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.