Monday, 24 March 2014

Travelling in France: Logis Hotels

I was very interested to read a large feature on Logis (de France) in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday. The organisation has undergone some changes, reducing the membership, sprucing up the website and now simply calling itself Logis Hotels as other countries are now covered. The way it works is that approved hotels pay a fee to join and be included in the annual guide.

Over the years we have routinely used Logis when we've needed an overnight stop and a meal to break a long journey. They are generally family run, independent hotels offering decent value for money, often located in characterful towns on the old routes nationales. In the main they are not the most glamorous or luxurious places, but they have a certain provincial charm. However, they can punch above their weight food-wise, albeit in a rather formal French way, but remain passionately regional. Confusingly, there is a broad range of Logis, but a new rating system should help travellers get a better idea of what to expect. Logis d'Exception is the most upscale.

Last summer we stayed at the Hostellerie des Clos in Chablis, a swankier example of a Logis (see pics above and read more about it here) and another smart example is Hostellerie de la Mère Hamard in Semblancay north of Tours. More typical is Le Dauphin in Salbris in the Sologne region south of Orleans. Another time we'll try out the Hotel Tatin in nearby Lamotte-Beuvron where allegedly the Tatin sisters (accidentally) created the famous apple tart. 

Logis membership can alter from year to year and one of my favourites is no longer listed – Au Coeur de Meaulne run by award-winning chef Patrick Rajkowski and his wife Karin on the edge of the Tronçais forest in the Auvergne. Moving their young family from Switzerland, the Rajkowskis acquired what was a run-down inn and have turned it around. It is now rated by Michelin as a Bib Hotel and is busy with plenty of repeat business. Never underestimate a Logis.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Brasserie l'Ouest, Lyon

Quite honestly, this could be one of the best lunches I've ever had. As we were leaving Les Pasquiers in Beaujolais, our hosts Guillaume and Marylène Peyraverney recommended a few restaurants for lunch in Lyon as we were continuing our journey south. The Peyraverneys lived in Lyon until they took over Les Pasquiers earlier last year and given how much we'd enjoyed lunch at Domaine de la Madone which they'd suggested, we were keen to ask for more advice.

Nathan was driving and I had no idea where we were going – neither did he really as all he'd done was keyed the address into the satnav following Guillaume's instructions. I'd been chatting with Marylène in the kitchen at the time, so didn't know what had been discussed.

Anyway, it was one of those days when everything just fell into place. The weather was bright and sunny, our drive took us through the southerly Beaujolais crus before we picked up the A6 to Lyon and the satnav did its thing, directing us to a cool industrial site on the leafy banks of the Saône river on the outskirts of Lyon. Given the predictable image of dining in Lyon is based on traditional bouchons in the city centre, this airy, modern brasserie was quite unexpected. L'Ouest is part of the Nordsud chain of brasseries established by the hero of Lyonnaise cuisine, Paul Bocuse.

We parked beside the river and, without a booking, settled down inside at one end of a large shared table with views across the terrace to the Saône and around the buzzy restaurant and the open kitchen. It was a busy Friday lunchtime with a fascinating mixed urban crowd. The rotisserie caught our eye, so we instantly ear-marked the roast Montrevel chicken from the set menu for our main course. For starter Nathan had tartare of fresh salmon with dill and I had melon with Serrano ham – almost too generous a portion to finish. I managed though. Daughter Alice did splendidly with the menu enfant – salmon fillets with buttered noodles.

Having already been bowled over by the starters, our chicken arrived which was exceptionally good. Juicy, richly flavoured corn fed chicken with a buttery sauce and a medley of seasonal vegetables. Beautifully simple. Keen to have some Rhône wine as that's where we were heading, glasses of St Joseph blanc partnered the dish brilliantly.

On to dessert and Nathan was very happy with his raspberry tarte sablée and I was delighted with my rum baba, served deconstructed with the bottle of rum left on the table (I wasn't driving). Alice had ice cream. With two coffees, this lunchtime feast came to less than 100 Euros (the set lunch cost 32.50 Euros, 35.50 if you included cheese; menu enfant 11.50). Fantastic.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Exploring northern Beaujolais

I have to confess how excited I was about visiting Beaujolais. As I am (deceptively) mature, Beaujolais was one of the first wines I heard of and, indeed, consumed. This was shortly before the British wine market became flooded with New World wines and even when I was working at Oddbins in the early 1990s, Beaujolais Nouveau was still quite a big deal and involved some very early morning deliveries. As soon as it came off the van we'd open it – of course – and this light boiled sweet and bubblegum confection went surprisingly well with a McDonald's Big Breakfast or two (you'd be hungry at that hour). It's hardly representative of Beaujolais though and did as much for the reputation of the region as Liebfraumilch did for Germany.

We got to experience the real Beaujolais on holiday last summer, spending a couple of nights in tiny Lancié near Fleurie. We stayed in the beautiful family run maison d'hôtes Les Pasquiers (see top) where we enjoyed breakfast and evening meals, all based around local produce, even sourced from their kitchen garden. Dinner at Les Pasquiers also included local wines from Méziat down the road in Chiroubles.

We spent two nights in Beaujolais but, with our daughter in tow, didn't have too much time to devote to wine. So, after our first night at Les Pasquiers we had a relaxing morning by the pool before heading out for lunch at Domaine de la Madone in Fleurie. We spent the rest of the afternoon following the Route des Vins through northern Beaujolais – Moulin à Vent, Chénas, Juliénas and St Amour before looping back to Lancié via Romanèche-Thorins. Other than the more famous communes of Fleurie and Juliénas, these were mainly quite modest little hamlets, but the old stones and seas of vines help reveal Beaujolais' long history. Place names like Juliénas and Romanèche-Thorins hint at the region's Roman heritage.

The following day after checking out of Les Pasquiers, we headed south through Chiroubles and Villié-Morgon and Brouilly, passing extinct volcanos Mont du Py and Mont de Brouilly (see below), sources of serious, age-worthy wines. It would have been tempting to stop off in the handsome town of Brouilly with its bustling cafés and bars, but we were heading to Lyon for lunch.

Next time we'll also include southern Beaujolais, especially the scenic Pierres Dorées district, but this visit we focused on the northerly crus – the finer wines of the region. I'm so pleased we did. After a few disappointing decades, Beaujolais is now back on track producing some of France's best value and most enjoyable wines. For me, Beaujolais has graduated from perking up a dreary November to often taking top billing at Christmas. It deserves a bit more than a Big Breakfast.

(If you're planning to visit the region take a look at this useful piece by Sue Style on the Decanter website.)

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Lunch at Domaine de la Madone, Fleurie

A generous plate of charcuterie and glass of Beaujolais usefully takes some beating for lunch. In Suffolk at the British Larder I memorably had their Dingley Dell tasting platter with a glass of Beaujolais-Villages (read about it here). The zippy, fruity red wine offsets the porky richness to perfection.

However, while staying in Lancié last summer our hosts recommended lunch at Domaine de la Madone in neighbouring Fleurie. To get there we drove through the pretty town of Fleurie and followed a steep road up the hill towards the chapel at the top. I knew this part of Beaujolais was quite hilly, but had no idea you'd get such spectacular sweeping views towards the Alps.

We sat at a table outside and from the short menu we selected local charcuterie, omelettes and salad and glasses of the domaine's Cuvée Vieille Vignes Madone (from vines alongside the auberge). With its bright cherry fruit, cool minerality and savoury lick of oak, it was a deliciously versatile wine, easy drinking, yet satisfying – so different to the bubblegum-like Beaujolais Nouveau you might have drunk in the past. If we hadn't been eating properly in the evening, the entrecôte steak on the menu would have been a tempting, too.

Over coffee we chatted to a British family who were staying in the gîte let out by the domaine. They had served the estate's wine at their wedding and it was their second year staying here. Highly recommended all round.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Chablis to Beaujolais: an epic journey for wine lovers

After breakfast in the sunny garden of the Hostellerie des Clos in Chablis, we returned to the car to continue our journey. Our next destination would be Lancié in Beaujolais for a two night stay before finishing our first week in France in the southern Rhône near Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe.

We headed south of Chablis to pick up the A6 autoroute for Pouilly-en-Auxois where we took the quieter A38 towards Dijon. As we approached Dijon, it got much more hilly and we turned off the motorway onto the D108 which zig zagged steeply up and over the northerly part of the Hautes Côtes de Nuits to Marsannay where we picked up the D974. This is where wine lovers (particularly Burgundy lovers) start getting very excited. The D974 (previously called the N74) runs north to south alongside the Côte d'Or, passing through a series of world famous wine villages, names you generally only see on seriously smart bottles. There is even a restaurant named after this road in San Francisco with an appropriately Burgundian wine list.

As I'd driven along the D974 a couple of times already and it was my husband's first visit to the area, I did the honours so he could sit back and admire the views. We drove through Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny, passed by the walled expanse of the Clos de Vougeot, continued through Vosne-Romanée and then the busy little town of Nuits-St-Georges and on towards Beaune past the huge mound of Corton with its forested crown.

We stopped for lunch in Beaune, easily parking on the inner ring road. My classically Burgundian oeufs en meurette and my husband's steak went down beautifully with a drop of Beaune, obviously. After coffee and sunny stroll, we were back in the car continuing south.

We took the A6 autoroute briefly to Chalon before turning west to Givry to pick up the D981, an old road that runs south to Cluny. A more scenic option is to leave Beaune on the D974 and pass through Meursault and Chagny where you can pick up the D981. The Côte Chalonnaise has always appealed to me as these wines – generally lighter and more rustic than their glitzier neighbours in the Côte d'Or – were popular with French nobility during the Middle Ages. Apparently Henri IV was partial to the wines of Givry which had been popular since the 6th century. The D981 goes through the historic towns of Rully, Givry and Buxy, passing handsome old stone buildings, stately cedar trees and the occasional château.

The region looked as though it has enjoyed plenty of commercial success in the past, even if its wines are now overshadowed by neighbouring regions. Following this attractive, gently undulating old route was quite an unexpected treat and judging by the numbers of cyclists we passed coming in the other direction, it's a popular one, too. The road led to the monastic centre of Cluny, congested with coach parties when we drove through. We then picked up the main road, the N79 to Mâcon, passing vineyards and the craggy limestone Roche de Solutré, the landscape becoming much more dramatic. Finally, after a few minutes on the A6 we turned off towards Lancié near Fleurie, for two nights at maison d'hôtes Les Pasquiers, looking forward to dinner and a decent drop of Beaujolais.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

An overnight stay in Chablis

Last summer, as we travelled through France towards the Mediterranean, our wine themed route gave us the chance to visit Chablis. I've always loved Chablis wines, but so far never had the chance to experience this cooler part of Burgundy. Having left Le Touquet after breakfast, we travelled southeast, stopping for a quick lunch in Reims and passing through the historic city of Troyes. Sadly we only had time to drive through the medieval city centre, but I'm keen to return for a more thorough visit. Troyes has been an important trading centre since Roman times and was the ancient capital of Champagne and would be ideal for breaking a long French journey.

We reached Chablis late in the afternoon, passing the dramatic sweep of Grand Cru vineyards, entering the town from the north. After swiftly checking into the Hostellerie des Clos we headed out into warm sunshine. Chablis is a charming little town with many interesting corners and some splendid buildings reflecting centuries of prosperity. The Serein river runs through town providing a refreshing lush quality welcome in high summer and the combination of the water and old stones is particularly attractive.

As it was a Monday in mid August our options were limited, but after spending a couple of hours admiring the town we returned to the hotel to get down to enjoying the local produce (in a restaurant that was actually open). The Hostellerie takes great pride in the local wines and our French Canadian sommelier, thrilled to be working in the town, expertly helped us navigate the comprehensive list. He suggested a bottle of Mont de Milieu 2009 by Pinson which deftly saw us through dinner. It was particularly good with the starter of salmon tartare with ginger and raw quail's egg, and then later on with local cheeses, some sticky, ripe Couloummiers especially.

For food and wine lovers Chablis is a great place to visit – for an overnight stay or a short break. Needless to say we took a lot of pictures.