Travel

Fabulous Food At An Unlikely Looking Celebrity Restaurant

What do Joan Collins, Princess Diana, Delia Smith and I have in common? Up until a few days ago the answer was nothing. However, now I also class the Auberge De La Mole as one of my favourite restaurants.

For me, superb dining and excellent restaurants can turn a good holiday into a great one. And that’s one of the reasons that we’ve just had the most wonderful holiday on the South of France staying in the little village of La Mole near St Tropez on the Cote D’Azur.

One of the first things we did after arriving was walk down the main street and check out the local shops and restaurants. La Mole is a very small village with just one boulanger, a Spar shop and three restaurants. Of all the restaurants, the Auberge De La Mole looks the least like it would be the favourite restaurant of the rich and famous.

Auberge De La Mole

The Auberge De La Mole with it’s distinctive tree growing through the canopy

As we didn’t have internet access and hadn’t checked out any restaurant reviews in advance, it was a few days before our neighbours told us about the reputation of the food at the Auberge and how Princess Diana had dined there during her holidays to St Tropez.

So two days later we found ourselves at lunchtime indulging in their incredible 30 euro prix fixe menu. Now if you’re used the French restaurants you may be thinking that 30 euros is expensive for lunch, but I have to tell you, in this case, not so.

Initially we were offered aperitifs, as we’re not big drinkers, we chose to skip a  pre-lunch cocktail and order a bottle of Domaine de Champeax rosé, which had been recommended by our neighbours. They were, of course, right, it was a lovely wine, just right for summer drinking and it matched every course perfectly.

We were seated at a table for two, but running alongside was a small side table. Unusual we thought, until the first course arrived, and then all became clear.

First the freshly baked rolls arrived and were placed on the table in a basket, wrapped in Gingham cloth. And then the starter appeared.

A young waiter brought us 4 huge terrines of pates, which were placed on the side table next to us. There was a smooth pate de canard (duck), rillettes d’oie (potted goose) a paté de campagne and tete de persille. Bread and pate is one of the joys of eating in France, whether it’s supermarket pate or something more artisan from the market, the range and flavours far exceed anything we can ordinarily find in England.

It was a help yourself, eat as much as you please starter and the pates were fantastic, perhaps the texture of the tete wasn’t quite to my taste having not grown up with that type of gelatinous food, but the canard just melted in the mouth. An example of ducky perfection which will be hard to beat.

And I was delighted to find that my opinion of the Auberge’s patés were shared by the Queen of British home cooking, Delia Smith writing for the Times newspaper.

It would have been so easy to fill up on bread and paté. And it was hard to stop eating, but after about 10 minutes, the terrines were moved on to the next set of diners and as we’d been told by our neighbours to pace ourselves, we reluctantly paused.

Chocolate Mouse

The Most Amazing Chocolate Mousse

And then to the main courses, there were a choice of five. Confit duck, rack of lamb, cassoulet, steak or a cep omelette. Despite having had the omelette recommended to me in the strongest terms, We chose rack of lamb, and  confit duck. Both were excellent and served with them were a sautéed potatoes, onions and mushrooms and a large bowl of dressed green salad. We couldn’t work out what the dressing was, there was a touch of pinkness to it, so we wondered if it was perhaps a light raspberry’ vinaigrette,

As we had already come to expect, this was delicious, and this was the only part of the meal which was not part of the all you can eat buffet. As is usual in French restaurants, they anticipate that you will be eating a multi course menu – unlike in Britain where it’s not unusual to simply have a main course – so the portion sizes are sized appropriately so you’re not completely stuffed before desert.

Again contrary to Britain, but common in France, the next course was cheese. I sometimes wonder if this is so you can finish your bottle of wine with the savoury courses and then order a pudding wine to accompany the puddings.

There were the usual range of cheeses, a mix of cow’s milk, sheep and goat, hard and soft and the obligatory blue cheese – Roquefort in this case. The waiter described each cheese to us and as with the pates, the cheeseboard was left on the side table for us for about 15 minutes while we indulged and tasted everything at least twice. The cheese were in huge chunks and as they moved from table to table any cheese which had been mainly devoured was quickly replaced by the kitchen, so the appearance of abundance and generosity was maintained throughout.

By this time, as you can imagine, I was pretty full. However, I was determined to try the puddings. After a small rest between courses, the puddings arrived on the side table. Again huge bowls, there was a terrine of creme caramel, l large bowl of prunes soaked in something and a bowl of marbled chocolate mouse.

It was by far the best chocolate mouse I’ve ever eaten – and I am a connoisseur of chocolate mousse. It was just incredible. It looked like it was marbled with whipped cream and I erred by not tasting the “cream” on it’s own. I have no idea how they managed to make something so light, yet so intensely chocolaty which looked like it had been diluted by mixing with whipped cream.

Although I was by his time full, and I knew that I was going to have to spend the rest of the afternoon quietly sitting very still, I served myself new fewer than three helpings of this magnificent mouse. The creme caramel was nice too, but not in the same league.

I declined coffee, even a small expresso would have been too much at this point. I simply hadn’t any room left.

Dame Joan Collins, who has had a house in St Tropez for many years recommends the Auberge for dinner, the 55 euro menu (also available at lunchtimes) gives an extra course and a more elaborate choice of main courses. Their famed Tournedous Rossini for example, fillet steak topped with seared foie gras. My advice if you go for dinner – pace yourself and you may not need to eat lunch first!

As you know, I love my food and this had been one of the best holiday experiences this year. We waddled very slowly and gently back to our digs and reflected on what had been a most marvelous, traditional style French bistro lunch. It looks like the menu has hardly changed for decades, but why tamper with perfection!

 

The Mile High City

Breakfast In America

Our first breakfast in America was amazing.  I had absolutely no idea what pigs in biscuits were, and I’d never heard of pico de gallo sauce before I ordered it (on the side), but it was all really delicious.  The biscuits are a bit like what in England we’d call cheese scones.  They came with a slice of bacon, a slice of ham and a great sausage patty. Yum.  And to follow, French cinnamon toast with maple syrup.  Also delicious – but could have used just a little more butter to make it even more decadent!

In addition to explaining most if the items on the menu 🙂  our waitress (or server as I believe the US term is) also recommended the 16th Street Mall as the place to go in Denver,  It’s the main tourist shopping area.  So after picking up our hire car we set off towards the big city.   I don’t know if it’s because Denver is so high up, or just that America is bigger but the sky really does appear to go on forever side.  I could almost imagine that I could see the curve of the earth.

Scraping the Sky Downtown

Downtown Denver

Mile high skyscrapers!

Not being used to the roads we were hooted at a number of times until we realised that we were stopping at red lights when turning right. The locals just checked to see if there was nothing coming and then turned regardless of the red light. We passed the State capitol building with it’s golden dome and the stunning skyscrapers of downtown.

Twice round Denver and we found a car park right at the top of the 16th Street Mall. We walked all the way down, past dozens of restaurants. We enjoyed a browse round the tourist shops via a comfort break in Barnes and Noble and a refill at Starbucks.

Standing on the Mile High Step

State Capitol Building

Standing on the mile high step

Just past the bottom of the mall is the State Capitol building, we crossed the road and then of course I just had to stand on the mile high step. We’d already walked quite a long way and it was a hot day, so while I ambled gently to the top of the stairs so Sam sat at the bottom and prepared the zoom lens to record my mile high moment for posterity.  Of course you’d need to know it was me, as I’m rather overwhelmed by the size of the building. It reminds me a little of St Paul’s Cathedral. Different dome, but similar entrance.

After the long walk in the heat down the mall we decided to catch one of the prolific shuttle buses back. As expected we didn’t have to wait more than a minute,  There must be at least 1 bus per block and they just go round in a circle, with a stop just before the corner of each clock.

Hot Tamales

And onto our next meal stop, “The Cheesecake Factory”. It was recommended by a colleague and we were not disappointed.  We had a selection of starters, the Sweetcorn Tamales were just gorgeous,  as were the deep fried avocado slices which were another thing I’ve never seen before.  We were actually too full for cheesecake. We missed a trick though, we should have taken it back to the hotel to eat later.

Union Station

Union Station

And then it was time to waddle back to our hire car and try to find our way back to the hotel.

We managed it with only a couple of wrong turns thanks to having downloaded the map of Denver onto our Android tablet. The GPS works and tracks our location despite not having an active internet connection. It’s been a huge boon every time we’ve been abroad as data roaming can be hugely expensive.

Arriving back at the hotel, my body felt like it was midnight and exhaustion had set in. Time for bed.

We’re Finally Here

I say finally because I thought we were never going to get off the tarmac at Heathrow! There was some problem with the aeroplane which meant that the engineers had to run tests on the engine – to be honest, I might have been happier not knowing that :-(. And then of course we were delayed on the runway because of an earlier incident which had caused a backlog.

SunUnderTheWing

The sun hitting the horizon before a stunning sunset

What was going to be a 9 hour 50 minute flight turned into nearly 12 hours on the plane. And for me a 4 diazepam flight!

Because of the late departure, the sunset finally caught up with us as we flew over Fargo. Sam managed to capture this unusual photo of the sun peeping out from under the wing. Luckily we were sitting in the cheap seats and had a wonderful view of the magnificent sun set.

And then as darkness fell and we approached Denver it started to get quite turbulent.  I was slightly worried as Sam hates turbulence but it can’t have been too bad as despite the seatbelt signs being on, the crew served afternoon tea. Although because of the movement no hot drinks could be served, so afternoon tea came with water instead of Earl Grey.

Finally the movement smoothed out and we started the descent.  As we came through the clouds it was exciting to see the lights of Colorado spread out beneath.

Sunset over America

Once finally on the ground the first hurdle to overcome was immigration.  After hearing horror stories of people spending 3 hours standing in the queue for immigration, I was relived that the queue continued to move, albeit slowly.

As our bodies were thinking it was 2am UK time, I turned my attention to the next challenge –  How do we get to the hotel and how much should one tip the shuttle bus driver?  I’m sure these are all mundane questions for the experienced traveller, but when you’ve never done anything like this before, the importance of these little questions appears surprisingly magnified.

The lady marshalling the queue, helped me out.  This was my first example of the helpful friendliness which pretty much all the Americans we’ve met so far have shown us. She consulted with her colleagues and they decided that tipping was not in fact required in this situation, but if we wanted to, and the driver helped us with the bags, then 1 dollar a bag was appropriate.

And so we were duly finger printed, instructed by the monosyllabic gentleman from Homeland security that were were on holiday, and released into the good ol’ US of A.

Going To America

Berkshire from the air

Rural Berkshire from the air

So the long awaited, much postponed trip to America is finally here. we’re off in just a couple of days’ time.  I’ve never been “across the pond” before and I’m really looking forward to seeing if the USA that I’ve spent years watching on the TV will match up to real life.

Our first port of call will be Denver, home of the Broncos who even made the British sports news recently for their record breaking run of winning games.  I’m looking forward to going to the Capitol building and standing on the mile high step.  Living in England, there are not many places much above sea level, so when we land in Denver we’ll already be nearly twice as high as Ben Nevis.  Denver is also famous for having 300 days of sunshine a year – wonderful after the joys of the British weather.

After a couple of days acclimatisation (apparently altitude sickness could be a problem unless we rest and drink lots of water), we’ll be climbing even higher and going for a few days sightseeing in Colorado Springs.  We hope to take in the Garden of the Gods and maybe even the cog railway up Pikes Peak, the highest mountain in the Rocky Mountain Range. If we’re lucky there might be some spectacular autumn colour for us to enjoy.

And then we have 5 days which are as yet unplanned.  We might take in some of the Grand Canyon, or I’m told Bryce Canyon is a “must see”. Another option would be to drive across to Las Vegas and see some of the strip and see if we can win the cost of our trip :-).  When we planned the itinerary it looked like car hire was much more expensive if we picked up from one airport and dropped it off at another, so we’ve opted to fly back from Denver.  It’ll be interesting to see if that’s the right choice, or if we could have done more if we’d chosen to depart from Las Vegas.

Having driven in continental Europe, I’m used to driving on the right.  So much so that even in England now I have to chant to myself “drive on the left” every time I turn out of a T-junction. I have, however, never driven a left hand drive car – and an automatic at that.  My sister who drives a lot in Germany says that it’s much easier in a left hand drive car as everything is in the right place on the road.  I imagine she’s right, as a driver sitting in the centre of the road is more normal than driving along in the gutter as I do in France – which makes Alpine hairpin bends extremely scary!

I’m fascinated to see how much bigger everything is.  By reputation, the portions are bigger, the shops are bigger, the roads and the trucks are bigger, everything is bigger, so will we find that everything is super-sized?

Speaking of super-sized, I personally will be avoiding McDonalds because we have that over here but one of the main things I’m looking forward to is trying different food. Instead of going out on a Sunday morning to our local greasy spoon (Kiki’s in Newbury, excellent value and very tasty) for “Full English” we’ll be going out for pancakes and bacon with maple syrup. I might try grits as well as I have no idea what they are.  I would think steak restaurants might be similar to the Beefeater style we get here, but I’m sure there are a multitude of different cuisines to enjoy. I realize that I’ll probably have to spend the next couple of months dieting, but I expect it to be worth it for the experience of trying new things.

Flying has never been my favourite activity, so that’s the part of the trip that I’m least looking forward to. Even Paul McKenna’s hypnosis for enjoyable flying didn’t really do it for me, so these days I’m fortunate in having an understanding doctor who prescribes diazepam to keep me relaxed enough not to worry my travelling companions too much on the flight.

So ESTAs have been sorted out – a much quicker job than I though it would be.  Dollars have been bought (moneysavingexpert has a really useful and comprehensive travel money checker which gave us Thomas Cook as the best local bureau de change). There’s just the packing to go before we’re up, up and away for my first taste of the land of the free.