Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Supercilious French Waiter et moi

Dining out in La Rochelle

Val and I recently ventured north to the small French Atlantic port of La Rochelle. The old city is a wonderfully preserved medieval merchant town located on a beautiful medieval port which is guarded by two intact seaboard towers. It is a massive tourist attraction.

La Rochelle harbour from the seaward side

The small harbour of La Flotte, Ile De Re
On the way we had checked out the famous “Ile de Re”, an acclaimed tourist sand island 30km x 5 km connected to the mainland by a 3km toll bridge. It too is a major tourist attraction but I must confess to being a little underwhelmed. There is a resident winter population of about 20,000 rising to a resident summer population of 220,000! In the season, I suppose, thousands of day trippers would also add to the gaiety. The Ile does have a couple of small very picturesque harbours, several quite good family beaches,  water sports and cycling and an excellent example of a Vauban coastal fortification, the Citadel of Saint Martin, where, incidentally, the famously innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was held before transportation to Devil’s Island after being convicted of treason (it was a set-up).

Being canny travellers, we thought visiting La Rochelle in late March would see us safe from the touring masses. And we were tourist safe!

On arrival, we grabbed a suddenly vacant parking space in the old city, which is a veritable wasp's nest of one way, narrow streets. (And that's another story. "Am I a slow learner?" I ask myself, or just unaccountably optimistic regarding our navigational skills in old French towns.)  Val and I then strolled hand in romantic hand from the quiet back street onto the quay…. and were gobsmacked. 

The quayside was teeming with people. The day we arrived was the very first sunny, warm Sunday of the year and every young Frenchie for miles around had the same brilliant idea: "let’s hit the quayside cafes and bars at La Rochelle."   The atmosphere was electric, thrilling and the spectacle just fantastic. Picture a wide rectangular quay, packed with cafes each filled with animated people, each table home to stacks of used beer glasses; think of a hundred sailing boats rocking in the harbour, all backed by the beautiful twin stone towers and lovely warm sunshine. Great!

Looking across the inner harbour of La Rochelle with the
twin guard towers in the background 

We eventually found a table free at a café on the shaded side of the quay and enjoyed a beer and the scene. La Rochelle is home to the largest fleet of yachts and other pleasure boats on the French Atlantic coast. Its only 4 hours by fast car from Paris if you are prepared to pay the tolls!

Having extricated ourselves and car from the one-way labyrinth of the old town and having found our waterside hotel and shoe-horned our small travel bags into our miniscule room, its back to the quay to find dinner.

Now, at other times, we have found:
·       The Harassed French waiter: in a town square in Brittany on a lovely Sunday afternoon with only one café open, packed out, the one waiter rushing everywhere and I try to order in French…”Monsieur, I speak English, just order please.”
·       The Funny French waiter: in a tourist café on the Left Bank, Paris, the waiter admires our daughter’s hat, grabs it off her head, twirls it around then plonks it on his head and goes prancing through the restaurant.
·       The Maccers check out chic: Yes, I have to admit that we have been to a Maccers joint. You too would need a pee and a coffee after picking up a hire car from Charles de Gaulle Airport and the pick up point is dead centre of the huge complex and its peak hour and there’s no hand-break...etc etc.

And now we can add the Supercilious French Waiter to our tally.

We choose a restaurant, the young lady usher (read tout) ushers us to a nice terrace table. Lovely, but I feel the call of nature. Inside I go and there, at last, I find him, the supercilious French waiter.
 “Pardon,  monsieur, ou est les toilettes?” I ask. He flicks a finger, pointing to another room “on the right” he says. “Ah non, monsieur, en francais, a droite” says I, smoothly demonstrating my intimate grasp of the French language. My admittedly impertinent remark elicits not the faintest hint of a smile, just a cold short stare and HE turns away.

Back at the table, HE arrives with the menus. “Will madam and monsieur take an aperitif?” “Thank you, champagne please”

HE returns with two icy stemmed glasses, but small, and a magnum of fine champagne. “Ah” I exclaim somewhat alarmed, “we don’t want a bottle” (particularly not such a large one, I’m thinking).  “No, monsieur” Do I detect a hint of a sneer as, with one elegant hand, HE expertly pours a thimble-full of champagne for each of us.

We accept HIS advice that the two fish dish, a single item on the menu, is just what we need:
“The two fish today are sea bass and sole”.  “We would both like the fish dish” I say. “Which fish monsieur?” I’m confused: “The two fish dish” I reply. HE raises an eyebrow: “But which fish…the bass or the sole?” (note... monsieur has been dropped, and the penny drops also).
“One of each, please.”

The fish de jour arrives accompanied with a barely audible “bon appetit” from our friend. The fish was excellent, and so was the bill now smilingly presented by our friend. The two sips of champagne came out at Euro11 each! And I’m sure he overcharged for the fish.

Oysters, we had been told, are a Rochefort speciality. So next morning we drive out to the nearby Rochefort seaside, relish the sea air, have an ice cream and watch families diligently collecting buckets of mussels and oysters from the rocks. It has been a family tradition for 100’s of years.

Each oysterman seems to have a beachside oyster “Degustation” outlet. From the string of faded and ramshackle sheds backing onto the rocks we select a likely looking establishment, chiefly because there is a vacant parking spot right in front.

It’s a mum and dad place, busy but clean. He shucks the oysters; she takes the orders, “plates up” and gets it to the patrons. The “restaurant” is at the back, open air, with a few rough hewn timber picnic style tables and benches set in the concrete work space amidst the bits and pieces of the oysterman’s trade. Dare I say, the view is quite acceptable, out over the seaside rocks to the estuary and two distant island forts dating from the time “les Anglais” were somewhat too active in the area.
Val waiting for our gourmet luncheon. The "bikies" have
just left, in case you are thinking that it does not look
It’s busy. Half the tables are taken up by latter-day bikies: older, pony-tailed, grey haired (aren’t we all) and very cheerful. At another table is a Paris chic group, just debarked from a rather large Merc. And there’s us, the token Aussies. We shared a table with two French ladies.

A dozen large oysters, lemon slices, chunks of fresh bread, butter and a glass (sorry, a plastic cup) of France’s finest chateau cardboard vin blanc all for 9 Euro! This is close to being the ultimate dining experience.  Sure beats champagne at 11 Euro a thimble-full.

Bon Appetit

Bryan and Val

P.S. from Val.  I asked the oysterman how best to open the oyster.  He showed me; stick the knife in the back joint of the oyster shell and just work it around. He did wear a thick glove!!

1 comment:

  1. I thought that you might have jumped up and showed him how it is done monsieur ......or have you been writing down tips for when you jump back into hospitality to cover your next trip to France........love the waiter stories......luv petal!
    ps 44 days to go till Amsterdam.....