It would hardly be the most mind-boggling revelation to say that the French love their food. It’s intertwined in the culture, part of the national psyche. The French get food at a pure, primal level. In the UK we’ve come along in leaps and bounds in our understanding and appreciation of good food in the past twenty years. I’d argue that English cheese has the better of la fromage francaise, and there’s no such thing as a decent French pork pie. But food and eating are an intrinsic part of French daily life, and our weekend in Montpellier gave us quite a few different examples of that fact.
You think the UK and America have a special relationship? The French love affair with all things americaine goes back for decades. The cowboy pops up in French popular culture in figures like Lucky Luke and Lieutenant Blueberry, and I am reliably informed that line-dancing is very big.
So it was that we spent our first night in Montpellier in a Western-themed restaurant called Country Rock. You know the kind of place. Themed burgers named after Elvis and Johnny Cash. Guitars on the walls, CMT on the video jukeboxes. It should have been cringeworthy. It wasn’t. The idea of drinking rough french red with a burger works really well, and the grub was impeccable. They might call it steak hache, but I know a good burger when I cram it in my feedhole. The place is jammed every night of the week with a young, cheery crowd who seem to know their Willie Nelson. Not typically French cuisine but hey, I wasn’t fretting.
We had a more authentic French meal the following night, at our host’s favourite restaurant. Le Grillardin has romantic attachments for Dem and Dom. It’s in a quiet square, and offers clever twists on French regional grub at a sensible price. It’s worth putting a nice shirt on for, but certainly not too up itself.
The food was headbendingly good. I started with little local scallops in salad that were absurdly tender and sweet, before moving onto a perfectly grilled fillet of sea bass on a bed of creamy Camargue red rice. The balance of soft fish, chewy rice and savoury, creamy sauce was… well, let’s just say it wasn’t on the plate for long. We finished with the famous chocolate pot. It takes twenty minutes to prepare and twenty seconds to demolish. Washed down with carafes of cheap but eminently gluggable house wine, it was a memorable evening, made more so with the cheers from the sports bar down the road as Montpellier’s football team went first in the league. An evening of quiet celebration.
Isabelle Willis-Delbez is a little ball of energy, clean blue eyes sparkling with intelligence and humour. She motors around the grounds of the Mas de Calage, almost single-handedly working on the vineyard that is both home and sustenance. A short drive outside Montpellier and up a dusty track, and we could be two hundred years and hundreds of miles away. The grounds are quiet, the buildings as beautiful and adapted to the land as Isabelle herself.
We were lucky to blag an invite to the vineyard to sample her complex, challenging and delicious wines. In the sunshine, and before lunch, it was lovely if a bit naughty to lug down a couple of glasses. She admits, the 2006 is better with food than as an aperitif, but I found it delicious, a big, roaring monster, full of tannins and smoke. Her white is unfiltered, dry as a bone, with a cidery backnote. Again, not to everyone’s taste, but I was happy with it. You can pick up her 2009 red, slightly tweaked for the British palate, in Waitrose. I recommend grabbing a bottle. Or several.
The real sign that grub’s part of the culture is how easy it is to grab decent food when you’re out and about. The simple crepe, for example, is pretty much available on every street corner, sweet or savoury. The Nutella crepe seems to be a big thing, and I have never seen so many stalls with catering-size tubs of the stuff – big enough to stick your head in and nom yourself to death. The Cómedie is home to several decent-sized creperies, offering big salads as well as the ubiquitous pancake. Lunch on Sunday morning was enjoyed in the sun, watching the world go by while sunning ourselves – basking behaviour that even has a French colloquial verb to describe it. We were lizarding.
Fast food exists in France, of course. You can even find a McDonalds in Montpellier, if you look hard enough. But the idea of grabbing a sandwich at your desk for lunch is largely unknown. No, you go out and you get something and you sit down like a grown-up. Even cheap and cheerful chains like the charmingly-named Flunch are based around your food being cooked fresh and to order. It’s one easy tweak to the work-life balance that it would be great to see more of back home. Even a cheap and cheerful beachside cafe we dropped into on Saturday afternoon offered a fresh tapas plate that included big head-on prawns and succulent octopus in garlic oil. All of a sudden, my daily Pret looks much less appetising.
I’m starting to sound like a drooling Francophile. It’s obviously easy to get your head turned when you’re been as well fed as TLC and I were. I’m certain there are dreadful eating experiences to be had in Montpellier, but we were subject to our host’s impeccable taste. There are a couple of “pubs” in the back streets, but frankly I didn’t want to bother. The public house is something that Britain does better, full stop. The last thing we wanted was an ersatz experience.
Instead, before dinner at The Grillardin, we dropped into the Times Cafe on the Rue de Tiessiers for a couple of glasses of wine. This tiny, friendly place doesn’t even bother to offer beer. Instead, it has a carefully curated range of wines, with a heavy focus on local Longuedoc vineyards. We were lucky and early, tucked ourselves into the bay window, settled back into battered leather armchairs, and thoroughly appraised ourselves of the selection. As we left, the staff were putting stand-up tables outside, and there were plenty of takers for nonchalently-leaning space.
A Night In:
Of course, an important aspect of the French dining experience is eating at home. We were lucky – lovely Deming is an accomplished cook with a fresh, uncluttered approach. She knows that it’s best to source quality ingredients and let them do all the heavy lifting.
Dinner was therefore simple and delicious. Hummus, great local comte (a cheese with a similar flavour to Leerdammer) and warm fresh flatbread was followed by salmon with a spicy rub, and a baked side of potato, spinach and roquefort – a kind of deconstructed dauphinoise that was the perfect mix of saucy savoury sloppy loveliness. Dessert? Like all smart French hosts, Deming went to the patisserie, and presented TLC with a very fine selection of birthday cakes. After a minor standoff that saw her snarling and jabbing at us with forks*, TLC relented and allowed us to share. The cakes tasted as good as they looked – and they looked pretty darn fancy. They came from Scholler, who have a pretty solid rep in Montpellier and environs. Keep an eye open for them.
it’s always a good idea to browse the local supermarkets when you’re somewhere foreign to you. In a seemingly familiar environment, the little differences gang up on you and club you into submission. I still remember my first trip to a big Walmart in Florida. The choice was mind-boggling, but the presence of a fully loaded (sorry) gun counter kinda knocked me for six.
French supermarkets, like the excellent Géant Casino we checked out, are less culture-shocky, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had. I’ve mentioned the lack of fresh milk, but the French love their UHT. The fresh food counters are glorious. Colourful, squeaky-fresh salads, comically huge peppers and tomatoes even at the arse-end of March, and a fish counter that goes on for miles. You could easily get lost in the wine department. I think I did for a bit. I certainly spent longer than I would have thought possible browsing the ciders.
Of course, there are other shopping options. Local specialist shops still do big business, and farmer’s markets are common. We checked out a good one underneath the arches of the Aqueduct Saint-Clement that was almost picture-perfect. Astonishing local cheeses, a ton of in-season local white asparagus, and more charcuterie and sausage than you could shake a pornographically-huge salami at. Street musicians plunked away, local activists leafletted. It was lively, cheerful and unbearable temptation for a foodie. We snacked on samosas and nems, delicious prawn-filled deep-fried spring rolls. If you wanted to, you could have filled up on all the free samples. I bought garlic. What else could I do? We were in France, dammit.
Next up – Art in Montpellier
*Kidding. Really. There was no snarling.