French roads and food

It’s easy to run this country down – Labour have been doing it for 12 years – but yet another trip over the Channel just confirms my belief that the French do some things far better than we do.

Here’s just a couple for now.


Sure, France has its share of bad roads, but I’ve rarely come across anything calling itself a main route that wasn’t well-maintained yet unimpeded by roadworks. In about 750 miles of motoring on French roads over the last few days we came across only one stretch of roadworks – about half a mile long – and that was just south of Dunkerque. All the rest of the roads we used – Autoroutes (both with and without tolls), Routes Nationales, Routes Departmentales and minor very ‘rural’ roads – were totally clear of cones, holes and workmen which ensured good times between our various destinations.

Then there’s the Aires de Repos – the rest areas and services. These can range from a simple lay-by with or without loos to a petrol station with a well-stocked shop and a restaurant selling reasonable cooked meals. Yes, just like here the services are pricey but they’re frequent and usually clean and well-staffed.

The frequent 130 kmph (80 mph) stretches of motorway are invaluable for really eating up the distances – France is a big country – and the habit that most French drivers have of using the outside lanes to overtake and then pulling back to the inside means that you don’t get some arsehole hogging the middle lane as if it’s for his own private use as you frequently see here.

Yes, it’s a delight to drive in France – despite long journeys on the major Autoroutes setting you back a fair few euros on the peage sections. Often worth it though for the speed and lack of congestion, although you usually see very little of that except in major centers of population.


Bread…there’s nothing to beat a really fresh baguette from a good French baker. Anything you buy here calling itself a “baguette” is a travesty. Some good cheese – and there’s plenty of that to be found and properly ripe too – a glass of wine and a fresh baguette and you have a simple but perfect lunch.

Many of the better restaurants – and they do take some tracking down, which dispels the myth that all restaurants are good in France – will construct menus that reflect the availability of good local seasonal produce, show off the skills of their cooks and provide an experience you’ll remember for a long while if you’re lucky.

We had a superb meal at the hotel we stopped off at in Neufchatel-en-Bray in Normandy last Friday. It was the 28 euro Menu Tradition and my choice opened with Mousse de Foie Gras, followed by a puff pastry wrap with Neufchatel cheese inside, served with a salad with a 5 spice dressing and strips of magret de canard. There was a pause for a small bowl of apple sorbet with Calvados poured over it – a modern variation of  the Trou Normand – and then the main course arrived: a large piece of beef with sauce echalotte served with oven baked potatoes layered with Neufchatel cheese accompanied by seasonal vegetables. The cheese course followed and I chose some aged Neufchatel, local goat’s cheese and Livarot. To conclude, dessert – a chocolate tartelette with caramelised nuts in it, dressed with honey and creme anglaise.

Expensive? I suppose so, but then again you can spend over half that quite easily on a pub lunch, and there were 6 courses, all beautifully prepared with quality fresh ingredients, nicely presented and well-served by very friendly staff. The only downside to the whole evening was the cost of the wine which was 27 euros for the bottle of 2007 Buzet we chose, but that’s often the case in France.

Christmas was in full evidence in all the shops and things weren’t really that different elsewhere with trees and lights and all the usual stuff set up in the towns.

This notice I saw at one of the Aires we stopped at really amused me:

Any Father Christmas who suddenly exclaimed “Oh, oh, oh!” would get short shrift here in dear old Blighty, that’s for sure…

6 Responses

  1. “Sure, France has its share of bad roads, but I’ve rarely come across anything calling itself a main route that wasn’t well-maintained yet unimpeded by roadworks.”

    Haven’t been for a while now, but glad to hear some things haven’t changed! It really is a delight to drive over there…

  2. Couldn’t fault your description of the roads. We regularly used to travel from Calais to Hyeres and it was about 700 miles of great driving. The ‘Aires de’ as we called them were perfectly adequate…no wayside yobbo had smashed them but my daughter, who must have had a bladder equal to any camel, resolutely refused to use the khazis known to us all as ‘stoops’ (them with the two footprints)
    As to food, the good Mrs Cato only drew the line once and that was at some sausage concoction known as ‘Andouilette’ I had to concur that it looked (and probably was) disgusting but then, I’ chosen the pizza.

  3. Andouilette…I’ve tried it once. It tasted exactly as I imagined it would.

    As for the ‘sit up and beg’ loos, as we call them, they still exist in the Aires that just have loos, as far as I know – although I gather they’re phasing them out.

    They’re fine for #1s but not for #2s.

  4. Fuckin’ ‘A’!!

    Brilliant report, Steve. You’re selling the place to me. Any places for sale around your future house?




  5. XX I chose ….local goat’s cheese and Livarot. XX

    Aha. So you risked the wine as well?

    Good stuff French wine. Never fails when I fill my motorbike battery with that.

  6. The thought of a Livarot wine is a tad alarming 😉

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