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Trip to Lyon, the Ardeche, Aveyron, Cantal


Bux
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Welcome back to all those who have been suffering withdrawal symptoms as I have for the past few days. I hope no one's been able to kick the habit and that the discussion will be as lively as ever quite soon. I'd like to think Jason Perlow and Steve Shaw for all the work they've done so far and for all the time they have spent and will spend getting everything in order once more.

As eager as I am to get back to talking about eating in France, I'm glad to say I'm off for a short two weeks in Lyon and the départments of  the Ardeche, Aveyron, Cantal and Haute Loire. I'm leaving on Friday. If anyone has any suggestions for Lyon or that region to the southwest of Lyon, we're open to last minute suggestions. We have dinners and overnights planned in Belcastel (le Vieux Pont), Laguiole (Bras) and St. Bonnet le Froid (Auberge des Cimes) as well as some commitments in Lyon.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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No plans to do wine tasting, except at meals. As I look at the route my wife has planned, I see we head up into the mountains and away from the Rhone as soon as we leave Lyon, although an alternate (and easier) route would take us down to Tournon and then west.

I'm a little leery that we won't see Bras at his best as we're going there the week he opens for the season. The same goes for Marcon in St. Bonnet-le-Froid. Even our favorite little place in Belcastel just opened for the season in the middle of March. I've been fixated about getting to Bras since we decided not to go there late last September and to go to Lille and Brussels in November instead. Maybe we're just as well off as we had surprisingly good weather, if a bit chilly, in November and might have well cancelled a trip for late September after the 11th.

I can't believe Bras would open without being ready to serve his ultimate meal. On the other hand, we were at Michel Guerard the week before he closed for the season a few years ago and felt things had been scaled back. Not all the dining rooms were open and I seem to recall an abbreviated menu. Mid May would have been my preference for this trip, but circumstances dictate that we will be in Lyon at the end of March.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Robert, I'm a committed off-season traveler and there are always pros and cons to doing it that way. Shoulder seasons are complex phenomena but one thing you can almost always say for sure is that opening week is better than closing week. Closing week at a restaurant, hotel, or attraction is usually a disaster. People are exhausted and at the ends of their ropes. Opening week people are fresh. If they are into what they do, which is usually the case at the better establishments, they are gung-ho at that time. So I wouldn't worry.

Steve P., maybe this should go on the wine board, but my experiences tasting wine in France have been mostly non-fantastic. Unless you can make a connection with a winemaker you get shunted in with the tourist masses and they give you dreck and often charge for it and then they pressure you to buy, buy, buy. That's why in general I like to visit developing wine regions. If you show up at a remote vineyard in South Africa or even Oregon, you get treated like visiting royalty. So it's not Burgundy. So what? Do you have tips on how to get the most out of a wine tasting trip to France and if so can you post some probably on the wine board?

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Ellen-You obviously haven't been wine tasting in France with me  :). I assure you I get poured no dreck at all. Not only that, my unique schmoozing abilities (in French that's called "le schmuz") usually get the winemakers to sell me hard to get, unusual bottlings that they are holding back for the second coming of the messiah (their religion not mine, we're still waiting  :D .) But on the trip I took to the Rhone last month, we visited Domaine Cayron, Domaine Soumade Andre Romero, Domaine Aphillanthes, Beaucastel, Pegau, Clos Mont Olivet and Pierre Usseglio and I assure you not only did they pour us their best juice (and we were between 3-6 people,) except for Beaucastel which doesn't sell wine to visitors but where they spent 90 minutes with us tasting through the component parts of the 2001 vintage as well as finished bottlings of recent vintages including the Hommage Jacque Perrin which sells for $250 a bottle, they all sold us their top wines in magnums. And some of them don't even make magnums but took special orders from us for wines still in barrel.

So next time you and that Fat Guy are going to the Rhone, let me know and I will hook you up.

Bux-Shoulder season travel depends on where you are going. It can be better than high season, or it can be a deprssing experience. I remember one year my wife and I planned a trip to France in September that included two weekend nights in Normandy. One in Honfleur and one one in Deauville and they were ghost towns. And this was like the second weekend in September. When they say the season ends September 1, they really mean it.

As for Bras being in full swing, it's going to be a function of how full his restaurant gets this time of year. If people are clammoring to eat there, it will be in gear. But if the dining room is only half full, they could be holding back. At Regis Macon, his big thing is mushrooms. That makes it sound like the optimum time to visit is fall. But I'm hoping that both places are in top form for yoir sake.

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Many of my best trips have been in off or shoulder seasons. It can be a bit eerie siting alone in a restaurant though. Resorts can be particularly strange off season, but there's something I like about being in a beach town on a cold and rainy fall day. I do require that there be at least one good restaurant that serves the locals.

;-)

I guess Marcon won't be serving us any cèpes, but he should have morels at his disposal. I think Ellen's point is good that there's always a certain optimism and spirit at the beginning of any season. It's not like it's the last days of the off season as all of these places are closed for the winter, so there should be some enthusiasm which goes a long way in the hospitality industry. I doubt they'll be holding back. If anything they may be trying things out, but that's exciting and it's not like they're flying by the seat of their pants. Bras is a pro.

Steve, I think you've made an important point about wine tasting in the Rhone. It's not Napa Valley. It's not for tourists. There are plenty of degustation libre signs in the area, if not at the best producers, but all over, it's about selling wine, not offering entertainment. Most of the top places are geared to hosting professionals, and the little producers are hoping to sell a case or two of lesser wines to Parisians and Belgian tourists without a middleman. I've been to the occasional chateau that runs tours as a way of promoting the brand, but often there's no tasting. On the whole, the wine industry in France doesn't seem to have the time for catering to tourists the way it does in California. Things may change. In Rioja, Frank Ghery is designing a winery with guest facilities and restaurant. The winery is specifically hoping to cash in on the tourism attracted by the Guggenheim in Bilbao. It's Spain, not France, but things are changing all the time.

Plotnicki, you're the anti-tourist looking not for the free glass of wine, but trying to buy the wine they don't want to sell. Most Americans in France aren't prepared to buy cases of wine.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Bux-Actually wineries in Bordeaux are set up to cater to tourists like Napa. But wineries in the Rhone, Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire and the Languedoc are set up for what they would call "amateurs des vin." Of the wineries I visited last month, I either faxed them ahead of time or called a few days ahead for an appointment. In every instance the person on the phone wanted to know if I was a proffesional or a "particuliere," if I understood the word correctly. Maybe someone with good knowledge of French wine lingo will correct my spelling. But I assume it means, "special customer," one who tastes before they purchase. But not only are their special bottlings to ferret out of winemakers, but the pricing is usually great. For instance, we ferreted out of one of those producers I mentioned a case of specially engraved magnums for 31 euros a mag. Where the wine costs $22-24 a 750 in the states.

Another good thing about spending a day or two tasting in a region, is that when you get to an important restaurant, you have an easy way to strike up a conversation with the sommelier, and sometimes the chef. It is amazing how different some places treat you as soon as it becomes obvious to them that you know your way around a wine list.

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It's Regis "MaRcon". Bux, I wouldn't worry about going to Michel Bras in early April. I went religiously from 1986-1998 and never had a bad meal. Integrity is his middle name, as they say, and the thought of his not putting out his best would never enter his mind. I am sure he is revving up as we speak and would not make his opening date ahead of when he was satisified with his materials and readiness. I have a hunch it's the same with Regis Marcon, based on my going there several times as well.

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Robert, I suppose worried is far to strong a word. In fact I've been assured by those who have worked in France that the staff will not be arriving the day before they open, but will have been working for some time making stocks and generally getting things ready before opening day.

Steve, I noticed signs in downtown Bordeaux offering tours of wineries, but the impression I had was that the major chateaux were unaproachable by anyone but major players in the industry. I suppose to a similar extent that's true in Napa as well. There are wineries open to the public and those that are not. In any case some are open by appointment and some are open to those with referrals. In many cases there are different levels of hospitality for those who come in off the street and those who make a reservation.

In champagne there is a tourist industry. I also remember in my early days of visiting France, touring the Drouhin cellers in Beaune. It was a publicity thing for them and took no advance notice, but the smaller producers are notoriously hard to enter.  It's really too hard to cover the French wine regions with a blanket statement.

I think it's particulier and I also think that usage means a private individual as opposed to a wine merchant, and doesn't have the connotation of "particular," but I'm not at all fluent or clued in to the nuances of the language.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Bux - in the ellipse that takes you from Lyon down to the delightful Vieux Pont (Belcastel) you have obviously picked the two most highly rated establishments. If you're looking at the more intermediate level to fill in then I've three suggestions. If you end up in Rodez and are in need of lunch (or even dinner) then Gouts et Couleurs covers a range of dining options. Perhaps a bit far to the north La Bergerie at Sarpoil is highly enjoyable and staying at the amazing b&b Château de Pasredon (04 73 71 00 67) is not to be missed. Finally there's a place that's top on our list to visit in the area that we haven't been to - Le Haut-Allier at Alleyras. I've had a couple of strong recommendations.

Don't expect cutting edge cooking at these places, although one or two dishes may well surprise.

For the drive your wife has the right idea - get out of the (dull and industrialised) Rhone valley and into the hills as quickly as possible. Do also take detours onto minor roads, that's the best way to see the countryside (at least form a car).

Although it's been a somewhat mild winter, there is a chance that approching Bras from the east (over the high plateau) could hit some late season snow, so keep an eye on the weather and allow time for a detour.

We'll also be in France over Easter. Except for our last night in Belcastel (Saturday 6th April) we're sticking to the warmer south, starting with Cetet and Les Feuillants.

Have a great time

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Graham, now that you mention it, the weather has been one of my big question marks. I don't expect snow, although I didn't expect it when we ran into snow in April in the Vosges Mountains either. I'm more worried about cold rain, but thanks for the warning. This is an area in which we ran into the worst storm ever in our days in France, but that was in January years ago. The autoroute was reduced to one lane and even that was snow covered. Windshields and wipers were frozen up and visibility was near zero. I had to drive with my head out the window for part of the time. I'm expecting Lyon to be further into spring than NY, but in the mountains it will be another story. Friends have just come back from Margon, which is near Pezenas and they tell us it's spring and that Paris is starting to bud.

For the most part we aren't planning on getting very far each day. It's interesting that we'll miss each other by just two days at Belcastel. What would the odds be of running into each other? This is our third visit. I see that the chef is now listed as Nicole Fagegaltier-Rouquier and joined by her husband Bruno Rouquier in the kitchen. We've never met her. She doesn't seem to do the rounds of the dining room. We've found her sisiter Michèle rather coldly inattentive once and then a short while later all charm and and as hospitable as can be. We must have caught her at a bad moment and later she couldn't do enough to make us comfortable and welcome. Needless to say, our overall memory is of a wonderful stay.

I find Alleyras on the map, but can't find Sarpoil, if that's the name of the town where La Bergerie and Château de Pasredon are. I'm sure we'll pass through  Rodez, but probably not at meal time. There's a pretty good cheese shop in Rodez, if I recall. It's on a square to the north of the cathedral, where there's also a market on some day. Thanks for the information.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Bux - Sarpoil is near Issoire. Type Sarpoil into Michelin web site or try this link. Passredon is 2Km north west from Sarpoil, just to the south of the D999. It's shown as a white square below the spot height "425".

Nicole has been maried for at least five years now. We have talked to Michèle in our best French and, when explaining that our travels took us on to near Montpellier, she explained that she had never been out of the area - something I found quite extraordinary at the time. Have a great trip, we'll compare notes when we return.

Don't worry that Bras will only just have opened. Our only experience of late is that one needs to go easy on the aligot, and sometimes the Aubrac beef portion (a speciality of course) can be overwhelming.

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I just checked and it's been almost five years since we've last been to le Vieux Pont. Time flies. I don't even know if Nicole was married then. She doesn't seem to socialize with the guests. It's so hard to imagine someone not venturing out of the area these days, especially when in the hotel business. In the early part of the 20th century it would have the norm perhaps, but it's surprising these days. It's all the more surprising because it's not altogether a quaint little backwater country inn. I thought the design of the little hotel was rather sophisticated in it's simplicity. It's not at all rustic or folksy. I understand the chef is self taught, but the food is quite up to date. I also understand she's been described as influenced by Bras. I am pretty sure she never worked there and I wonder if she's eaten there. Do you know? It will be interesting to compare notes in a few weeks.

I just checked the weather at the Michelin site. Lyon is a little colder than I expected. Laguiole was about what I expected and then I noticed that the temeratures were for Millau, which I expect is a bit warmer than Laguiole. C'est la vie. I'll pack an extra sweater. ;)

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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