My top restaurants and food discoveries from 20 years of writing about France

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<p><figcaption class=Oysters on a market in Noirmoutier.Photo: Trendzromain Kersulec

Standout moments from nearly 20 years of writing about travel and food in France include meals in legendary restaurants and the joy of a shared dinner in a room d’hotes. That said, there is one location that should not be underestimated as an opportunity to enjoy France’s culinary delights: the trunk picnic.

Standing in the shade of an open trunk, I discovered some products so delicious they didn’t end up in a gîte kitchen or on the dining table. It could be a piece of Comté that was so fruity that it didn’t make it past the parking lot on market day. That’s what the bowl was for gariguette strawberries bought from a farm in Brittany’s Plougastel-Daoulas, famous for its microclimate. My family and I each took a bite and stared at each other in disbelief – the sweetness was excessive.

“Did they dip them in sugar water?” my husband asked.

“I think this is what strawberries should taste like,” I replied. We scoffed at everyone else in the queue for the ferry at Roscoff.

Then there were the jars of Chantilly cream. In the city famous for the crème de la crème (and lace and horse racing), we attended a workshop at the Atelier de la Chantilly, where we learned how to make the perfect batch by hand from Bernard, member of the Brotherhood of Chantilly Cream Whippers. We brought two jars with us, safely stored in the car’s plug-in cooler. Later that afternoon, on the way to Lorraine, we stopped at one sky (roadside picnic spot) and spooned the cream over bowls of mirabelle and raspberries for a decadent picnic as campers and Lycra-clad cyclists zoomed past us on the road.

The lunch menu du jour offered at one-star Bib Gourmand restaurants can be surprisingly good

Two weeks after that same trip, our trunk became a makeshift dressing room as we prepared for a much more refined meal. After a dip in the Alpine Lac du Bourget near Aix-les-Bains, we brushed off the sand and each grabbed our one remaining clean outfit (it was our last stop on the road trip before visiting a gîte with a washing machine) and I tried to adorn myself with makeup in the sun visor mirror before taking the elegant drive to the Hotel L’Incomparable’s restaurant.

As we entered the terrace, the panoramic view of the lake made my heart beat faster, and soon Chef Antoine Cevoz Mamy was treating us to his ingenious twist on dishes made with lake fish, such as freshwater fish. lavaret served with a hint of yuzu and thin carrots flavored with cumin. I wasn’t surprised when he earned his first Michelin star a few months later.

Synonymous with French cuisine, the Michelin Guide was launched more than a century ago, with the original aim of encouraging people to go further afield in their new cars (and wear out the company’s tyres). In recent decades it has also become a byword for extravagance and luxury dining, but there are ways to use the guide on a budget.

The lesser Bib Gourmand rating system has pointed out many an excellent meal and lunch to me menu of the day offered at one-star restaurants can have a surprisingly good price-quality ratio. Meanwhile, many multi-star chefs also operate more casual dining options that are very affordable.

In Roanne, northeast of Lyon, I booked a table at Le Central; it’s in the house opposite the train station where Maison Troisgros used to be, which has had three Michelin stars longer than any restaurant. The Troisgros family moved the main restaurant to chic new premises in the nearby village of Ouches in 2017 and opened Le Central, a sophisticated brasserie with modern takes on French classics. The salmon fillet with beurre blanc sauce and chives was sublime. The best moment, however, was seeing Pierre Troisgros – one of the two brothers who put the restaurant on the map and who died just a few months later at the age of 92 – dining with friends in the corner.

On the other side of the country, on the Île de Noirmoutier off the Atlantic coast, a meal at La Table d’Elise, Alexandre Couillon’s bistro next to his three-star restaurant La Marine, lingers in the memory. The delicate dishes, such as tender asparagus and mussels decorated with striped beetroot, sliced ​​so finely that it was transparent, showcased the island’s exceptional products. It was an excellent introduction to this delicious foodie destination: the island on the Atlantic coast enjoys a microclimate where ozone-infused air and seaweed-fertilized soil and salt pans are a boon for potatoes and other produce.

During a trip to a market in Noirmoutier we picked up boxes of bonnotte potatoes and giant custard tarts flans maraichins. Later that week we cycled through the salt pans, the evening sun reflecting off the many rectangular pools, and slurped on oysters just meters from where they were farmed – it was my father’s first dish, which we at the age of 74 age.

Sometimes you need a helping hand to discover a city’s food scene, to find the locals’ favorites rather than the tourist traps. In Toulouse, Jessica Hammer’s excellent Taste of Toulouse tour introduced us to the exceptional products on offer at the Marché Victor Hugo, such as premium charcuterie and a “Paris-Toulouse,” a violet-flavored riff on the Paris-Brest choux pastry dessert, as well as tempting patisseries and a fromagerie nearby.

At low tide, the oyster racks extend half a mile toward the horizon

In Bordeaux, student Chloe, from travel agency Do Eat Better, led an excellent day of wine tasting and intoxicating rum-soaked canapes. canelé (caramelized cork-shaped pastries) and a great lunch at Berthus.

In Paris, a cheese tour and tasting with Jennifer Greco of Paris By Mouth took us to every region of France through the incredible flavors of her expertly chosen cheeses, paired with exquisite wines.

However, the best tour I found wasn’t the usual city walking tour. Under the bright sunlight of Brittany’s Emerald Coast, I strolled around in muddy sand and explored the oyster beds of Cancale with Ostreika Tours. At low tide the oyster racks stretch half a mile towards the horizon (at high tide they disappear beneath the sea) and former oyster farmer Inga Smyczynski revealed the fascinating world of lesson houses: how they are grown and their history in this area. We finished with a shell from the beachside oyster market, slurped them back and tossed the shells onto the beach where they help keep the shifting sand stable.

The French not only have excellent markets and food shops, but are also experts at celebrating their local specialties, and there are weird and wonderful festivals all year round in every corner of the country. Roscoff, Brittany, hosts a celebration every August in honor of the region’s mildly flavored pink onions, La Fête de l’Oignon (24-25 this year). It celebrates the history of the Onion Johnnies, the armies of door-to-door onion salesmen who toured Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries and gave rise to the British stereotype of the Frenchman: beret, Breton striped shirt, draped onions the steering wheel. The festival is a wonderful insight into local traditions, with onion weaving competitions, party noz (a kind of Breton ceilidh) dancing, and the delicious specialty galette sauce (sausage in a buckwheat pancake with candied onions on top).

French food festivals can also be hugely ambitious. Take the Fête de l’Omelette Géante in Bessières near Toulouse. Every Easter Monday, the Knights of the Global Brotherhood of the Giant Omelette (there are six other such festivals around the world – it’s like a collaboration of giant omelettes) break 15,000 eggs and make an omelette in a four-metre frying pan to feed 2,000 people. It was also surprisingly tasty.

However, the best party I found was the Fête de la Figue in Solliès-Pont, east of Marseille. The Gapeau Valley is perfect for growing figs – locals say the sprawling trees like to have their feet in the water and their heads in the sun, so the Gapeau River and the Provencal sun do well . There is a market and parade, tastings and walks through the fig orchards and the opening night was a great party. A four-course meal, each dish made with figs (a fig salad, beef deface with figs, cheese with figs, fig tart), is served at rows of tables on the fairytale village square, with candles shining from the church windows and door. The band was playing and the locals were dancing until the early hours.

Carolyn Boyd is the author of Amuse Bouche (Profile Books, £18.99), which is published on 6 June. To pre-order a copy, visit Delivery charges may apply

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