Seeing Heston Blumenthal’s makeover of The Little Chef restaurant, Popham, part of a British motorway caff chain, reminded me of the French equivalent, the Relais Routier or truck stop.
My parents had a house in France during my childhood, a stone cottage with 12th century walls three feet thick and a fireplace you could sit in. It was outside a small town named Condom, 100 km’s south of Bordeaux in the Aquitaine region.
It took us 2 days to drive there from London and the trip was always accompanied by a red plastic bound volume ‘le guide des relais routiers de France’. The logo for relais routiers was a bit like a tube sign. It was also our job as kids in the back seat to spot these signs. The route to Condom was devised around which ‘relais routier’ we would eat in. Usually they were proper restaurants, cheap, a set menu, with a parking lot full of lorries.
Sometimes, however, you would go into a private house, listed in this guide and eat in a woman’s kitchen, just one table covered with an oilcloth. The woman would be wearing her flowery apron and cooking in front of you, turning around from her gas stove to plonk platters down on the table. This was the best food.
Once for hors d’oeuvres we were given a dish of long red radishes with their green tops still on, a basket of fresh baguette with a sourdough tang, a small hunk of unsalted butter and a pile of salt. We all looked at it, including my parents, not quite knowing what we were supposed to do with this array of ingredients.
The son of the woman, noticing our hesitation, laughed and showed us what to do: he cut a little cross in the end of the radish, smeared on a scrape of butter, then dipped it in salt, crunching the radish with torn off chunks of bread. So simple, just fresh produce, but so delicious.
Wine was always included and everybody had a little carafe, even children, of rough red table wine. This impressed us kids enormously, we felt so grown-up.
In those days I ate meat. My favourite meal when we were allowed to order à la carte, was steak and chips. One night near Rouen, we stopped at a hotel-restaurant. We kids as usual ordered steak frites. There were strange mutterings from the proprietor, there seemed to be a problem. But then no, it was fine, steak frites it was.
When the steak arrived, I bit into it.
“What do you think?” asked my dad.
“It’s yummy. Sort of sweet.”
“But you like it?” he asked, in a rare display of interest in my opinion
“Yeah, it’s great.” I enthused.
At the end of the meal my dad told us that it was horse meat.
Whoa! Love that ‘tales of the unexpected’ buildup. Years ago I tried some Saucisson d’Arles and thought that sweet and delicious; until the stallholder started to make some braying sounds.
I hate it not knowing the contents of my supper and then getting surprised. I have shot down men for less back in the day when I was in Abeline or was that Dodge and I wore a star.