Lunch in Brittany - French Style

I was reminded of an experience we had in Southern Ireland in Wicklow south of Dublin a few years earlier. We were briefly in a rural village that had a circular green set around an old monument and around this green there came a battered old Volvo car with an equally battered radio blaring out from the passenger seat, home-made wiring leading into the cars electrical system. The car hit the kerb several times before attempting a docking manoeuvre worthy of NASA as he aimed the car at the Pub doorway just beyond us. After several attempts he was happy that he was close enough to his objective and he staggered out of the car and unsteadily found the doorway and fell into the snug bar area.

There is a reason for this recollection and I will explain at the end of my story This Sunday we had visited Carnac, the town famous for the thousands of megaliths or standing stones located in sites around the town. It was a pleasant place to stroll but had not engaged us as much as we thought it might and lunch options were a little thin on the ground and it is always close to lunch in France of course. Walking down towards the seafront we decided it was too hot and too far to go and headed back to the car and drove along the coast before turning towards La Trinité-sur-Mer. This picturesque spot has an abundance of seafood restaurants located around a port that is home to a large variety of boats and yachts, many of which must have wealthy owners.  Some of the restaurants seem to be based on nautical life with double tiered terraces giving off an ambiance of very happy contented diners. It was very clear that they all were very busy and there was not a parking space to be had around the bustling port. Unable to stop I was forced to carry on around the port and over the bridge that took us to the other much quieter side of the port and a place unlikely to provide much in the way of sustenance for a now very hungry pair of travellers.

Just beyond the bridge you head down towards a roundabout in a most unpromising area if you are hoping for a long Sunday French lunch when suddenly Niamh shouts and points to a sign by the roadside. Fortunately there is no other traffic or I may have found my car on the wrong side of the road. She had however gained my complete attention. There was indeed a home-made painted wooden sign that said ‘Restaurant’ and a helpful directional arrow.  I still can’t say I was hopeful, this did not look like it was going to be a place of fine dining. I managed to park the car by the bridge having swung it around the roundabout and we set off on foot in the direction indicated by the painted red sign. There was absolutely no trace of a restaurant and we backtracked towards the sign and then spotted a small track leading down to the waterside. Could this be the way to our lunch? Still there was no indication of a restaurant as we looked across to the other side of the port but then we heard the chink of glasses and a gentle happy hum of conversation. Sure enough hidden behind the trees there was a small building, a little like someone’s holiday home, located by the side of the water and they were most certainly serving lunch. This was a place that clearly only locals knew about and that was fine by me. There wasn’t a sign outside the restaurant, it looked to all intents that it was as if you were going out to lunch at a friend’s house.

They fortunately had a free table and we were very happy to take it but quickly asked them to seat us inside as the outside terrace was searingly hot and especially so for my unprotected head – when will I buy that hat? The room was in the style of an unprepossessing annex, a little like a canteen in a workplace but light and airy with a great view back over the water to the well-heeled diners in the port restaurants, all sitting on their expensive boats. At one end of the room was a large chalkboard displaying the catch of the day and the small but tempting array of dishes available to order on the lunchtime menu. Yes, definitely my sort of place and I was glad for Niamh’s eagle eyes in spotting the small sign. Also the only language you could hear was French and that also I like as you are unlikely to find the French eating at anywhere that is below par in food quality. We are happily settled.

The theme of the menu is heavily weighted towards fish and seafood and that is the same throughout this region, a far cry from the UK where despite being equally close to the sea we fail to take full advantage of the produce of the sea so close at hand for us. Here is a fish lover’s paradise. The special on the menu is Dourade for two people – really. Back at home in the UK we are unlikely to get a dourade or a sea bass that is big enough for one so we decide out of curiosity to order this monster fish that has probably come from UK waters anyway.

It is a monster and easily big enough for a family of four never mind a couple of hungry diners. It is wheeled to our table on an old antique food trolley and the very amiable waiter carves it up for us and places a huge portion of perfectly cooked dourade fillet on our plates. It is accompanied very simply with a small portion of buttered herby new potatoes and an aioli sauce. Our wine of choice is a chilled bottle of Sancerre from a maker we know well in that region and we have in front of us a meal of simple perfection and so it proves on eating. Why oh why can we not have fish served like this back home. Yes, there are places that do this but Padstow in Cornwall is a long way from Lancashire where we live at the time of travel and the best fish there is usually battered and deep fried, not lovingly cooked to perfection, ‘a point’.

I will spare you a gushing review, let’s just say we were well satisfied and following a very alcohol laden ice cream, meringue type of dessert we were very satisfied to be sitting with a coffee and reflecting on our good fortune in finding this foodie paradise by the waterfront.

The restaurant is called Le Chantier and the location is Saint Philibert just over the water from the port. Look for the wooden red sign and listen for the hum of contentment.

The food was great but we still had the entertainment to come and that takes me back to our story from Ireland at the outset of this chapter. The bottle of Sancerre had been wonderful and left a very contented feeling with us both, so contented that we just had to go and sit by the waterside and chill out, enjoying the view across the port. It was one of those perfect moments you can find on your travels in France and of course these moments usually coincide with a long memorable lunch and a bottle of wine. Niamh dangled her feet in the cool water and promptly fell asleep. I did not feel I would be far behind her.

My drowsiness was cut short when an elderly couple came out of the restaurant. A couple that I feel had probably had two bottle of Sancerre and an aperitif and a digestif at least with their lunch. They were very happy indeed. He looked like he was probably the local mayor and she was dressed to impress and keep up appearances. As they reached their car – really, yes really – the chef from the restaurant arrayed in all his finery came running out after them. He just wanted to give his regards to them both, they clearly were old friends, whether personally or in business I do not know, and they exchanged kisses and greetings and had an animated conversation. The elderly gentleman then produced a camera from his jacket and clearly wanted a photograph to remind them of the happy lunch and his friend monsieur le chef. As I saw him looking around it was clear I had a duty to perform and I went over to them and offered to be the photographer. You do this a lot in France; they can spot an English potential photographer a mile away.  I took the photo of the three of them, faces beaming with delight at the time they had just shared and no doubt many happy times in years gone by. They were so grateful for my photography skills but I did not get a kiss but retired back to the waterfront to continue observing this merry scene of lunchtime delight.

What I did not expect and especially as French drink and driving laws are tighter than in the UK is that the couple got into the car with the chef happily shutting the door of the car for them with not the slightest regard for the condition of the driver. Proportionately he had had more alcohol than our Irish friend had consumed with his many pints of Guinness and unbelievably he was going to attempt to drive home.  He moved away smoothly and away down the road joining the main road at the roundabout and he was gone from view. I assumed he got home but please, please do not try this at home.

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Neal Atherton