I once went to a seafront restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa, where a local beer cost six times the price it did anywhere else. I asked the waiter why. He told me “Honey, you don’t pay for the beer. You pay for the view.” Until now I thought he had a point.
But now I’ve picnicking my way through France. I now smugly walk by all those uptight pay-per-view temples, looking for a park bench instead. To feast while drinking in the view. For free, not a snotty waiter in sight.
Like most unforgettable dishes, a good picnic starts with the best ingredients. In France I found these in tiny little shops, boulangerie’s (bakeries) patisseries and delicatessens, some hardly bigger than a crack in a wall. Here I picked up four slices of something, a scoop of this, a smear of that, a baguette and a bottle.
I looked for regional and locally produced products, initially because so many regional French products have become world-renowned. The point of the trip was to have champagne in Champagne, mustard in Dijon and Bordeaux in Bordeaux. But after a few days I realized the trip was no longer an itinerary of things to taste. It had become a daily quest to discover something unusual, to experience it and to try and marry it to other flavours. It had become a most decadent and delicious adventure.
The first part of the journey was coloured with champagne. I got into the habit of buying small, 375ml bottles, even though they were more expensive. Buying smaller bottles meant I could share a bottle with my partner at lunch without feeling too heady to drive. It also became a great way to sample some of the many local producers.
We were told by locals that the smaller wineries make better champagne. And although I don’t know what technically defines a “bad” or “better” champagne, I know I preferred the small producers to Moët & Chandon. The tour of the Moët & Chandon cellars was fascinating and I would definitely recommended it, but not for the glass of bubbly at the end. Walking past bottled history, 40 meters underground, is an awe-inspiring experience. Bottles are caressed and hand-turned every two days. Some are hundreds of years old. It helped me understand why champagne is so expensive, even in Champagne (about three to four times the price of an average bottle of wine).
Apart from stocking up on Champagne as we came across it, a typical picnic day kicked off with a pastry breakfast of warm, flaky pain au chocolat (tastes like chocolate croissant) or a chausson aux pommes and its gooey apple filling. Followed by a handful of cherries or a Cavaillon melon en route as we picked our way to the next spot.
Driving the Grand Alps route from Epernay to Cote d’Azur meant there were plenty of picnic spots and loads of excuses to stop. In Dijon I pulled up to a vineyard for a meal of organic champagne, translucent ham, basil mustard, some hand-made chocs and a few startling white aniseed candies. We ate and drank in the crisp spring air of Burgundy.
In Savoie we had chestnut jam and a fat sausage stuffed with Beaufort cheese. Outside Bonneval-sur-Arc I scattered chunks of goat milk cheese over sun-warmed tomatoes, drowning it all in honey.
We picnicked on top of mountains, drank champagne next to rivers, indulged under trees and while basking in the sun.
In Nice we had peppery socca and ice cold white wine. In Provence we made a lunch of lavender and glazed fruit nougat and delicate lemon macarons.
And the delicious foundation of each meal was bread. Baguettes, pain de campagne, pain petit or boule, French bread was always on the picnic table. Because French bread doesn’t keep for more than a day, we bought picnic ingredients daily. Buying small quantities is easy, all shop keepers are happy and proud to oblige.
For two weeks I tore off chunks of bread, straddled them with ham, piled them with cheese and swept them through olive oil. I had the freedom to handle my food, was obliged to break and tear and balance and dip. I’m not sure if it was all the touching and feeling or the fresh mountain air, but somehow, on top of Val d’Isere, I realized that food will never taste the same again. I had re-learned the art of picnicking. I couldn’t stop grinning. I still can’t.