Thursday, 23 June 2011

Worst-ever Dining Experiences: #2, Mouleydier, France

One of the nice things about eating out in France is that pretty much any restaurant you go to will serve an enjoyable meal, corresponding to the price you pay and sometimes even a lot better. They have to - the French take their food very seriously, and a restaurant that disappoints its customers will see very little repeat business. It follows that tourist traps are an exception, since they don't really depend on repeats. But even in Paris I can only think of one meal where I've been disappointed - often we've just dropped into a restaurant round the corner from where we're staying because it looks nice, and been delighted with the food. Of course it could be because Paris just has such a fantastic ambience anyway - but I think there's more to it than that.

The same is true outside Paris. Even when I first used to visit France, before my French was up to very much, I remember some spectacularly good dining experiences. We'll gloss over the restaurant in a small town in Brittany that was - I swear - closed for lunch, preferring to remember a hotel in the same town where we had an assiette de fruits de mer that took all evening to eat, there was just so much wonderful stuff.

But of course there are always exceptions. This one happened a very long time ago when my daughter - now in her late 20s and a mother herself - was just a bump. We went on a last-time-as-just-the-two-of-us holiday to the Dordogne, renting a cottage outside the town of Bergerac for a couple of weeks. It was a wonderful holiday, and filled with equally wonderful meals in the picturesque, ancient towns that litter the area. I've never had a chance to go back to the area, but I loved it.

Some way into the holiday, buoyed by the confidence of having eaten so well in restaurants chosen fairly randomly, we decided to eat at a place we'd noticed in the nearby village of Mouleydier. It looked nice enough, nestled in a corner near the station. Probably it was called Cafe de la Gare - it seems to have disappeared now, for which we should be thankful.

We should have been suspicious straight away. Instead of the customary buzz and crowded tables, the place was deserted. It felt chilly, despite the pleasant June weather. It was nothing fancy, with cheap checked table cloths, but in itself that doesn't mean a thing. The Cafe de Commerce in Geneva - an old favourite from when I used to visit there regularly - was just like that. Their speciality was delicious lake trout. The portions seemed a bit small, but when you'd finished the first one, they brought you another.

And worse, we were the only people there, though another group did come in later. But that was it. The service was surly, the waitress (most likely the proprietress) was sloppily dressed and didn't even seem especially clean. She certainly didn't seem to be taking any pride in anything she did. I've mercifully forgotten the main course, though I do remember that neither of us found it very appetising.

What does remain in my memory is the cheese board. France is a country that famously has hundreds of cheeses, all of them delicious even if some are a bit of an acquired taste. My first ever business trip to France took me to Annecy, where a restaurant chosen completely at random served an extraordinary cheese called Explorateur. It's about 99% fat (or so it seems), extraordinarily creamy and with a delicious nutty taste. Sadly, it's essentially unobtainable in the US - on the rare occasions when you do see it, it's invariably past its best. Creamy cheeses like that neither last long nor travel well. But in France it can be truly ecstatic.

The Mouleydier restaurant didn't have Explorateur, nor any other of the hundreds of delicious French cheeses. They had a Brie of some kind, dried up to a crusty yellow on the outside and definitely inedible. They had a couple of dried up goat cheeses. Soft, creamy goat cheeses with just a faint nutty taste are one thing. Well-matured ones are quite another, and most definitely an acquired taste. The theory, so I'm told, is that just a single small piece on the tip of a knife will taste so strong that it will seem like you ate a whole cheese. Back in the times when the art of eating was to make a few vegetables and a scrap of meat seem like a feast, this mattered a lot. But well-matured and then dried out is never going to be a good combination.

The final cheese, and the only one that could conceivably be eaten, was some kind of Tôme, a fairly hard cheese eaten like Cheddar. I can still remember that there was a black wax rind, which had at least partly protected it from drying out completely. We dared to take a piece of this each, but even after cutting away the driest of the exterior, it was old and dry and not up to much.

By the time we left, we were once again the only people there - the group of three or four guys who had come in after us had evidently had enough of a good thing, and already left.

The following night we went back to the excellent restaurant in the centre of Beaumont, a town a few kilometres away. Mouleydier remains the only place in France where I've been offered - in a proper restaurant at least - a truly awful meal. (The story of the fast food cafe in Entrevaux will have to wait for another time).

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