We order some French things better in London — often, admittedly, with French help. A grenouille friend recently took me to lunch at the Beaujolais Club just off Charing Cross Road. He said that it overwhelmed him with nostalgia. As a child, living in Paris, if the family were in town for the weekend, it was just the sort of brasserie in which they would have Sunday lunch (cook’s day off). Traditional dishes; proper bourgeois cooking; wine, no premiers crus, but solid, dependable bottles from solid, dependable growers — who were often friends or relatives of the owners. The children demonstrated their command of table manners and served an apprenticeship in gastronomy.
In Paris these days, such places are harder to find. Sometimes, the proprietors have been seduced by vaulting ambition and tried an Icarus-style ascent towards Michelin stardom. There is also the problem of the 35-hour week and women’s emancipation. Good old Gaston, le patron, can no longer conscript his daughters and daughters-in-law in the way that his wife and previous female generations took for granted that they would pride themselves on serving a nation which has always marched on its stomach.
Moreover, the Parisian customer has often succumbed to the lure of trendiness and become an Athenian. To paraphrase: they spend their time in nothing else, but to eat some new thing. The culinary apostolic succession from grand-mère and the generations before her is scorned. There are new customers, but some of them are Americans, suspicious of foreign cooking and inclined to regard a single glass of wine as enough for a family of four.
This all helps to explain why Jean-Yves, maître de Beaujolais, who hails from the Breton-Norman marches, is glad to be working in London. Even so, there is absolutely no derogation from Frenchness. You eat chez Marianne. The dishes may vary from day to day, yet there is a dependable sameness. Though Jean-Yves can produce serious bottles, principally from the Rhône, there is no great wine. But everything is reliable and reasonably priced. We started with a Montlouis from Jacky Blot, an outstanding vigneron. It was almost mouth-puckeringly dry. A fine aperitif, it would work well with smoked fish. The list has no bargains, but there is nothing to deter the ordering of the third bottle.
The waitresses are equally French and instantly identifiable as such. With subtle, wry faces, plus a hint of the serene secrecy of an international Gothic Virgin, their demeanour towards their customers is a gracious welcome spiked with a touch of sardonic amusement. There is a blend of antecedent suffering quotient and joyousness to come. They remind one of actresses in those splendid modern French films: Le Placard, Le Dîner de Cons, et al.
All that said, there is one respect in which Beaujolais does fly very high. Its cheese board is an epitome of French civilisation. I do not believe that the French have a monopoly of cheese-mongering genius. Stilton is up there, as long as it is unpasteurised. Otherwise, go for Stichelton from next door, which cannot call itself Stilton but is made from raw milk. Above all, there is proper gorgonzola: raw milk, cheese mites — ambrosial.
But for the sheer volume of serious cheese, France is unsurpassable, as Beaujolais demonstrates. I do know of one better cheese board in London, at the Gavroche. It is somewhat more expensive. Moreover, it tolerates non-French cheeses. Without being ultra-Gallican in nationalism, Beaujolais would sound the toxin: ‘à table, citoyens… qu’un fromage impur abreuve nos sillons.’ Needless to say, we finished with Calvados. It was altogether an excellent repast: perfect for a non-dieting day.