La Rochelle – La Rock Part 2

Late night at the harbourSEDUCTIVE, addictive and sheer indulgence – yes, it’s brioche again!

We chose to drive to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France, so we passed through the Vendée and were able to call at the brioche, baguette and butty capital of the whole region.

You know you’re within a few kilometres of Saint-Jean-de-Beugné – known as ‘village de la brioche’ – by the amazing aroma from the huge Roger Sicard bakery on its outskirts,  and it’s a ‘must’ to stop at the factory shop or the signature Sicard shop on the main street to grab a snack for the journey … and plan to leave room in the car to stock up with piles of golden treasure on the way home.

Sicard feels like the regional French equivalent of our own ubiquitous Greggs, with shops in every town around selling not just brioche, but breads, snacks, viennoiseries, patisseries and desserts, plus all manner of specials to suit every pocket.

A budget lunch deal for ‘students’ – a grilled cheese pannini or baguette, fresh-prepared fries and a drink – suited us just fine on more than one day when we knew we had a dinner in prospect later, and we joined locals sitting on Sicard’s section of a decking terrace by  the marina and shared the same sunshine and the same views as customers at a string of neighbouring, pricey restaurants. No contest!

Youngster visiting a tall shipFood and drink seemingly dominate the holiday agenda, and little wonder, with so much on offer to delight the senses and encourage your appetite in this historic and appealing part of France, but inevitably, cost is also a significant factor, especially when you’re on a pension.

No excuses, then, for seeking out notable places to suit the pocket or duly indulge and to remember for any future trips. Try dinner, for example, at Le Rescator, a ‘local’ bar/restaurant/crêperie set back from the major tourist traps on the harbourside.

Ok, no damask tablecloths and liveried staff, but good, honest fare from the guys who run the place, with three of us well catered for with a salade Savoyarde, a galette, crevettes (15, no less!) and drinks for the princely sum of just €83.

The road to all this indulgence had started at the port of  St Malo, with the sail from Southampton putting us in the mood.

I know I might sound like a heretic to some Silver Travel Advisor members, but I’ve never been one for cruising, possibly through having spent large chunks of time on Greek ferries  … some in rather dubious states of repair.

But then the Brittany Ferries experience is a whole different ball game, and I might well turn into a cruise convert on the strength of two relaxing overnight crossings, beginning with super-efficient boarding. We had opted for a bit of comfort and were shown to our outside cabin, with time to relax, shower and change and then tour the impressive facilities on board before the real treat of our mini-voyage – dinner on board with a very French slant to tee up our taste buds for La Rock.

An inspiring piece of graffiti by the marinaThe hors d’oevre buffet was the first pleasure hurdle, with the on-board chefs excelling themselves with a display of mouth-watering goodies, especially seafood,which would have fed me all week, so an iron will was required not to go mad and not leave enough room for the main course, stunning array of cheeses and sumptuous dessert buffet. We duly enjoyed, between us, a rolled sole fillet ‘turban’;  lamb and langoustine ‘terre et mer’ with niçoise vegetables; and a puff-pastry veggie option with the delightful title of  ‘feuilleté aux légumes, curry d’aubergine’ … and all for £25.70 each. And oh, those starter and dessert buffets!

We hadn’t even got off the Bretagne before we were leafing through the menus and looking forward to the return leg.

We sampled luxury on a smaller scale at a counterpoint to the bustle of La Rochelle, soaking up the rolling countryside at a delightful stopover less than an hour’s drive out of the city, near the picturesque little town of St Savinien. Artist Jude Wild and architect husband Derek have restored a cottage next to the converted barn where they live in a quiet hamlet, creating an idyllic rural retreat with a private pool yet within easy reach of beaches, bistros, bars and all the nightlife you can handle.

The rustic look at La BonniereBiggest gastro treat of all was back in La Rock itself, thanks to entrepreneur and wine dealer extraordinaire Philippe Pons and his delightful wife Loi, who invited us to Sunday lunch at their discreet  apartment.  Being greeted with a glass of blonde et noir premier cru champagne was an event in itself, but as the delicious, traditional family meal progressed, we moved on to a 2011 M. Chapoutier Coteau de Chery Condrieu, made from grapes hand-picked in a vineyard dating back to Roman times and bought ‘en primeur’ – ordered in advance and before bottling, trusting in a fine vintage … and it certainly is.

Then came one of the moments when you think you might have strayed into an angel’s dream, with Philippe sharing a sublime 2003 Huet Vouvray Cuvée Constance,  the domaine’s flagship dessert wine, created from hand-selected grapes affected by ‘noble rot’. Honoured hardly covers the feeling when I took the first sip – and I can still almost taste it!

His secret cellar, extending under several La Rochelle buildings and with an atmosphere and steel-bars security which would do credit to the Three Musketeers, is simply breathtaking  … and I also had to hold my breath when allowed to handle  two rather special items.

The first was a bottle of Romanée-Conti 2002; the other a Noval Nacional 1963 vintage port. Look them up online and you’ll know why I used both hands! Salut!

•  Read La Rochelle – La Rock Part 1

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David Graham

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