France in Six or Seven Restaurants.

I was tempted to label this post as another of my ‘Sun Lounger Thoughts’ but as Liz and I have just returned from another motorhome trip through France and neither the sun or a sun lounger made much of an appearance, well then, I thought I’d give that a miss.

I do love France but sometimes I think my love affair with this country is waning. I love the relaxed lifestyle, the food, the restaurants, the innate calm of sleepy French villages but, I do miss the absence of nightlife. The nights when I would stay out till the early hours are long gone of course but I do like a nice friendly bar or a busy restaurant. In rural France those things are hard to find.  In our favourite French town of Doué la Fontaine it is hard work to get a restaurant table on a Saturday lunch time but on Saturday night, the bars close around 9 pm and the restaurants are empty except for a few English tourists.

Coming over on this latest trip Liz did her usual research and found a lovely restaurant in the town of Montreuil sur Mer, a short walk from an Aire du Camping Car. As we motored along serenely through France after exiting the Eurotunnel Liz was urging me to get a move on but I knew in my heart of hearts that like so many other plans earlier in the year, the restaurant would be either closed or one that did not open in an evening.

We arrived in pouring rain to find that a huge amount of cars were parked in this small town. We had decided, wisely I thought, to park up and check the restaurant was open before going to the motorhome parking area. I squeezed gingerly into a small space and then we donned our rain coats and went off in search of food. One positive sight, apart from the numerous parked cars was the various bistros and bars all with a thriving clientele.

We wandered eagerly through the old cobbled streets and finally came to the restaurant Liz had found on the internet. Yes it was open and yes there were people inside! We entered to a round of bonsoirs from the serving and cooking staff clustered around the open kitchen, A table for two? Have we booked? No but could you fit us in? Yes of course! Moments later we were seated in a lovely restaurant full of old world charm and plenty of happy faces enjoying their food.

Le Pot du Clape specialised in home made soups and French flans so we started with mushroom soup and I chose a flan Italienne and Liz ordered a Welsh, nothing to do with Wales but a sort of cheesy quiche. The food was excellent and we particularly liked the red wine served at room temperature unlike so many establishments which serve cold red wine.

The next day we motored on further south. The bar is sadly closed at our regular stopping place in Gizeux and when we stopped at Bourgeuil the hotel and restaurant where we dine regularly was also closed. Oh well, time to light the barbecue once more! While I’m on the subject of barbecuing I think it’s important to share these two universal facts.

One. Always watch your barbecue because if you don’t it will burn itself out before you’ve had a chance to set the table and serve the salad.

Two. Never watch a barbecue because if you do it will just take ages and ages to get going and just when it finally reaches optimum cooking temperature well, it’ll probably be time for bed!

The view from our camping spot at Gastes.

Liz found us a super place to stop by a lake at Gastes. Nine Euros for two nights seemed pretty reasonable even to a tightwad like me so we found ourselves a nice spot with a view of the lake and parked up. The first evening was a lovely and warm one so out came the barbecue again. The next night was my birthday and there was a restaurant just by the motorhome parking area. We had a look in and there wasn’t much to the menu but the place was actually open with people inside eating food. Happy days!

That evening we got ourselves dressed up and meandered down looking forward to a birthday meal. However, the French restaurant curse struck again. They didn’t do food in the evenings! Quelle dommage!

I’m happy to report that we did finally finish the holiday with a lovely meal. We parked up in the village of Clérac in a lovely leafy aire. Sadly a bunch of noisy idiots in a clapped out campervan parked next to us and proceeded to annoy us no end with silly juvenile larking about. After a while they decided to move to the other end of the park and left us in peace. We walked into the village and found the hotel restaurant ready for business.

The Auberge des Lacs Bleus is well worth a visit if you are ever passing. The starter was an excellent cold buffet served with plenty of crusty French bread, next up was an escalope of chicken served in a tasty creamy sauce and we finished with some excellent cheese. The wine too was lovely.

Buffet starter looking yummy.

Of course I should mention the tasty food that Liz serves on board our motorhome. We have three rings on our small gas cooker and a grill but sadly no oven so cooking can be a challenge but even so we regularly find ourselves miles from anywhere enjoying a lovely English breakfast of bacon, sausage, mushrooms, egg and tomatoes, served with toast or fresh bread if there is a boulangerie nearby.

On one of our last nights in France we dined on Pasta Bolognese served with crunchy French bread and followed by an impressive cheese board sourced from the French supermarket Super U. Who needs French restaurants anyway!


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

 

A kind of Foodie Sort of a Blog Post

Ok. It happens to all bloggers and all writers. Even the greats like Hemingway and Dickens, they too had a moment when the blank paper stared back and them and nothing, just nothing came back.

Of course in the case of both Hemingway and Dickens, whatever moments they had in the course of writing, they overcame them, they wrote and went on to ever greater success, which is why many years later here we are talking about them.

These days one way to beat the blank screen problem is to do a search in your favourite search engine and look for blog prompts. Yes, there are plenty of those blogs around that tell us amateurs how to blog and how to write and just what to write about. I searched and found a post that gave me 189 creative blog post ideas. 189, pity they couldn’t have rounded it off at 190 or even 200 but hey, that’s just me being picky.,

A lot of those 189 blog ideas I have already done, and I had come up with the ideas all by myself with no help from ‘how to’ blogging sites but ideas 151 through to 162 actually got me thinking. They were all about food so without further ado, here’s a few thoughts on food:

Blog idea 156: How did I start cooking?

The first dish I ever made was probably soup. Now I don’t mean that I actually made the soup, after all, I was only about 6 so give me some credit. No what I actually did was I opened a can of tomato soup, warmed it up on the hob, poured it into a dish, got myself a spoon and sat down and ate and felt, well, pretty proud of myself. These days some 56 years later, tomato soup is still one of my favourites. It’s a sort of comfort food I suppose, tasting the same taste from all those years ago is a soothing relaxing feeling, a feel good, comforting feeling. I even choose soup today in restaurants and one of my favourite soups is from our local Italian restaurant here in sunny St Annes, Allegria. They do a lovely tasty minestrone soup with lovely chunks of vegetables in there. One important accompaniment to soup is tasty fresh bread. Which reminds me, I do have my very own bread making machine on top of the cupboard and it’s high time I pulled it down and made some bread.

The first actual cooking I ever did was a boiled egg but I don’t think I ever really did anything more about cooking until I left home and was forced to fend for myself.

Blog post idea 151: share a regional recipe.

Bacon and eggs hot off the Higgins grill!

Well, I’m not sure about that but here is a recipe regional to anyone in the UK, bacon and eggs. Now bacon and eggs is just one of my favourite meals ever and just recently I happen to have started producing a top-notch plate of this dish by digging out my George Foreman fat-free grill. Yes, I bought one years ago just before my divorce and my grill has lain untouched in a box in my mum’s spare room for many a year until on one epic search of my ‘stuff’ -I was actually looking for a VHS video but that’s a whole other blog- I came across my grill.

So here’s what you do. Crank up the grill, this is easy, just plug it in. Open it up and slap on a sausage. (OK that makes it bacon, sausage and eggs!) Give it a chance to get going and make sure (big tip coming up) your little fat collector is in place at the bottom of the grill otherwise your kitchen top is going to get covered in fat. After a while do a visual check on the sausage and when you think it is beginning to look good, slap in a couple of rashers of bacon. At the same time, get the kettle on because that boiling water will come in handy soon.

Check those rashers and flip them over and then get a pan filled with boiling water from the kettle. This is also a good time to get the teapot warmed. Next step, get that water to a good simmer, give it a stir and drop in your egg.  Check those rashers and sausages, if they are looking good, switch off your grill but just leave everything in there to keep warm. Make the tea. Pour. Serve your eggs and bacon when ready and if you have a tomato handy, slap that in the grill round about the time you dropped the egg  into the water. Serve with fresh bread or toast. Season to taste. Result, perfection on a plate.

Blog Post Idea 162: Share a post about a cooking experience that failed.

Hey I’m writing a blog post here, not a book. How long have you got?

Blog Post 153: Talk about the History of a Dish.

Well, one of my favourite dishes is chilli, or chilli con carne to give it its proper name. It originated in Mexico. Chilli spread to San Antonio in Texas and as the town was a tourist destination the dish spread rapidly through the area. In 1977 it was designated as the official dish of Texas but how it got to the UK I haven’t got a clue.

I started making chilli in the 1980’s and I like to think I make a pretty mean chilli. In fact, I think it’s high time I nipped down the supermarket, picked up the ingredients and got a smokin’ hot chilli cranked up!

When I moved into a new house in a small avenue in Merseyside in the 1990’s all our neighbours were about the same age and all nice and friendly people, or so we thought. My next door neighbour invited us for a barbecue and I noticed that by the barby was a large pan of chilli bubbling away. My neighbour’s wife commented ‘don’t go near that, it’s just the rubbish that Mike cooks!‘ However it turned out I had met a fellow chilli lover and Mike and I regularly swapped chilli recipes and tasted each others new batch of the dish.

Yes, how things changed in that street! We fell out with next door (number 2) because of a crazy incident involving cats. You can read all about it in this post about the Cat Wars where it turned out Stella’s cat was spending far too much time at Mike’s. Mike didn’t like it that we had told Stella (number 8) but actually we told Elaine (number 3) across the road and it was she who had told Stella. Elaine didn’t like it that we had told Mike that she told Stella and that was another friendship out of the window.

One day we went to a barbecue at Shirley’s (number 6). It was not a great affair and they soon ran out of lager. Dan, Shirley’s husband asked for a whip round to get some lagers so I chipped in a fiver. ‘What do you want?’ he asked. ‘Anything but Carling’ I replied as Carling is my least favourite beer. 15 minutes later Dan was back with the lagers. It was a really hot day and I had been keeping the barby going while Dan was away. He handed me a lager in a glass which was strange because up till then we had been drinking out of cans. I took a long slurp of the beer and it was not nice, not nice lager at all. Turns out, Dan had bought a crate of Carling and thought he could fool me with the lager in a glass trick so then he and I got into a dispute as I had specifically requested him not to buy me any Carling. I demanded my fiver back (naturally under the circumstances) and after some heated words we left when Shirley gave me a refund. That was another neighbour we fell out with. No wonder they all later moved away. Pity really because not long after I found this great new chilli recipe that I wanted to tell Mike about.

159. Review a Cook Book

I do have quite a few cook books and I think I really have to thank Ken Hom for my interest in cooking. Back in the 1980’s I became really hooked on his quick stir fry methods of cooking and I bought a wok and started stir frying. In recent years one of my favourite TV chefs is probably Jamie Oliver. OK, sometimes he comes across as a bit of a lad, a bit of a geezer as they say but at the heart of what he does is a love of good food, fresh produce and healthy eating. He produced a great chilli recently on one of his 15 minute meal shows and his cookery programmes, like his books are snappy and vibrant. I own a couple of his books and they are always handy when I want to cook something new or even just for a few tips when I’m in a culinary quandary.

Blog Idea 158. Try Something New (And Write Your Thoughts About It)

Not so long ago, Liz and I stayed in Edinburgh. We weren’t in the centre, we were parked down by the sea front in a spot where motorhomes could park for free. It was well away from the centre of the city and we knew we were in for a walk or a bus ride to get to a restaurant however, just by the parking area was a rather nice restaurant. It appeared to me to be rather focussed on fish, not my favourite food by any means but we decided to give it a try. Liz chose something thoroughly fishy and I had calamari (OK some fishy things are acceptable if not too fishy) and followed it up with a lentil curry. The waiter assured me I would love the dish and it was nice, in fact it tasted more like a chilli than a curry to me. Now I think of it, add a little more chilli and some meat and it would have been perfect!

Blog Idea 190: Plug your book and Sign Off.

Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Christmas Day Menu: Starter, Main and Classic Film.

There has been some discussion in our household recently about Christmas dinner. Personally, I think I am just easy to please but others apparently think differently. No one in our house is a great turkey fan although now I think of it, at a Christmas party recently at the Inn on the Prom in St Annes, a local hotel, I did choose the turkey roast as my main meal, and very nice it was too.

One thing I do not like is fish. Well, let me clarify that, I don’t like fishy fish. I quite like fish and chips, usually deep-fried cod because it doesn’t really taste that fishy. I’ve had a hake dish before now. Occasionally, very occasionally I have eaten mussels. They are not my cup of tea but sometimes I can eat a few especially with some strong sauce, something garlicky or spicy to drown out the fishiness.

Liz and daughter number 2 who is dining with us on Christmas Day like fish and they seem to favour something like smoked salmon for a starter. Yuk! Not for me please. Another idea was prawn cocktail. I have to say I’m not a great prawn lover either. I have eaten prawn cocktail before now, though I must say it’s not my dish of choice. What would I choose for myself then? Well, a nice pâté might be nice but some crusty fresh bread would be vital for that. Perhaps a nice tomato or even minestrone soup, yes that would be nice.

Many years ago the two dishes I first cooked for myself as a schoolboy were boiled eggs (I do love my eggs!) and tomato soup. By ‘make’ I mean I opened the can and warmed up the soup on the hob so no great talent required there but I have loved tomato soup ever since and today it’s one of those comfort foods for me. If I’m ever feeling low or under the weather, a nice bowl of tomato soup just does it for me.

Boiled eggs are the first things I can claim to have actually cooked. If the eggs come from the fridge, warm them gently in some warm water before cooking. The perfect timing for me is 2 minutes and 50 seconds. Serve with lightly toasted fresh bread and you have a wonderful snack or breakfast.

Back to the main course and a great favourite for me would be roast gammon. That apparently is off the menu because we will be having that when Liz’s French family come visiting just prior to Christmas with gammon leftovers also being served on Boxing day when daughter number 1 comes for dinner. I did mention roast beef but that suggestion was frowned upon. Goose and duck were also mentioned but they are two meats that just don’t do it for me. Roast chicken? OK with me but I’m in a minority there. That of course brings us back to . . turkey. Oh well, I may have to bow to a majority decision and perhaps suffer one or two slices of duck with some extra roast potatoes.

Whatever the roast of your choice some important additions are vital to your christmas dinner. Roast potatoes for instance. Personally I don’t like crispy ones. I like them soft and cooked in the roast beef juices. If not serving roast beef then goose fat is good for your roasties, apparently. Brussels sprouts are usually mandatory for a christmas dinner and the other day I saw them made on one of those TV cookery programmes but instead of boiling them, the TV chef cut them in half, gave them ample salt and pepper and roasted them. I tried them myself a while back in one of my rare forays into the kitchen and I have to say they were much nicer roasted than boiled. Carrot and turnip is another welcome addition for me. I’m not a great fan of mashed potatoes but I do like my mash rustic; mashed and served with butter is perfect although I have seen TV chefs mash potatoes into almost a puree and throw in butter and cream! Not in my mash, please.

I know that Yorkshire pudding is traditionally served with beef but I’ll be hoping for a portion of Yorkshires on Christmas day too. I recently produced a perfect Yorkshire pudding but my second attempt was a disaster as was my third. At least Liz will be in charge of the kitchen on Christmas day so looking forward to a veritable feast!

Now for Christmas day dessert we will be having Liz’s wonderful low sugar cheesecake. It is absolutely fabulous and we all look forward to having a slice. Another element is the cheese course. Here’s a question though, do the French have cheese before or after their sweet? I’ll have to make a few enquiries before the French contingent arrive because personally, I like to finish with some cheese, some English Cheddar, a little French Brie and perhaps a slice of Stilton to liven things up. A glass of red, some fresh bread or crackers, what could be nicer!

One last element of dining over the Christmas period is perhaps something that gets easily forgotten. the humble sandwich. Now I don’t much care for turkey sandwiches but the great thing about gammon is that when cooked, it becomes ham, and some freshly sliced ham slapped on some fresh bread is just perfect for relaxing with a late night glass of port, perhaps even a mince pie and my favourite Christmas film, A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. Yes there are a whole lot of film versions of a Christmas Carol, (73 TV and film versions according to a BBC news item I saw recently.)

A Christmas Carol was published 175 years ago this week. It’s a wonderful story by that master storyteller Charles Dickens. Within six days the entire print run of 6,000 copies had sold out. Within six weeks theatre adaptations had hit London’s theatres. In many ways the book is Dickens’ defining vision of a Victorian Christmas.

Going back to the film versions there’s one with Albert Finney, one with George C Scott, a cartoon version and even a version with Bill Murray as a modern-day Scrooge. According to my TV guide they are all available in the UK over the holiday period. Don’t give any the time of day except for the definitive 1951 classic.

Best wishes and have a lovely Christmas.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

The Giorgio Factor and other Dining Stories.


I really do love dining out. I think it’s one of life’s great pleasures, not that I’m a food gourmet or anything, in fact I’ve got pretty simple tastes in food. Give me a nice bottle of red, tasty food and good service and I’m a happy man.

Some years ago Liz and I used to frequent a lovely Italian restaurant in St Annes. It was a great place. It was only small and a little basic and I got the impression that in a former life it used to be a small shop. It was called, well, I won’t say the name but the owner was a guy called, actually, I’m not going to say his name either.

It was a lovely rustic place and when it was quiet the owner would say to me, ‘Steve, tell me what you want, whatever it is I’ll make it, even if it’s not on the menu. If I have the ingredients, I’ll make it for you.’ That was rather nice of him and I hope his offer was because we were friends and not because I was difficult to please.

One of his waiters was a guy called Giorgio. He was a really nice fella but as a waiter, pretty useless. More than two people in the restaurant and he’d start to flap, big style. He’d bring us a menu and then, well that was all he could do really. We’d order a bottle of wine and when it never arrived we’d have to prompt him by waving empty glasses at him. The main course would come and there’d be no cutlery. One time they had this other waitress who was Italian and spoke no English. Another couple would enter the restaurant and before Giorgio could get himself together the trainee waitress seated them and had taken their drinks order. Giorgio ambled over, asked what could he get them to drink just as the drinks were actually arriving! We do miss Giorgio and that lovely restaurant. Ever time you spoke to him he would say, in a strong Italian accent, ‘you’re welcome.’ He rarely did anything but he always said ‘you’re welcome!’

One day the restaurant sadly closed down and the owner started up a new place in Blackpool. When we visited a while ago I noticed Giorgio had not made the transition to the new premises. Pity, he did make us laugh. Anyway, when we dine out these days at somewhere new we sometimes try and spot which waiter has the Giorgio factor.

In Casa Carlos this week in Lanzarote, the main contender for this week’s Giorgio award was a lady that was determined to pour our wine. One of our pet hates is the waiter who tries to pour our wine when we are not ready. In fact, we don’t want the waiter pouring our wine at all. OK, he, or she, can do that initial pour after the opening of the wine and the tasting ritual but after that, leave us alone. We pour the wine only when we are ready and not before. Well, in Casa Carlos we fended this lady off a number of times when she made a raid on our table in a vain attempt to pour our wine. No, ‘get back’ we told her. Liz tried to fool her by hiding our bottle on the low window sill behind our table. Ha, we thought, try and get our wine there!

However, just as we were chatting and I had shovelled in a mouthful of barbecued steak the waitress homed in from our blind side, swerving silently towards us like a ninja but just at the last second Liz spotted her, grabbed the wine and said ‘no thank you’ firmly. You have got to be firm with these Spanish waitresses.

Tapas at the Blue Note Restaurant, nice but a little on the small side . .

When we first arrived in Lanzarote some years ago our first restaurant port of call was a place called the Blue Note, a classy jazz bar restaurant in the Marina Rubicon area of Playa Blanca. We were pretty starving so we ordered a few tapas. Sadly they were of the rather small minimalist type, you know, three meatballs to a plate. We had ordered six tapas but they were so small when we had eaten them we were still hungry. Next port of call was Cafe Berrugo. OK, we get the picture we thought, tapas plates are small in Lanzarote. We ordered four plates of tapas and two beers, then, thought, is that enough? Waiter, portion of fries please. Ten minutes later, the tapas arrive and guess what? They are massive plates! How can we eat this lot and the fries?

We have since become regulars at Cafe Berrugo. The waiters know us and what we like, for instance they always give out complimentary nuts to the English and olives to the locals. However, we have gradually shown them that some English people actually eat olives. Oscar, our favourite waiter looks after us and always serves us the vino tinto at room temperature. Our other favourite waiter is a guy we just call Good Morning as he always bellows out ‘good morning’ when customers arrive, whatever the time of day! It’s always nice to finish the night here with a complimentary shot of ice cold vodka caramel before getting our coats on and waving goodbye with a cheery ‘good morning’!

One final dining story: Here in Lanzarote the last few days have been a little stormy, however one day the heavens cleared and the sun shone again. The forecast had said heavy rain but what the heck! We were in barbecuing mood so we cranked up the coals and prepared the meat and salad. Yes, it was a lovely barby. Just at the end, literally as I was taking my last bite of a lovely burger and despite the sky in the west being clear and blue, the sky above and to the east darkened. It reminded me, like a lot of things in life, of a film I’d seen years ago. It was a space disaster movie from the seventies or eighties. The one where the crew need to launch to save the guys on the space station but Cape Kennedy is hemmed in by a storm. Well this hurricane passes directly over and the rescue mission launches through the eye of the storm, just like how we had our barbecue in the nick of time before the heavens opened.

What the heck was that film? If you know, answers on a postcard please!


If you liked this post why not try my book, Floating in Space available from Amazon as a kindle or a paperback.

Cheese, Wine, and a few other French Reflections.

It’s probably only natural that when, after a lovely holiday in France, thoughts often linger on those now gone idyllic days sipping wine and relaxing with a crusty french loaf and some fromage.

Tea.
I do love my tea. It is one of the great British contributions to world culture. What sort of a world would it be without a tea break? Dear me, I shudder to think. Naturally, Liz had us well stocked with PG Tips for our french trip. The French are a nation of coffee drinkers but they do also drink tea. In fact, you can find bottles of tea in the chilled area of every french supermarket. Chilled tea? Yes, chilled bottles of tea! Still, what can you expect from the nation that gave us frogs legs . .?

As I settle back into work, those long lazy days out in the french countryside seem as if they happened years ago.  Five o’clock was a nice part of the day. A final swim in the pool then Liz would start preparing the salad while I cranked up the barbecue and topped up the decanter with some nice french red.

dining

Wine, salad, bread, just waiting for the barbeque!

Wine.
I do love the cheap french red from supermarkets like Intermarché. A nice quaffable smooth red like a merlot is perfect for an evening.  In the supermarkets here, as you can probably imagine, there is an excellent selection and it comes in all shapes and sizes. There are wine boxes, bottles, cartons and even plastic bottles of the cheap rough table wine. I like an after dinner glass of port and there is a good choice of ports in the shops too. In France this year I picked up quite a few bottles for transportation back to the UK and I also discovered a nice white port. One interesting thing I have noticed whilst scouring the shelves of French supermarkets, there is a huge whisky collection in every french supermarket I have visited. All imported from the UK of course but brandy, a product of France, seems to be very scarce indeed and, when finally found, rather expensive.
After the kebabs and burgers, or whatever meat we have grilled over the coals, a short intermission is in order before the arrival of the cheese.

Cheese.
I do like my french cheese and the usual fromage course after a meal here is always a delight. Cheese is a different experience in France. In the warm evening the cheese softens and is spread easily on a slice of crusty french bread. The french themselves prefer to tear their bread but we English of course are more civilised and slice it before buttering.
Here are three of my favourite French cheeses;

    Rondelé
Not something I’ve ever seen in the UK, Rondelé is a sort of light cheese which comes in various varieties but the one I favour is Rondelé Bleu. A light almost whipped cheese with a not too powerful blue cheese flavour. Lovely on some crusty french bread or on a cracker.

    Cœur De Lion Coulommiers.
Not sure if I’ve seen this in the UK. This is a lovely, creamy soft cheese, perfect when it has melted slightly in the warmth of a summer evening. Not as strong as camembert but not as mild as a brie. Lovely.

    Chaume.
A very tasty cheese, rather like Saint Paulin which I have seen in supermarkets in the UK. It has a firm, pliable texture but is much creamier than the aforementioned Saint Paulin.

MicrolightI’m not a great fruit eater but in France I do like a small pear or something after a meal. Then it’s time to just sit back and enjoy the evening as the sun begins to go down. At about six thirty to seven o’clock the local microlight drones past overhead. I can sort of imagine him looking down and thinking ‘there’s that English couple again, still supping wine!’

Bonsoir monsieur, until next year! À l’année prochaine!


If you liked this post, why not try my book, Floating In Space? Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

 

Fast food, slow food, and French food

macweblogoIn the late 1930s a fellow called Patrick McDonald opened a fast food stand in California selling mainly hot dogs. Later, his sons took the business over and realising hamburgers were their top selling item they decided to revamp the entire operation, focusing on quick service and snack food that was served literally ‘fast’.

They reopened with their new concept in 1948 calling their fast food establishment simply ‘McDonalds.’ They franchised their operation and other ‘McDonalds’ started springing up over California and Arizona. In 1954 a man called Ray Kroc bought up the franchise for the rest of the United States and in 1961 he bought out the McDonald brothers for 2.7 million dollars. He then went on to build the McDonalds Corporation bigger and bigger and to export the McDonald restaurants all over the world. Even to France.

Plat du jour

Plat du jour

Now, as a great lover of France and the french way of life, well, some of the french ways of life that is, it’s always been a great source of interest to me to see how the french would accept the fast food concept. As much as I love the french way of eating, the entree, plat, dessert et fromage, and plenty of bread, I do feel that french cusine is a little over rated. The fact of the matter is, some of the things that the french like to eat, well, they are just a little bit odd.

If you think about it, you can perhaps imagine ancient man many thousands of years ago. Picture him now, taking a good look at something like a cow for instance and thinking, “you know, bet there’s some tasty meat on that animal. I could slaughter it, cut a thick wedge of meat off, slap it on a griddle over the fire, some salt and pepper and bet it would taste lovely!” Yes, that’s thinking that I can understand, especially later when that same ancient man refined his original idea by adding a baked potato or a few chips to the meal and maybe even a side salad.

The ancestors of today’s frenchmen must have thought in a different way, well different to us anglo saxons that is. Just imagine some ancient frenchman in the same situation but instead of checking out the cow he has his eyes on a frog, hopping merrily about and croaking, as they do, and he begins to think like this: “Hey, wonder if I killed that frog, chopped its legs off and cooked them in a little garlic, what would they be like?” A thought that would never occur to any right minded Englishman in a million years! Imagine another frenchman, coming out of his cave on a damp morning and noticing a lot of snails wandering about in his back garden: “Hey, why don’t I cook those with some shallots and garlic?” he thinks. “What a great idea!” Wrong! Crazy idea! Take another look at that cow Monsieur!

Anyway, getting back to McDonalds. In Saumur, one of my favourite french towns, Liz and I dropped in to the local McDonalds  for a quick snack before making our way up north towards Calais. I think we ordered something from the breakfast menu like a bacon and egg McMuffin. Well, the trays behind the counter that are usually stacked with hot food were not stacked with anything so the staff asked us to settle down in a booth and take advantage of the free wi-fi and that they would bring our food over in a moment.

After a while, one of the staff came over, there was some sort of further delay so did we want another tea anglais on the house while we waited? OK. Eventually, after I had checked all my e-mails, started off a couple of blog posts and re written part of ‘Floating in Space‘ (ok, slight exaggeration) our food eventually arrived. After visiting McDonalds Saumur a few times I have found that this occurance is not unusual. In fact, it’s quite normal but the french seem happy with the situation and I think I know why: They do not understand the concept of fast food at all!

It’s the same in a french restaurant. They leave you for ages reading the menu as if it was ‘War and Peace.’ It’s not! Anyone can read the menu and decide what to have within five minutes. Oh and what about a drinks order while we wait? Oh no. The french waiter likes to give you plenty of time to choose. When you finally give the waiter your order, things go at a pace reasonably similar to that of a UK restaurant but then at the end when you are waiting and waiting for the bill, don’t they realise you have finished and actually want to leave?

The french like to savour the whole eating experience, even the reading of the menu and while I do agree with that initial concept, the french sometimes take it a little too far. No, the french food experience is not fast food, it’s slow food!

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Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

 

Reflections on a French Holiday.

refelctionsAs I come towards the end of my French holiday it’s perhaps a good time to sit and reflect about France and the French people. I do love the quiet of the French countryside. It seems to me that in the hustle and bustle of the small islands that make up the United Kingdom it is harder than ever to find a little peace and quiet. Perhaps up there in the Scottish Highlands peace can be found, or even in the Lake District but in places like urban Manchester, silence is hard to find.

The French departments, similar I suppose to English counties, date from Napoleonic times and there are ninety six departments in France today which are further subdivided into cantons. Here in the Cher region, to the south of Paris are some lovely rural communities. Still and quiet villages, almost haunting in their silence can be found everywhere.

What I’ve always liked in France is the simple tabac. As the name suggests it’s a place where you can get your tobacco and in some places it is also combined with a presse so you can also pick up a newspaper. One thing you will always find in the tabac though is a bar, similar to the vault of an old English pub where French men chat and drink coffee, sip wine or a pastis. In the village where Liz and I are staying, Germigny l’Exempt, there is a small sell-everything shop, a combination epicerie, depot de pain (the lady owner explained carefully that they are not a boulangerie, but a pain depot) and of course, a bar! An interesting combination. You can imagine the situation if a similar establishment was available in England: The wife happens to mention to the husband, sitting in the lounge watching sport that they are a little short on veggies for the coming Sunday dinner. The husband jumps up; “need some vegetables love? Well, I’ll just nip down to the local shop and get you some!” And have a few beers while he’s there no doubt! Frenchmen, at least those of the rural Cher countryside, are clearly made differently here because I’ve yet to see anyone in that bar!

Last Friday night, Liz and I went down to a nearby town, La Guerche sur l’Aubois, and had a meal out. The only place open appeared to be a rather nice looking pizza place so we went in. There were only two other diners and at the small bar –this was Friday evening remember- were two or three French guys chatting. We had our pizza, had a beer at the bar and by nine pm they were ushering us out! What do the French do ‘au weekend’? I don’t know but it’s certainly not a beer and a pizza! One really nice thing about that bar though, every time a new customer came in, he said hello to all at the bar and shook hands with everyone in turn, including Liz and I, two English strangers. As for eating out though, that is something the rural French do of a lunchtime, not an evening. Shops close in France twelve till two while hungry Frenchmen go to the nearest bistro or restaurant for lunch.

Plat du jour

Plat du jour

At every restaurant or bar serving food you will always see a sign for the ‘plat du jour’ or the dish of the day and one thing I love about French restaurants is their menu deals. You might see something like, for instance, a starter, the plat du jour, and then fromage (cheese) to finish. I do so much prefer small courses to one big meal!

The great thing about France is the wine and my personal rule about French wine is this –buy the cheapest, it’s always the best but then, I like my wine cheap and cheerful. In Intermarche, the Asda of France, you can buy a ten litre box of merlot for about 17 euros, that’s about £13 in UK money, an absolute bargain. Forget expensive French wines, a nice quaffable French red does it for me every time!

Another thing about the French, especially regarding drink. You’d think that France, the country that created brandy would be a haven of cheap brandy, after all, this is where the drink is made! Sadly that isn’t the case, in fact, brandy in France always looks to me to be pretty expensive. However when you come to whisky, a product of Great Britain, there seems to be an incredibly vast choice, far bigger than you would find in the UK. Perhaps the French are a nation of secret whisky drinkers!

Whisky in a french supermarket -and this was only one section!

Whisky in a french supermarket -and this was only one section!

One final observation about the French. We’ve spent many a weekend on this holiday visiting brocantes and vide greniers, flea markets and car boot sales to you and we see so many stalls selling beer bottle tops. Here is a quick flash for any frenchman selling bottle tops; No one is going to buy them! Well, not me at least!

Anyway, as you the reader reads this blog we’ll have left the Cher region and will be motoring serenely across to the Loire for a few days before making our way back to the UK and home. One final reflection about holidays. Why is it that I’ve packed so many things for this trip and used so few? All my clothes were worked out in advance, polo shirts for the fetes and brocontes, smart shorts for being seen in public and scruffy shorts for private use. I also brought along both jeans and trousers, which I have worn exactly once each. Despite all this planning and thought, the fact of the matter is that I have spent most of this holiday in the same scruffy old vest and the same scruffy old pair of shorts. If I’d really thought about it, I could have significantly reduced the amount of clothing and saved some space for . . . more cheap wine!


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Restaurants I have Known and one or two Memorable Meals!

 

Restaurants I have known and one or twoGoing out for a meal has to be one of the great pleasures in life. It’s certainly one of my favourite things to do. There are many things that make for a great dining experience. The food of course is the important factor but it’s not just that. The restaurant and the atmosphere play a big part. The location too, is important and the table, but after the food the most important thing is service.

St Annes and Lytham have some wonderful restaurants embracing various food cultures. There is Anatolia serving Turkish food, The Greek Flame serving, not unsurprisingly, Greek food. The Marrakech has a lovely Moroccan menu. Woks Cooking in Lytham is my favourite Chinese eating house and Ego, also in Lytham serves Mediterranean food with a smile and outstanding service.

One of my all-time favourite meals was at my favourite French restaurant not far from Calais in a place we found on a country road, miles from anywhere. Liz and I stopped there many years ago for an early evening meal. For starters I chose celery soup and Liz ordered the pate.
I was a little disappointed with the rather small dish that was presented to me but then a huge tureen of soup arrived which was wonderful and produced about four small servings, one of which went to Liz while I sampled her pate which was full of rustic flavours and was perfect served with fresh French bread.
The main course was a simple omelette, light and fluffy with a fresh salad and Liz’s fish was lovely with a creamy curry like sauce, unusual for French country cooking.

Another great French restaurant is in Saumur, my favourite French town. Again, I don’t know the name of it and it’s always hard to find, in fact we usually tend to stumble upon it after walking around for a while. It’s a small restaurant that spills out on the pavement and I do so love those three lovely courses that French restaurants serve; starter, main and a cheese course, served with red wine and plenty of crusty bread. There is no rush in a French restaurant and there’s plenty of time to watch life and people pass by as you dine.

IMGA0302Tapas are pretty fashionable in the UK these days and we sampled some lovely tapas at the Blue Note restaurant at the Marina Rubicon in Playa Blanca earlier this year. The highlight was the Canarian potatoes served with mojo sauce, lovely.

Yes, I’ve come a long way as a diner from the Plaza Cafe in Manchester where my friends and I used to call in the early hours of Sunday morning after a late night drinking and chatting up the girls. The Plaza served curry and there were three options: mild, hot, and suicide! Yes, how we used to laugh as we called up “Three suicides please!”

A lot of people seem to think I’m a fast eater. I’m not sure if I am but if that is the case; it surely comes from late night curries like the one above. If you are with six boozed up guys and you want something to eat, you have to grab it and get it on your plate as soon as possible otherwise you might just end up with nothing but a plateful of rice as my friends used to clear the table faster than a horde of locusts.

My one hate of restaurants though is this. Do waiters lie in wait for me to take a big mouthful of food before coming to the table? Many times I’ll try my food then nibble on small portions just in case the waiter approaches. When I finally think, ok, he’s not coming over, I’ll shovel in a good mouthful and out of nowhere a waiter is sure to appear.
“Is everything all right for you sir?”
All I can usually do is nod and try to mime someone enjoying their meal . .


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Tasting the Tapas in Lanzarote

snaplanzaThis is week five for Liz and I staying here near the Marina Rubicon in Lanzarote. We’re here for six weeks in total, a nice break away from the snow and ice of the UK. The temperature here is in the early seventies and this last week it’s been a bit cool and cloudy which, I have to say, has played havoc with my swimming and sunbathing routine.

We’re away  from the centre of Playa Blanca by the Marina which is good because like a lot of Spanish resorts, the centre of Playa Blanca is a full of ‘British’ pubs and bars and restaurants offering British beer and meals like chips, egg and beans and so on as their staple fare. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against chips, egg and beans, as a matter of fact it is one of my favourite meals but I can make it myself back at home or go to any pub or café to get it. When I travel hundreds of miles I want something different, not something I can have any day of the week back home. It’s the same with beer. Why would I want a pint of British beer or lager when I can have something different? Of course, all the major brands of beer can now be found all over the world. My local pub has San Miguel on draft! The fact is that the whole world is getting smaller and more international by the day. Not so long ago my cousin was in New York tweeting he was at a bar drinking a pint of Boddingtons, the definitive Manchester ale!

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Tasty nibbles at Café Berrugo

I do like my food and dining out can be such a wonderful experience. All you need is a great location, great staff and of course, great food. As we’re here in the canary islands it seems fair to step away from UK pub food for a while and experience proper Spanish tapas. Tapas as you may know is Spanish for small plates. Small plates of food that is, so not long after arriving Liz and I went to our ‘local’ café, a place called Café Berrugo. Now at first I wasn’t sure if this place was a real authentic Canarian eating house. Why not? Well, with items like chips, egg and sausage and hot dog and chips on the menu that was something of a giveaway but actually when we come here of an evening, most of the clientele are local Lanzarote people and if you look closely at the menu there is a nice tapas section which a lot of the Brits seem to ignore. Anyway, we knew that tapas is small dishes so we ordered this lot: Garlic mushrooms, Canarian potatoes with mojo sauce, garlic prawns, Canarian boar with peppers and onions and a portion of, well I am a Brit after all, a portion of chips. (That’s fries if you are reading this in the US.)

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Garlic mushrooms and bread.

Now the thing is, at this cheap and cheerful café the portions are pretty big so we ended up fairly stuffed after that veritable feast but we managed to scoff it all and wash it down with a nice bottle of Spanish red and the excellent staff offered us a nice free liquor to finish off.

Another night we decided to go up market to the Blue Note bar and restaurant and once again we went for the tapas. I only ordered five as part of the five for twelve euros deal and decided to have two as starters and three as a main meal. Now the thing was that here at the posh end of the marina, tapas clearly does mean small plates, or perhaps tiny plates would have been a better description. The chorizo sausages were nice but as there were only three small sausages I didn’t quite get to gauge the flavour. Same with the meatballs, there were only three of them. Anyway, it was all very lovely with nice staff and a picturesque setting by the marina with a small jazz trio playing away. I recommend it highly, unless you happen to be really hungry!

IMGA0279

Canarian potatoes with mojo sauce and a plate of serrano ham.

So after that little bit of research it seems that tapas do not come in a standard size. If you ever visit Lanzarote and happen to be staying near the Marina Rubicon at Playa Blanca remember this; if you’re not too hungry then have your tapas in the posh restaurants by the marina but if you are feeling even a little ravenous, go down to Café Berrugo!

 

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When Good Service Makes Your Meal.

I do love my food as anyone will tell you. And I do love dining out. The food is important of course but just as important is the service and I do hate bad service.

Not so long ago Liz and I were in a local pub and I noticed that on the next table there were a couple finishing off their meals. One meal was half eaten; the other looked to be almost untouched. What was wrong with it I wanted to say? Had any staff member been over to ask if it was OK? If so, what did the two diners say? I think we, the English, tend not to like to complain. I’ve had poor meals and eaten more of it than I wanted just because I didn’t want to leave a half full plate. Even so, the meal I mentioned above was hardly touched. Why hadn’t the staff done something? Most pubs these days have someone who comes round and asks ’is everything ok with your meal?’ The thing is, a lot of those people are not prepared or trained when the answer is ‘well it wasn’t very warm’ or ‘the steak was overdone’ or ‘the chips are cold.’ In Wetherspoons not long ago we were asked just that question, was our meal OK? Liz replied that her steak was cold and the waiter just said ‘sorry’ and went away. Was he doing something about the food? Evidently not as he never returned! Why ask about the state of the food if you are not prepared to do something about it? These days I just won’t stand for bad food or service. Complain! We British should complain more. We owe it to the subsequent customers to complain so that the pub or bar or restaurant will get it right.

One little bit of advice I will give is if that if you want a decent meal and decent service, go for a restaurant rather than a pub. No matter what anyone may tell you, a pub is all about drinks, and food is just secondary. A restaurant on the other hand is all about food and it seems to me that staff in a restaurant know more about service than staff in a pub who are used to standing behind a bar. OK, there’s the cost factor, but when you add it up I believe a restaurant is better value in the long run.

Anyway, enough about bad food; I’d much rather talk about good food. One of my favourite meals ever was at a restaurant in France. I can’t tell you the name of it but it is on a winding road coming out of Calais and heading towards St Omer. My starter was celery soup and Liz had the pate; simple French country food. A pichet of red wine and jug of water appeared. An empty bowl and spoon came and sadly I looked down at the rather small bowl that had arrived. The pate came with a huge basket of fresh French bread and a healthy portion of home-made pate with side salad. The waiter soon arrived with a large tureen of soup with a ladle and as I waited for him to dish me out a small portion, he just put the tureen on the table and left. Needless to say, Liz and I had several bowls of that wonderful soup each. It was lovely and the pate was tasty and just perfect with a small salad and French bread.

My next course was a ham and cheese omelette, the lightest, fluffiest omelette. Delicieux! Even the fish that Liz had was nice and I am not a fish lover. Pity I was driving that day as I could have sat there and consumed another pichet of wine as we enjoyed our cheese board.

Just to finish with I’d like to say a few words about my favourite restaurant. It’s the Ego restaurant in Lytham. The food is always good; I’d say it alternates between good and very good and on the rare occasion it isn’t that good, maybe the steak is overcooked or the salad comes with a dressing that we didn’t want, there are no arguments. It’s not like some places where we hear the excuses, sorry, we didn’t get a delivery of that today or the oven’s not working properly or the chef’s not feeling well or something. The staff just whisk the meal away and come back with a new one or with the missing item replaced. The staff in Ego are really exceptional and as we’ve been going there for a while we’ve got to know the staff and they’ve got to know us. They know without us saying that we don’t care for the anchovies on the Spanish sharing board and they always replace them with something we prefer, like the chorizo in red wine and garlic. I have to say hats off to Jay, Tony, Paul, John, Christian, Natasha, Camilla and Sandra, not forgetting the chefs, Ben, who makes a superb Spanish sharing board and Adam who rustles up our main courses; they certainly know how to look after us and as long as they do, we’ll keep coming back for more!


If you enjoyed this post, why not try my book, Floating in Space, set in Manchester, 1977?