One man's culinary journey at Le Tour.
Words: Lionel Birnie The Tour de France is about much more than the cycling. The event shows off the best the country has to offer – the countryside, the châteaux and, of course, its food and wine. So, this year, I shall document each day's meals, from Liège to Paris, from petit déjeuner to dîner. Welcome to Le Gourmet de France. Scroll down to see the journey unfold.
How the categories work Hors categorie – outstanding, perhaps not quite Michelin star standard but as good as you'll get on the Tour 1st category – a very good meal, enough to let out a deeply satisfied 'aaaah' 2nd category – good stuff 3rd category – filled a gap adequately enough but lacking that je ne sais quoi 4th category – better than missing a meal, but not by much Intermediate sprint – Er, let's hope it doesn't cause an intermediate sprint to the toilet in the night
And so, that brings our Gourmet de France journey to an end. We experienced the good, the bad and the downright ugly that France has to offer but when it comes to the Tour, you have days when you'd be able to sleep upside down in a dustbin if that was the only option.
There were no missed dinners. We didn't even have to eat petrol station sandwiches for lunch too often. The press room buffets ranged from Sky to Argos-Shimano and everything in between.
To the prizes, then. The maillot jaune for best hotel goes to the Château de Hodbomont in Theux near Liège. We were fortunate enough to spend five nights there are the start of the Tour. That was closely followed by the Auberge de Haut Chenas.
The polka-dot knife and fork for finest meal goes to the hors categorie Clos de la Prairie in Gouy St André.
There were some stinkers too, but you'll have to scroll to the bottom to see our journey unfolded.
Sunday 22nd: Parisian pavement café (lunch)
Having spent two weeks craving a simple omelette and chips, nothing was going to stop me on the final day of the Tour. Unfortunately it was not a good example. A great omelette should be gooey in the middle and cheesy. This was bland, dry and came at a Parisian premium price.
Rating: 4th category
Brit Hotel, Epernon
Our final hotel of the Tour was the aptly-named Brit Hotel in Epernon. Although the arrangement of the floors and bedrooms around an open central area made it look like HM Slade prison fitted out by Ikea, it was actually a perfectly decent place to spend the night.
Saturday 21st: Hotel Novotel, Chartres
After the time trial, we had a late dinner at the Novotel. After a tomato and mozzarella salad came a piece of duck that was nicely cooked but, on reflection, was probably not the thing to eat at 10.30pm.
Our penultimate hotel of the Tour was an Ibis. To be fair, we did well to get through the whole thing with only one Campanile and one Ibis. Chain hotels really do take their toll. One year I spent a week travelling from Ibis to Ibis and by the end of it, I had memorised the play list that pipes out into reception and I was more familiar than is healthy with the array of things they provide for breakfast.
Saxo Bank were staying there too. When I checked in I was given a smoking room, which really was not pleasant. I managed to swap and can only hope they didn't put one of the riders in there instead.
Friday 20th: La Vielle Maison, Chartres
We stayed in Chartres last October when we travelled over to interview newly-crowned world champion Mark Cavendish for this feature: Cavendish: Centre of attention. After persuading him to pose for a potentially hazardous photoshoot, we lucked out by stumbling across a terrific little restaurant in the centre of town.
Ed was particularly keen to go back, so we did and we were rewarded with a meal that pushes into contention for best of the Tour. It was certainly hors categorie but we're not convinced it was better than the Clos de la Prairie in week one.
After three delicious courses, all was going swimmingly until we decided to opt for a digestif – in this case a Calvados. It came in a fish bowl.
Rating: hors categorie
Hotel de France, Toulouse
Decent enough for a night, although a nightmare to get to because of a one-way system the sat-nav did not recognise. Very warm rooms, noisy street in bustling quarter of town but so tired neither mattered.
Thursday 19th: Restaurant Emile, Toulouse (dinner)
At last, Cassoulet Night. It was a fraught drive through the one-way system in Toulouse, and a late dinner (past 10pm, which is pushing it if you want to avoid cassoulet-related sleep issues) but Restaurant Emile served us a fine example of the region's speciality, washed down with a hearty red. It's amazing that a deep, rich red wine can feel almost refreshing when paired with the salty combination of Toulouse sausage, pork, duck and beans in garlicky sauce.
Rating: 1st category
Hotel No. 15
Royal Hotel, Bagnères-de-Luchon
We feared the worst, partly because the Royal Hotel did not have a website. What we got was one of the most pleasing hotels of the Tour and, almost certainly, the best value place. The Royal Hotel was quite old-fashioned – like places in English seaside towns that have seen better days but have at least held on to their dignity and pride. The couple running it were quite elderly but we have not encountered nicer people all Tour. They were incredibly friendly.
The room was quite basic, but it was spotless and looked out over the charming square in Luchon. There was the other bonus that the start village for stage 17 was right outside the door.
When it came to pay, it felt almost criminal to give them only €47 for bed and breakfast. It's on our list the next time the Tour is in Luchon.
Wednesday 18th: Les Caprices d'Etigny, Luchon (dinner)
We were having a beer with Eurosport's commentary team Dave Harmon and Sean Kelly when Phil Griffiths bowled over and invited everyone within earshot to dinner. Griffiths was one of the ANC-Halfords team managers when they rode the Tour in 1987. These days he imports Pinarello bikes (which probably accounts for the permanent smile). He also owns an appartment in Luchon, overlooking the lovely town square and the thermal spa, flanked by stunning mountains. We were very grateful for his invitation and had a fine evening. Among the other diners were Malcolm Elliott, Adrian Timmis and Graham Jones, with the BBC Five Live commentary team.
Rating: 2nd category.
Tuesday 17th: Some anonymous restaurant in Pau
It was getting late when we arrived at the restaurant for dinner. Avoiding anything too heavy, I went for the tuna carpaccio with pea and broad bean salad inside. It was fresh enough and reasonably tasty but it took a long time to arrive.
Rating: 3rd category.
Tuesday 17th: Garmin burrito party (lunch)
We can't let the Gourmet de France pass without mentioning Garmin's burrito and margarita party. The burritos were excellent – just what the doctor ordered after a fortnight or so eating stuff cooked in goose and duck fat. Packed with chicken, rice, beans and guacamole, they were a real treat.
What was amusing was that as everyone chatted and mingled at the burrito party, the Sky press conference was being set up next door. Four rows of chairs placed in the scorching sunshine for journalists – it reminded me of a French Foreign Legion endurance test.
Monday 16th: Hotel de France (Moorlàas)
Monsieur's eccentricities extended to his catering. Having scoped out the village for an alternative, we reluctantly settled for eating in the hotel's bar, which was a bit grubby. The cutlery handles were peeling, which was off-putting too. But fair play to monsieur, he served with a joke and smile.
The starter was basically A Plate of Things. A slice of quiche, a huge hunk of salami, some ham, vegetrables and salad and a pack of butter plonked on the top. Presumably this was to go on the bread, rather than a strange garnish.
The main course was pitched as volaille et frites, which monsieur translated as 'bird and chips'. What we got was some kind of chicken slab with chips. It filled a gap.
Rating: 4th category. Just about avoiding an intermediate sprint to the toilet.
Hotel de France, Morlàas
How can I put this? Morlàas, far from being a pretty, vibrant little village a short drive from Pau was, as described by one of our party, the Village of the Damned. Arriving late in the evening, nothing was open. Some kids were hanging out in the town square revving the engines on a couple of mopeds. Most of the shops looked as if they'd closed down. There was not even a restaurant.
Our hotel was owned by an eccentric fella who appeared to have settled for his lot sometime in the mid-1980s. He was very friendly but his hotel was badly in the need of a clean and refurb. The toilet bowl in my room filled up to the brim with each flush, which made me do an involuntarily panicked leap backwards in case it flowed over.
Most French hotels have finally ditched the uncomfortable sausage-shaped bolster in favour of pillows, but not this place.
The place even had a Hammer House of Horror creaking-door sound effect.
Hotel La Tour de Loup, La Bastide-de-Sérou
After the disappointment of missing out on cassoulet, we needed a decent hotel.
We were, once again, disappointed.
Here's the thing: You book online, giving your credit card details. You arrive at 11pm, pretty keen to check in quickly and get some shut-eye.
So why, in those circumstances, does madame and monsieur insist on going through the whole rigamarole of taking payment there and then, delaying bed time by 20 irritating minutes?
Maybe they thought we were going to do a runner, but even if we did, they could contact the booking agency we made the reservation with and recover all their money. I just don't get it. The customer comes second.
Anyway, it was a pretty basic hotel, although the bedroom was decent enough. It seemed like it was delivered on a lorry from an out-of-town furniture warehouse.
Breakfast was a let-down. The coffee was cold and this deep into the Tour, a cold cup of coffee really can get the day off to a rubbish start.
Sunday 15th: Foix (dinner)
Disaster struck. The Best Cassoulet Restaurant in Foix no longer does cassoulet.
We found this out as we sat down on Sunday night. My eyes scanned the menu in panic. I thought there must've been a mistake. No, it's definitely not there. Perhaps it will be on the specials board? No.
Missing out on cassoulet in Foix is a bit like waiting for the big mountain stage and then finding all the cols have been closed by freak weather. It's just not the same.
So, we chose the trio des viandes – three meats, steak, sausage and veal. But there were no beans, no duck or goose.
After all that meat, I had a taste for something sweet. Egged on by the waiter, Ed and I ordered the choux XXL, which turned out to be a lump of rich vanilla ice cream the size of Samuel Dumoulin's head, topped with a choux pastry bun, a rich chocolate sauce and almonds. We were told only four people have ever finished two of them. I failed to complete even one, although Ed was successful. Whether he enjoyed the twisty drive to the hotel after dinner is up for debate.
Rating: 2nd category. Not quite good enough to overcome the cassoulet disappointment. Still, there's always Toulouse.
Saturday 14th: Hotel Résidence, Nissan-lez-Enserune (dinner)
The restaurant at the hotel was terrific. Ed and Richard put shirts with collars on specially and pointed out that I was the scruffiest person by quite some way, which was nice of them.
The starter was carpaccio of beef with little dots of foie gras sprinkled over the top.
We all chose the fillets of red mullet for the main course until Monsieur returned to say there were only two portions left.
So, being the Richie Porte to Ed and Richard's Wiggins and Froome, I stepped down and looked at the menu again, opting for the pork cutlet.
I was rewarded with a theatrical dish that was presented and then dramatically revealed. The pork had been slow roasted and then placed on the plate with a pot of burning rosemary, then covered so that the smokey aroma infused everything.
The picture probably doesn't convey how delicious it was.
Rating: 1st category. The second-best meal of the Tour so far came just as we are about to enter cassoulet region.
Hotel No. 12
Hotel Résidence, Nissan-lez-Enserune
Nissan-lez-Enserune is an attractive little village with very narrow streets and, because it was Bastille Day, it had a bustling character. The hotel, part of the Logis de France organisation combined the charm of an old building with great modern rooms. A real gem.
Friday 13th: Restaurant Jean Jaures, Bourg-les-Valence
Time was ticking on, we knew we weren't going to reach our hotel in time for dinner, so we stopped on route. Remind me not to go to Bourg-les-Valence again. It wasn't as bad as Lure where we stayed a week ago – that really did resemble an economic downturn theme park – but it wasn't much better. However, we were grateful to find a restaurant open at such a late hour. Madame was very friendly although she steered us into having a chicken and mushroom stewy-type-thing with rice and ratatouille rather than allowing us to pick from the menu. Far enough, it was late. The downside was that there was a very large gentleman sitting at the bar who was showing enough bum crack for an entire building site. It wasn't pleasant.
Rating: 4th category.
Le Puy de Sirenes, Puygiron
The Friday night before Bastille Day and half of France is driving south. We left Annonay after the stage finish and got stuck in a big traffic jam, then another big traffic jam. All three lanes of the autoroute were clogged at 10.45pm. We arrived at our hotel in the charming village of Puygiron, not far from Montelimar (nougat country, for those who like nougat) at 11.30pm. We had to get up before 7am the next morning to get on the road because the Tour organisers recommended all Tour traffic drive on the route, ahead of the publicity caravan, to avoid more jams on the motorways.
So, the hotel was perfectly acceptable although but as we left a good hour before they started serving breakfast we didn't exactly make the most of it. Ed drew the short straw and slept on a blow-up mattress because we only had two rooms between three and you have to draw the line somewhere.
Thursday 12th: Les Ailles (dinner)
The starter was eggs, with mayonnaise, which in anyone's language is eggs served with egg sauce. I was impressed with how they cut the eggs but couldn't help thinking it needed a bit more greenery.
To celebrate the latest news from USADA, I opted for the Jambon Tex-Mex, which featured well-done ham. I forgot to photograph it until I'd nearly finished, so here's what I had for lunch to compensate – pork fillet with tinned peas and carrots. It was nicer than it sounds.
A rare foray into the sweet world of desserts: I went for the chocolate mousse, which I photographed to the right of the frame like what a proper photographer would do, to make it look better than it was.
Wednesday 11th: Les Ailles (dinner)
When in the Alps, whatever you eat is slathered in melted Savoyarde cheese. It's the law. I opted for the local speciality, which was basically melted cheese, potatoes and pieces of ham on toasted bread, like a big cheese pizza. Did I mention the cheese? Ed reckons he had cheese dreams, which made me glad I was on the top bunk (see below).
Les Ailles, Challes-les-Eaux
If you ignore the fact that our hotel was on a busy main road between Chambéry and Challes-les-Eaux it was a very decent base for a couple of nights. The mountainous backdrop made up for the fact the car park was a building site and the road was noisy. The people who ran it was so friendly, which goes a long way to make up for any down sides. Three of us had to share one large room, so I made sure I bagged the top bunk and put my ear plugs in. I won't say which one of them was snoring.
Tuesday 10th: Auberge du Haut Chénas again
Our second night at the auberge meant I had to go for the coq au vin. The other options didn't excite me. Andouillette of any description gives me the shivvers. It's basically a pungent sausage with the texture of rubber bands packed tightly inside a verruca sock, not that I've eaten rubber bands in a verruca sock. The fish stew was made with river fish, which I don't particularly like. Fortunately, in this region they just love cooking their meats in wine. So I went for the chicken in wine. The picture doesn't do it justice. The sauce was delicious, although they looked at me strangely when I asked if they served it in pints.
We were also treated to a dégustation – a wine tasting – from the wines made in the village. The improved in quality from right to left. The favourite was the fifth from the right, the Chénas Séléne 2009 we'd had the previous evening.
Category: 1st category again. Great consistency from the auberge. And consistency is what wins you Grand Gourmet Tours.
Monday 9th: Auberge du Haut Chénas
Madame at the hotel agreed to keep the kitchen open so we could have a meal after the drive from Besançon, which was fortunate because otherwise we'd have been eating L'Equipe. The menu only had the choice of four starters, mains and a couple of desserts but in my experience that's often a good thing. I went for beef bourguignon. The local wine, Chénas Séléne 2009 was excellent.
Category: 1st category. Great regional cookery.
Auberge du Haut Chénas
Our rest day refuge was a little spot on the hill above Chénas, right in the middle of beaujolais country. For miles around all you can see are vineyards. The auberge was a lovely little place too.
Sunday 8th: Le Grill du Trappeur, Besançon (dinner)
Having arrived late at our lodgings, the BB Hotel on the outskirts of town, we were relieved to find that after an Alan Partridge-style walk across the dual carriageway, Le Grill du Trappeur was still serving dinner.
Sadly, there's no photo of the BB Hotel but if you've ever built a house out of Lego you'll have a good idea of what it looked like. Compared to the previous evening, it felt like the Ritz.
With the mountains on the horizon it seemed like an appropriate time to dive into tartiflette, a rich pot of layered potato and strong Morbier cheese accompanied by an array of cold meats.
Rating: 4th category. Bog-standard and quite greasy. I was also very suspicious it was left sitting around and then blasted in the microwave because there was the odd disconcertingly cold spot. Mind you, they served us at 9.45pm so that was something.
Saturday 7th: Le Sirocca, Lure (dinner)
There was not an abundance of smart-looking eateries in Lure. There was a bar called Bar Le Relax where a ZZ Top video was playing on a big screen and a group of men who looked like ZZ Top fans were drinking outside.
We eventually settled on Le Sirocca, a Moroccan place and ordered the cous-cous with various meats – chicken, lamb and merguez sausage with a pot of vegetables. It was pretty decent but my mood was hampered by the thought of spending the night sleeping inside a Benson & Hedges packet (see below).
Hotel No.7 La Luron, Lure
First the positives. The hotel was in Lure, a very short drive from the press room. There's not a glut of rooms in the area so Ed did well to find anywhere. I drew the shortest straw because I had a smoking room. The giveaways were the fact the window was wide open, the curtains were a yellowish brown. Oh, and the smell. It was like walking into a working men's club in 1984. As I've said before, the definition of a non-smoking room in France is that there's not someone smoking in there at the moment.It was not pretty. There were cigarette burns in the sink. I slept with the window wide open, which meant I was woken at 5.30 when heavy rain blew in and gave me a little shower. Still, on the upside, everyone else's rooms were fine so, as Dave Brailsford would say, it's only one night, we take the positives and we move on. To give you an indication of the decor, here's what's on the wall in the breakfast room. I had to stifle a scream.
I forgot to take a photo of Hotel No.6 which was Les Messines in Metz. It was a perfectly adequate appartment-style place. No frills and right next to a disco but other than that, fine.
Friday 6th: Restaurant Tarterie, Metz (dinner)
It was a warm evening in Metz and after a short trip into the town's main square, gazpacho leapt off the menu because it suggested it would be cool and refreshing. The soup wasn't bad but the fresh tomato edge was taken off by the inclusion of rich goat's cheese.