A dinner worth walking to.

THE SECOND in a short series based upon a  journey I made across France in 2004 and freely adapted from the original reports published in France Magazine that year


IN MOST OF US, I SUSPECT, genetic hosts to the primaeval hunter-gatherer, a desire for pastures new lies at no great depth beneath any appearance of satisfied stability: under the sombre livery of the most conservative bencher of the Inns of Court beats the heart of the unreformed vagabond. This is why the lone traveller manifestly of an age when hearth and home alone ought sufficiently to contain him, yet kitted out as if for a long walk in the Hindu Kush, tends to arouse not only curiosity but empathetic concern. In a village bar, tired and thirsty after a long day, I chatted with a man who proved to be a routier. When I declined another beer on the grounds that I had to make a move or be too late for supper he asked where I was staying. When I told him he said oh la la: that was all of five kilometres, and uphill, and insisted that he should drive me there. Thus I reached my b & b that evening in a spanking new open Porsche.

Though never for a moment taken for granted, such gestures became commonplace on my journey across France, so that if a condition of my nominally pedestrian progress from the Channel to the Mediterranean had been that it should be ‘unsupported’ I would have been disqualified from Day One. Though everything that I had contracted for in this or that b & b had already been handsomely provided, last-minute suggestions for un petit casse-croûte for the road without thought of extra payment would often accompany my departure, as might a bottle of the wine that I had enjoyed at my table d’hôte dinner. The evident weight of my pack would prompt exclamations of solicitous disapproval and offers of a lift.

Calais-Fréthune, Bonningue-les-Ardres, St.Omer, Aire-sur-la-Lys, Thélus (Vimy Ridge), Miraumont and the killing grounds of the Somme, Fresne-Marincourt, Chauny, Monampteuil and so to the end of Picardy and the beginning of the Marne.  Starting with the conceit that I knew France rather well, it was humbling to be confronted with conspicuous examples of my ignorance. How could I not have known that Coucy-le-Château, near Soissons, was once one of the mightiest fortresses in Europe and that it remains a place of haunting beauty and fascination? How could I not have heard of the magnificent 18th-century buildings of the great Abbey of Prémontré, not three hours’ walk from Coucy in the great Forest of Saint Gobain?  At Fère-en-Tardenois, my pitifully belated discovery of the ruins of the Duke of Montmorency’s 16th century château, together with the superb Château de Fère hotel (one of the brightest jewels in the Michelin red guide), severely tempted me to throw well-laid plans and economy to the winds and stay the night.

A day or two later, just south of the Marne, blossom from a giant  horse chestnut tree drifted slowly over me where I sat on the lawn of the 400-years- old Château-farm of Connigis. Thanks to the cockerel, a fine proud bird of a breed which no one seemed able to identify, I had been awake since 5 a.m. The week before, finding a Mallard’s nest evidently deserted, Pierre Leclere, the farm’s proprietor, had put the clutch of eight eggs to a broody hen. Now, five wild ducks had come under the rooster’s authority and he was crowing about it.

From time to time I drifted back into sleep. The day before had been a long one.  Reaching my chambre d’hôte at the farm in the late afternoon, my sights were set on an engagement still some three or four miles away at the village of Reuilly-Sauvigny, where I had booked a table for dinner at 8 p.m. From the start, it had been a feature of my daydream of the whole journey that an ideal day would include either a leisurely lunchtime picnic with a memorable view or a dinner worth walking to; the latter’s value to be judged not simply by the quality of the food and wine, though they, of course, would be outstanding, but also for the accueil and the ambiance. Whether picnic or dinner, the attributes of the occasion would be such as at some moment or other to have me telling myself that this was what I had come for.

I had found the hotel restaurant Auberge le Relais in Michelin, which gave it a single rosette (“star”) for its table, listed menu and other attractions that were enticing, and quoted prices that were by no means outrageous. Nowhere else near Connigis was so distinguished. When I explained on the telephone that I would be arriving on foot and wondered if it might be possible for me to change out of my walking clothes before dinner a very nice-sounding woman said they were not at all a pretentious establishment but that, anyway, she was sure they would be able to arrange something. At about six o’clock in the evening, with a freshly-laundered shirt, a dark blue pullover, creaseless cotton trousers and lightweight city shoes in a daypack, I climbed up though Pierre Leclere’s vines into the Bois de Condé, through the forest and down towards the Marne again and the fulfilment of one of my ideals.

The “something” at Auberge le Relais proved to be the use of a well-equipped bathroom. Clean and tidy, fragrant with shower gel, I sat on the garden terrace with a glass of the ‘house’ champagne and the sun still illuminating the villages and vineyards on the far side of the Marne valley and with sentimental memories of such occasions overlooking the Rhine.  With a second glass I thought that in such circumstances even sausages and mash to follow would be acceptable. There was much, much better than that, served with rare and impeccable charm. It was dark when Pierre Leclere picked me up (not the first time he had done the same for guests in his chambres d’hôte) and a cool breeze was coming down the valley. On a warmer night I would have offered him a little something on the terrace; we had it back at the farm instead.


NEXT WEEK: on south to Burgundy


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