In a stunning location overlooking the harbour in St Martin, the Bistrot du Marin is the sort of place I love. No printed menu, just what was on the blackboards. We’d already had the Cote de Boeuf recommended, and this is an amazing dish for two. Coming out with a stack of chips, a blue cheese and a mustard sauce, this is how a rib of beef should be cooked.
Sadly, we didn’t do it complete justice, sending a few slices back, but it was fantastic. Follow it with a walk round St Martin and then an ice cream. You don’t need to know the name of the shop, you can’t miss it. Indeed you won’t want brain space occupied with the name, as there are so many flavours to work through, translate and then decide upon. I didn’t see many people order the Oyster and Caviar ice cream, but who knows? Someone would love it!
It was, all in all, a perfect location for a birthday lunch, with perfect weather. The only thing that would have made it even more perfect would have been to have stayed overnight and start all over again the next day!
I love La Rochelle, and would happily spend my days here (note to the housesitters, yes, we will be home. Unless we win the lottery).
It has everything you could want, especially if you want good food. You can do everything from fine, Michelin star dining through to just a quick coffee, but it’s all here, and in great surroundings.
My starting point would be a morning coffee, really anywhere overlooking Vieux Port. You could push the boat out and have a croissant too, but you won’t get hurried away regardless of what you have. I would then make my way up to the market. It’s on every morning, and to me it’s what you want every food market to be like. Full of colour, and characters, the best produce of the local area, and you really are spoilt for choice. Get there early, and you’ll be rewarded with the best of the days catch, great fruit and veg, and then inside for the rest of your lunch.
You begin to understand the huge variety of French cheese when you stand in front of one of the counters here and know that this is just from one small part of one region. As long as you’re not dairy intolerant, you will be spoilt for choice. You can move through the various charcuterie products, and fabulous cuts of meat, mainly from local animals. I’ve already described my love of the foie gras pate with preserved figs from one of the producers, but there are all kinds of other pates on offer, of every conceivable combination.
It must surely be heading towards lunchtime by now. I would say you had two choices really: seafood or the best of French high cuisine. For seafood, then Andres is an institution, and is possibly worth the visit at least once. I’ve had a great lunch in there, and I’ve had terribly rude service as well, so I’ve probably done my one visit for this lifetime. For myself, I would go to A Cote de Chez Fred on Rue St Nicholas. Lovely people, great atmosphere, and fabulous fish and seafood.
For fine dining, then one family dominate the town. The name of Coutanceau is over the door of not one but six places at the time of writing and is sure to expand. The original now bears the name of father and son, Richard and Christopher Coutanceau, and has an enviable position overlooking the town beach. This is two star Michelin dining, and deserves the stars. Needless to say, you need to book in advance!
You may get luckier with a walk in at my favourite, Le Comptoir Des Voyages, run by the eldest of the two brothers. This is a more eclectic approach to eating, particularly unusual for France, with influences from around the world. Also unusually for France the wine list is dominated by non French wines.
I’d enjoy lunch, then maybe take a walk around the aquarium, or walk the walls to work some of it off. You could also go to the small but interesting perfume bottle museum. Obviously put together by real fragrance afficionados and lovers, it will only take you about 15 minutes, but will cover fragrances you’ve never heard of, as well as those you have long forgotten.
All of this is really activity to make sure that I have room for a scoop or two at Ernest, glacier par excellence in my book. If you love ice cream, or possibly only like it a little, this is a must visit, to see just how far you can stretch ice cream from plain vanilla. I’ve not been yet this year to see what is new, but last year I had turkish delight, that was delicate beyond belief, but not dull, or too subtle, with a plain chocolate laced with cracknel and pink peppercorns. A seriously sophisticated taste that I have hankered after ever since.
After that, I’d probably pop into La Belle Iloise from some tinned fish, and go home. Otherwise the temptation would be another coffee, a pre dinner aperitif, and to move onto dinner. Which is no bad thing now!
If you need to get there, then Easyjet and FlyBe fly in from the UK. I’ve always been staying in a gite outside of the town, but for perfect location I would stay at The Yachtman – everything on your doorstep and it has it’s own outdoor pool. It’s also just round the corner from Chez Fred.
Go and discover this beautiful part of France, even for the weekend. You will come back euros lighter, pounds heavier but stress lightened!
This week’s Saturday Session is a foodie approach to a BBQ that may amaze your friends. It may also test your patience quite considerably, as it’s all in the prep!
Now you might not think barbecued mussels sounds that exciting, but we were treated to them the other night, and this is not just a case of chucking a few on the barbie!
First, you need to have a piece of well seasoned wood that’s been through the fire a few times. Then the patience to assemble your fresh mussels on the wood, pointed end up. This may be a great dish to do for a few people, as catering en masse will take significant effort!
Now choose your combustible material. We had two selections: vine cuttings and pine needles. The difference was subtle but noticeable in the finished dish. Cover your mussels completely.
The high tech came next, as the material is set alight with a blow torch. This is most definitely not a moment for using fire lighters!
After about 5 minutes, the edges of the wood seemed to get damped down in order to generate some steam, and the ash was fanned off the mussels. And that was pretty much it. The usual rules apply, only eating the ones that are open, and enjoy! It went down pretty well around the table, and was certainly an experience to remember.
Should you not wish to try this at home, then you’ll need to give the owners at Les Salines de Brouage 48 hours notice, and they’ll do this for you. Not to mention the most wonderfully fresh seafood platters. They’re not a restaurant as such, but they grow oysters, and every other kind of seafood is on their doorstep. Definitely not fine dining but most definitely fine eating.
Before you read this, you might want to mix yourself a drink:
Put a piece of lime zest and four thin strips of fresh ginger into a glass. Pour in 2cl of Cognac VSOP. Press lightly 2 to 3 times with the aid of a drumstick (I think my translation may leave something to be desired here, for those with better skills than the dictionary, the word was un pilon).
Half fill the glass with ice cubes, stir for 5 seconds with a spoon. Add another 2cl of Cognac. Add 6cl of lemonade and a piece of cucumber peel. Stir for 5 seconds and serve straightaway.
Now, I am not sure if that is a good use of Cognac or not, but it is the drink of the season from the Cognac trade association! And what an association it is, with some of the most famous names in the spirits trade involved! If you want to give the foodie in your life a trip to remember, without breaking the bank, then I suggest a long weekend in Cognac and working your way round a few of the houses.
Within easy reach from the UK with a number of the cheap airlines, you can fly into La Rochelle or Bordeaux and be in Cognac in a couple of hours if you rent a car. You can almost smell the Cognac in the air as soon as you arrive. As with whisky, they refer to the amount they lose into the atmosphere as the angels’ share.
My favourite tour, particularly with children, is Hennessy, if only because it involves a short boat trip from their modern looking HQ on the town side of the river to the warehouses on the other. There are tours in English, and you will need to book in advance. There are amazing barrels of Cognac from centuries and centuries ago, which you can only imagine how valuable they are, or what the flavours will be like.
Of course, the foodie will be interested in the whole process from start to finish, and also the many evolutions of design of bottles. The good news is there is a tasting at the end of it all! For the nominated driver, there is grape juice, for everyone else there is Cognac of varying qualities, depending on how expensive you wanted to make your trip. The basic trip ticket involves a very acceptable Cognac (this is Hennessy after all) but you can upgrade to something you may never get to buy a bottle of.
But don’t just go and do the visit and leave, as the town itself is glorious. If you fancy an overnight stay, then I would recommend the Hotel Heritage, and even if you’re not staying for the night then I would go for lunch. When the weather is great, then you sit outside on a very pretty courtyard, covered with wisteria, and needless to say have a very relaxed lunch. For little foodies, there is a children’s menu, but don’t go expecting the regular jambon frites option, more likely to be steak and chips.
The rooms are charming, warm and cosy, in feel rather than overbearing temperature, and the bar has a great choice of all drinks, not just Cognac. But as with most drinks, and food, there is something to be said about drinking Cognac in the town of which it bears the name, and generally just enjoying the whole atmosphere.
Cognac makes a great base for exploring the area, or just for a getaway with a difference. If you are flying back through La Rochelle, try and make time to visit the market, which is open every day except Sunday. It is exactly the kind of French food market every foodie dreams of, and is definitely worth the detour.