The Ardèche is hot in August. Fridge-cold pan of gazpacho gripped to my face two centimetres from the fan shutters permanently closed not many clothes and still hot-kind of hot. More detail I can’t give because the thermometer’s broken. It shows a 3 and a 9 but is missing the third digit so it’s anyone’s guess whether it’s 390°C, 309°C or even °F. Not that anyone is here to guess or, more critically, find me when I not so much spontaneously as inevitably combust. I’m alone for the next twelve days and I don’t have a car. Should you wish to send condolences you can c/o Andrea Calek but don’t feel too bad. I found the place I want to spend the rest of my life and it’s got a bar, so feel free to send cash instead.
I found it two weeks ago: the most perfect little auberge. To chance upon it is to finally find something I’m not sure ever really existed in France outside of the romanticised memories of Anglo-Saxons but which we always get off the péage to look for anyway. Auberge de Chassignolles is the golden needle in France’s hay, cordiality wearing a wrinkled blue apron. A rural idyll, in other words.
It’s so quiet I can hear the English blushing from here.
The rooms are plain and affordable and conveniently situated on a square in a village on a hill with absolutely nothing to do and maybe three inhabitants and a church with bell. It’s so quiet I can hear the English blushing from here. The wine list is chock-full of local gods and more distant deities, and the restaurant serves what they call ‘cuisine du terroir’ but what I call soul distilled from the garden, local forests, fields and rivers. We shared cracked platters of sausage stuffed wrist-thick with herbs served with see-through slivers of choux, fragrant broth pots of meats and beans, butter churned into shades of sun, piles of tomatoes served simply sliced, aubergine breaded à la Provencal and charcuterie not just à la maison but à la legacy of the chef (and pigs) from the year before. To finish, there’s a puddle of apricot crème and a cheese board (as in the old days with salad!) comprised of various phases of milky moons.
I may sound a little lyrical but given the challenge of eating simply but well in France, my singing is justified. I should have known I was setting myself up for disappointment when I based my expectations of a whole new life of lunch on ‘A Year in Provence’ – a book written in the 90s, and in Provence. But the state of lunch in France is now so bankrupt it could have been written a million years ago. Looking for fresh produce honestly prepared and served on a circular plate (remember them?) without foam or a squiggle of ‘balsamic’? Bon courage!
The Auberge is in the Auvergne, a region most seem to know little about. Here’s what I know about it: 1) It’s cooler than the Ardèche 2) It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s also where all my Wines of Summer 2018 would come from if I thought in headlines. I don’t want to sound like another #fan-of-aurélien but what can I say, I’m a sucker for people turning volcanoes into wine.
To get up there from down here you wind up through the Monts d’Ardèche, across the Limagne plain, over the Puy plateau (as in lentils but ‘puy’ is also a geological term en Francais for a volcanic hill, the Auvergne being the largest volcanic area in Europe – I looked this up) all the time headed north past all the wheat and nothing else for kilometers until all the pines after which you’ll see three pigs on the left which is how you know you’ve arrived. Not, I’ve been told, that it’s not always been this empty. With a good run from the Romans to its peak in the late 1800s, the verdant volcanic slopes to the north of the region were historically covered in hundreds of hectares of vines. Then Phylloxera hit and The Great War made people forget as they filtered out to the factories and half of East London filtered in.
You’ll have to trust this is not the heat talking when I say this is a good thing. No one has a keener sense of what ‘a weekend in France’ is supposed to mean than the English. There’s no better vision of French country cooking than the one seen through their rose-tinted glasses. And no one, evidently, is better able to bring it about. So some toasts are in order with our meal. First, to Harry Lester, previous co-owner of the Auberge, partner to Raef Hodgson of London’s Gergovie Wines and now chef-patron of Le Saint Eutrope, for originally bringing the English here – and for continuing to do so, with the whole 40 Maltby Street team in tow, to cook for the Fête du Vin every year. Then to the current owner, Peter Taylor and his team of chefs, waiters and sommeliers for the daily reminders of how lunch in France can and should be done when it comes to conviviality, simplicity and quality.
Back in the Ardèche, the gazpacho’s gone warm and I’m considering moving into the fridge. It’s day two and I just read that Apple is the world’s first trillion-dollar company and I’m wondering what that really means. Good luck with the end of the world everyone, I’ll be at Chassignolles.