Every time we went on holiday to visit my grandparents in the Alps, we carried out a Tour de France from the windy jet white cliffs of Dover to the sunkissed and also snowcapped French Alps.
We crossed through the mountainous coal mines of the Pas de Calais, the luxurious golden fields of Champagne, the verdant forests of the Centre, the ruby burgundy vineyards of…Burgundy, the maze of tunnels and lakes of Bresse through to the increasingly jagged landscapes and postcard villages of Savoie.
Through that voyage, I could talk to you about the full English breakfast of the ferry with its glistening fried bread, meaty tomatoes and plastic eggs, or the crunchy textures of an Ardennes pate with gherkins for a midday snack in Reims, a stopover to Dijon to taste the pinky cassis mustard of the city or the muscly gaminess of a poulet de Bresse.
I could even wet your tastebuds with the array of cheeses on my grandparents’ dinner table — be it the “regulars” — from the crystalline Beaufort, the chalky Tomme des Bauges or the fruity and grassy Comte, as well as the creamy guilty pleasure of a St Marcellin or a punchy Chevrotin.
But it was three dishes that I remember most:
1. Soupe d’ortie
A soup you’d never dream of eating, it’s basically nettle soup. Before facing becoming a trend, my nan used to make this when we arrived in the depths of the night after travelling all day from England.
A dark green soup, it had a thick heartiness to it, yet very light and refreshing. It was the symbol of arriving safely, and a sense of unique Frenchness, as I had and still have never eaten it anywhere else
Often heard on Masterchef as a way of spooning food or more controversially as an offensive arm gesture. Again, not a dish you could buy in England and even less a “quenelles de brochet”, given how unpopular pike is.
The intrigue of the dish was that you had to cook it until it had inflated as much as it could before it deflated. Done with champignons de Paris
3. Couronne de pain
The king of French bread. This was the “tyre” that I would love to take or should I say carry out of the bakery, as it fitted all the way around my arm. Basically, a giant pain de champagne.
I initially liked going to the “cooperative” to choose the cheese, but slowly realised how fundamental bread is to French cuisine. It’s like rice is to China or pasta is to Italy. It’s the thread that connects everything, be it as a sandwich in a casse croute, as a base layer for le petit-dej to dip into your coffee, or to wipe your plate of vinaigrette or jus, or to conclude the meal with a cheeseboard.
I’ve since got into making bread, now my next adventure will be to forage nettles and turn them into soup and fishing pike to fashion it into a quenelle!