford’s answer to Uncle Fester.

This background leads me to an explanation for my lack of preparation on this recent trip to France. You see, I’m more accustomed to these work trip involving hotel stays that come with bottles of complementary champagne than glorified domestic flights. I mean, did I really need to read the fine print about disembarkation and set my watch to French time, or would a pipe-smoking tweed-clad hotelier not arrive at my door with a coffee and the paper to inform me that “yes of course the passengers will wait for you to wake at your own pace, for the French are a patient, tolerant people, particularly when it comes to non-French-speaking, disorganised tourists who failed to read the clearly-stated-in-English fine print”.

And then I woke up.

Of course, the boat trip was lovely. We didn’t get seasick and its onboard restaurant was more than pleasant and involved mountains of fresh langoustine. But even without that, the trip was well and truly worth it. Oh dear sweet French mother of God was it worth it. I would have almost swam the English channel had I known the lunch that awaited us the next day.

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Transport those harried boat passengers a few hours ahead, and you’ll find us sitting in the dining room of L’Ecume des Jours (which according to Google Translate could mean the ‘scum of days’, but is more likely the ‘seafoam of days’ and is in fact named after a classic 1947 French novel written by Boris Vian). This is the restaurant on the waterfront at Roscoff, in a tiny, ancient looking building, with sandstone-walled interiors and polished timber floorboards, all clean lines and nautical chic meets French colonial oil paintings and really heavy cutlery. The interior was muted, perhaps a little too much so – you could hear the clink of cutlery and the conversation levels lowered to match, until you had to be brave to be the first one to break the silence. However, eventually the room warmed up and it felt a little like we’d been invited to our super cool French friend’s seaside house for lunch on a rainy Sunday. Hey, that could happen.

Having navigated our way through that awkward part of the meal where I try to maintain a thin veneer of class to suit the surrounds, whilst also trying to ascertain just what has been agreed to be included in advance, we could commence onto the good part… (#foodporn)

To start, an aperitif of champagne was served with an amuse bouche of white asparagus mousse and tuna tartare with seaweed. We shared two starters – one, a platter of ten natural oysters served with red wine vinaigrette and a surprisingly perfect parsley sorbet, and the other a plate of crab in a sauce of local artichokes and piquillos peppers, with crispy rice and seaweed. For mains we both ordered roast monkfish with sweet potato and cumin, white asparagus (it’s in season), and lobster juice. Literally a little tub of lobster goodness. For dessert I had a mango concoction that involved some sort of basil cake base, basil cream, mango ice cream, fresh mango and a crisp toffee shard and fresh basil garnish (basil in desserts is a trend that I’m totally on board with). Paul had a dark chocolate ball with an orange ice cream centre.

It was the type of food you close your eyes to savour, and perhaps release a single tear of joy in doing so.

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(Yes I photographed every course.)

After lunch we ventured onto the right hand side of the road and drove a little further afield for a walk on the beach, before boarding the ferry again in the afternoon, scheduled to return to Plymouth at 9:30pm. We had another ensuite cabin booked, which meant a well earned siesta on the way home (oh wait, that’s Spanish. Ok, food coma.)

And in the name transparency, you can now mentally transport those wined and dined travellers to around 10pm that night, and you’ll find them sitting in rusty old Land Rover Discovery in a back street of Plymouth, downing a quick KFC Zinger burger before checking into our AirBnB accommodation… Like magic, back to the real world. Voila!

Post script: This post is dedicated to my niece Margaret Janice Wotherspoon Black who was busy arriving in the world far away in Australia while all this silliness was going on. Welcome Maggie! xxxx

A Cornish Christmas getaway

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In hindsight, when ordering a meal to be eaten at a table for one in a large swanky dining room, I should probably have gone for a less messy option than the mussels… Padstow Christmas Festival

As I’d chosen to eat early that evening on my overnight stay at the St Moritz Hotel in Rock, north Cornwall, the restaurant was mostly empty and I couldn’t help but feel the waiters’ eyes on me as I wrestled with the tasty but stubborn mussels in their fragrant coconut and coriander broth… My previous confidence that yes I’m sure you’re supposed to eat these with your hands and use the first shell to extract the rest of the little suckers was fast waning, but I was in too deep by then to reach for the fork, so my only option was to look confident, whilst occasionally smiling reassuringly over at the attentive row of waiters as I attempted to proceed to the next page of my touch-screen e-book using the knuckle of my pinkie finger.

Mussels at St Moritz

The situation brought a scene in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to mind –when her character Esther Greenwood mistakenly consumes the entire finger bowl at a luncheon “including the crisp little blossoms”. Esther came to learn that when you think you’re doing something incorrect in a dining situation, just do it with “a certain arrogance […] and nobody will think you are bad mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.” So, in short, that’s the effect I was going for – and after a glass of South African sauv blanc and finished off with a warm, spicy mulled wine, I was starting to feel pretty merry and confident again anyway.

The reason I was down in Cornwall was for a two-day work trip to attend the first half of the annual, four-day Padstow Christmas Festival. My employer was invited by one of their clients, Sharp’s Brewery, who was putting staff up at the St Moritz Hotel – which happens to be another client and one who I work with directly, so I was lucky enough to be sent along.

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It’s a two-hour drive down the coast from North Devon through winding, narrow country lanes (saying that, even the A-roads here feel like narrow lanes to me…), and I arrived at around 11am to check in at the hotel then make my way down to the little ferry that crosses the Camel Estuary between the towns of Rock and Padstow – it will drop you off at different points along the beach or harbour depending on the tide.

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The centrepoint of the festival was a big marquee set up with food stalls and craft and Christmas gifts, and of course beer – Sharp’s Brewery was the main sponsor of the event. Highlights were the Chefs Demonstration Theatre, where some of Padstow’s best chefs – including Rick Stein who many joke more or less owns Padstow (he certainly put it on the map) – cooked meals on stage for the audience to watch and learn. Among my personal favourites was the eccentric moustachioed Hugo Woolley who restored my faith in my own prospects as a home-baker when he’d been given the wrong flour and his granola cookies turned into a buttery mess in the oven – it happens to the best of us!

BBQ oysters

The next day I was lucky enough to sit down for coffee at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant to interview former Michelin-starred chef Paul Ripley (Paul was head chef at The Seafood Restaurant after Rick and now works at The Mariners Rock pub), as well as his sous-chef Zack Hawke and Sharp’s Brewery’s beer sommelier Ed Hughes – Ed is passionately trying to elevate beer to the world of fine dining, which is a noble cause, I say.

Sharp’s Brewery also had a clever marketing trick up their sleeve with something called The Secret Bar that took place inside a closed shipping container at the festival… I can’t say too much about what went on inside, except that it involved beer and food and as a visiting journalist I was fortunate enough to have my ‘secret bar’ experience with a group of VIP chefs…

If anything was going to get me into the spirit for my first ‘cold’ Christmas in the northern hemisphere, then this little getaway to Cornwall’s foodie capital was it. Thanks Padstow and now bring on the home-made minced pies and mulled wine, I’m in a festive mood!

Merry Christmas xx

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