The aptly named St Bonnet le Froid, just half an hour’s drive from here, but located on the high plateau where the icy burle can whip up impassible snow drifts in no time, is home to our closest Michelin 3 star restaurant. Friends of ours remember an unpretentious auberge in the middle of the village, where la Mère Marcon served straightforward traditional meals which were spectacularly good. Having learned his craft in his mother’s kitchen, her son Régis took over the running of the Auberge des Cîmes in 1979, the start of a journey which would lead to a world renowned resort, with several eateries, a cooking school and a three star restaurant.
The restaurant is definitely out of our price range, but we have been known to treat ourselves, for Markus’s wintry birthday, to a package which includes a full day at the spa and lunch in the bistro where the cuisine is impeccable – inventive without being over complicated. Everything tastes even more of itself than you would expect and the combinations are subtle and inspired. The spa has a magnificent view over the upper Doux valley and we have been lucky enough to bask in the outdoor warm pool whilst snow drifted down, blanketing the pastures and settling romantically in the pine forest.
Régis Marcon was literally taught by his mother, but in the world of French gastronomy the honorary title of Mère is given to the exceptionally talented female cooks, many without formal training, who transformed Lyon into the gastronomic centre of France. A tradition dating back to the 18thC saw women running their own no nonsense restaurants and gaining a reputation for a particular dish and a convivial atmosphere. By the mid 1800s there were half a dozen or more such establishments often specialising in a single, or just a few dishes, frequently featuring freshwater fish, eels or seafood cooked in imaginative ways.
The interwar years were the heyday of these restaurants when many domestic cooks lost their positions in wealthy families as a result of the economic downturn. Meanwhile motor tourism was all the rage amongst the still wealthy élites, who stopped in Lyon en route to the fashionable Côte d’Azur. Out of the dozen or so of these celebrated women chefs, Mère Brazier is the most famous. In 1922, aged 26, she opened her first restaurant, a tiny place with just 15 covers, which became a favourite with the mayor of Lyon, political figures and other worthies. Ten years later, having enlarged it, she handed over the business to her son, herself opening another restaurant in a nearby village.
Within two years both establishments had been awarded three Michelin stars, making her the first restaurateur ever to hold six stars – a distinction only equalled 64 years later by Alain Ducasse. She is considered to be the mother of modern French cuisine and trained some of the most revered French chefs, including Paul Bocuse. The Lyon restaurant still exists, and although Eugénie Brazier’s grand daughter Jacotte sold it in 2008, the traditions are still very much respected.
The kind of Lyonnais cuisine that is served up in the bouchons of the old town is rather heavy on the pork products (and to my personal taste somewhat too heavy altogether), but the great dishes which made the reputation of the Mères are delicate, painstaking preparations such as pike quenelles, gratin of cardoons, artichoke hearts stuffed with foie gras, floating islands with pink pralines, turban of sole with carmelite sauce (a fantastically complicated dish to prepare properly) and the famous Bresse chicken ‘in half mourning’, which was poached, after having slices of truffle slipped under its pale skin.
Back to the present, and restaurants, from the most sacred temples of French gastronomy to the humblest cafés are suffering badly. Required to close on 30th October for the second time in a year, there is no prospect of them opening until mid February at the earliest, so those that can have been organising take away services – not easy in our very rural area. For les fêtes de fin d’année Marcon teamed up with two other Ardèche restaurants, each with two Michelin stars, to offer a “Seven star festive menu” for click and collect, with each chef creating a course. For the occasion they shared their ultra secret recipes, each of them swearing to respect his colleague’s instructions scrupulously. I’m sure that they will forgive me for reproducing the menu here.
(You may well be wondering ‘what about dessert?’ Each chef was allowed to add his own personal touch in the matter of dessert).
It is clear that the French take their food seriously and, as I have remarked before, are a little suspicious of innovation and fusion cuisine. This does not mean to say, unfortunately, that they are not perfectly prepared to eat industrially produced rubbish – what they have done to pizza is a national disgrace – but they always recognise excellence when it turns up on the plate.
There could hardly be a better illustration of my point than the festive menus provided by the Meals on Wheels service which delivers to Roger our neighbour a couple of times a week. Until 2018 the meals were produced in a restaurant in St Victor but when their contract ended a brilliant new initiative was set up. Based in the renovated kitchens of the former convent in St Félicien, La Cuisine Ardéchoise is the only one of its kind. With just two cooks, assisted by delivery drivers and logistical staff, they provide freshly cooked meals to a very wide area (31,000 meals a month when they first started and I believe many more now). Wherever possible they use local suppliers and Roger says that the quality has improved tremendously since the change. In fact you can tell that just by looking at him: previously a very picky eater – no cheese, no tomatoes, no pastries – he has become much more adventurous and the more balanced diet is obviously doing him good.
So here is what they dreamed up for the festive season: Christmas dinner was very traditional – pâté en croûte Richelieu – a superior variant of the classic, having a layer of duck or goose liver mousse running through the centre. You don’t mess with pâté en croûte, as the charcutier in a tiny local village announced, on winning a medal in a national competition: “Le pâté en croûte est un article qui ne supporte pas la médiocrité!”
The main course was capon, once the traditional Christmas bird, supplanted by turkey, but lately coming back into fashion. This was accompanied by a gratin of cardoons.
Three or four plants of these unlikely looking thistly things are to be seen in all the rural kitchen gardens, bound up in old fertiliser bags to blanch them ready for Christmas. They are a bit of a fiddle to prepare but have a delicious and subtle nutty flavour, reminiscent of their cousin the artichoke and are as we have seen, a classic of la cuisine lyonnaise. Then came a slice of bûche de Noel, (of which, in my opinion, the less said the better!)
New Year dinners are traditionally the time to get together with friends after the strictly family celebrations of Christmas and menus are usually a bit more sophisticated. For Roger it was lobster, boar stew and floating islands for dessert. Even though he, like the rest of us, was subject to an 8pm curfew and despite everything that has hit us in 2020, it’s encouraging to see that the French are holding on to their respect for gastronomy and tradition as beacons in a stormy sea. And hats off to the Cuisine Ardéchoise and its Meals on Wheels service!
Photo credits: foodandsens, e molto goloso and archives of the restaurant la Mère Brazier