From the Battlefields of the Somme to Provence
Posted: 2nd October 2019
At the beginning of last month I was called away suddenly to Arras to lead a poetry and battlefield tour of the Somme. Picardy is not a region I know well. It lies between Paris and the sea and most of the time you pass it in a car or train without even reflecting on the grisly things that happened there in the First World War. In the days before Eurostar made life easier (ahem!) I recall coming to drowsily in a sleeper car in Arras and muttering (maybe even shouting) ‘Á bas Robespierre!’ knowing it was his home town. A well-meaning Frenchman tried to restrain me by assuring me there were no more Robespierres in Arras.
It was not as gastronomic tour, but we ate well at the old school Hôtel de l’Univers in the city centre and also at La Coupôle in the boulevard de Strasbourg. At L’Univers there was the occasional nod to regional specialities, such as the addition of some ‘pain d’épices’ to the beef carbonnade and a nice big chicory salad served on the side; and on the final night there was a good terrine and spéculoos biscuits with the crème brûlée. Gastronomically speaking Arras is Flemish.
One of the more exciting moments in our meal at La Coupôle was a late night visit to a subterranean thirteenth-century chapel round the corner from the restaurant. It is a magnificent survival with its ribbed vaults and elaborately carved capitals. It must have been part of a monastery destroyed at the time of the Revolution, or smashed by shelling during the First World War? If your party is of sufficient size you can arrange to eat there.
While we explored the battlefields themselves we were fed by Avril Williams in Auchonvillers. Avril has become something of an institution in the Somme since she moved there in 1992. The house, like so many in around the front line, rebuilt from the waist upwards after the shelling, is delightfully homely with its gaggles of hens, cockerels and pet sheep.
“She knows the bloodsoaked landscape like the back of her hand and is the first pole of attraction to the many British, Commonwealth and American citizens who come to explore or tour the war graves. In the meantime she beefs them up with copious lunches and teas, all wrought in a distinctly British idiom.”
Before we left for blighty again, I nipped out into the centre of Arras to get a few things for home. I wanted to find a charcutier: the ‘pork butcher’ who used to exist on every French shopping street from Menton to Morbihan.
“The charcutier not only sold fresh pork, black pudding or more conventional sausages (and offal that did not necessarily derive from pigs), it sold an array of made up salads of various sorts, wine and spirits, biscuits, jars and tins and all the local specialities that were not the province of the cake-making pâtissier. The charcutier was open until 7.30 at night, so for many of us it was the last stop before getting home – suitably armed for the evening with some pâté, a pork chop, a couple of hundred grams of salade piémontaise and a bottle of Beaujolais. It seems the charcutier is no more, however, and the French lifestyle is teetering on the brink of death.”
The artisan baker I had spotted on the corner of the rue Gambetta and the boulevard de Strasbourg was closed. I found a place on the rue Gambetta where the bread must have been baked elsewhere. The lightness of the boule should have told me all I needed to know. It was air-bread (for air-heads?), an indication if ever you needed one that bread can now be as bad in France as it is in Britain. In the Somme most of the villages are without bakers now. In some I saw fresh baguette dispensers and wondered if they were filled by responsible local bakers or simply peddled industrial baguettes.
We passed through Folkestone on the way back to London and I saw a branch of Morrison’s emblazoned with the legend ‘All our bread made with 100% British flour’. English flour is of very poor quality, capable only of making putty bread; but what is ‘British flour’? Most of Scotland lies outside the wheat-belt.
Ten days later I was back in France again for our twice-yearly Provencal jaunt. We have been coming for so many years they recognise our party when we stop at the Bistrot Aux Cadrans opposite the Gare de Lyon. After that the journey was smooth to Avignon and there was dinner waiting at the Domaine des Anges.
We went shopping in Carpentras the next morning. Certain things required a trip to the big Leclerc but none of the fruit and few of the vegetables were ripe. Everything felt as if it had just been taken out of the cold store. There was an excellent woman on the cheese counter, but when I asked for a camembert for that night she shrugged her shoulders. A generation ago every French housewife would have demanded and received the cheese she wanted: for that day, the next or the one after. I made a mayonnaise for the cold chicken and a tomato salad from some lovely fleshy marmandes that hardly needed any more dressing than a little salt and olive oil. It was curry night and I was off duty that evening.
The local butchers have almost all given up the ghost. Apart from the one up by the arcades in Carpentras, there are now none in Mormoiron, Mazan or Bédoin. I was reduced to the butchery counter at Super U in Mazan, which is perfectly good and specialises in Ventoux pork. We spent the afternoon chasing cyclists up Mount Ventoux. The mountain was shrouded in mist and only occasionally the cloud would thin out and allow to us to look down on the vineyards around Bédoin. That night we had roast pork and ratatouille.
On our last night we went to La Calade in Blauvac with its fabulous views across the valley. There is a rumour doing the rounds that the proprietor is going to close because he cannot make ends meet. We asked him that evening. He made it clear he’d sell if someone came up with the price. It would be a pity to see him go: there are only few good places around now. Bédouin has become a tourist trap for Dutch cyclists, all but one of the bars in Mazan were closed when we were there and there is really nothing left in Mormoiron, bar the baker.
Dawn announced the long journey home. Half an hour out of Paris on the Eurostar and we were informed that there had been an accident involving some power cables. We had to return to the Gare du Nord and take the ordinary, slow-train lines, which led us up through Picardy, past the art deco station at Albert and through the battlefields of the Somme to Arras before we could pick up speed up again at Lille for the journey home.
We limped into Saint Pancras six hours late. I might as well have taken the boat-train!