Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you chapter and verse of 19 days tootling round Europe. There was lots of driving, some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever been lucky enough to lay eyes on, wonderful people, great experiences, a few domestics, a lot of miles walked and hiked and – probably of most interest to you guys – a hell of a lot of food and drink.
Last year I gave you a blow-by-blow account of our roadtrip to Tuscany in three epic blog posts (here, here and here if you haven’t read them). This year I’ve decided to just give you the foodie highlights. Of course, there are one or two special posts coming up about specific places, but for those of you who want the ‘Match of the Day’ version rather than the full shebang, this is for you:-
From the moment we arrived in France it was all about the cheese. We nearly broke the bank in a lovely fromagerie in Saumer, buying everything from a local chevre to a Langres that remained the cheese of the trip. It didn’t stop there. The cheese pile just grew and grew as, unable to resist temptation, we bought it quicker than we could eat it. Cheese and crackers, cheese and baguette, cheese and ham croissants. A veritable cheese fest. When in France hey!
Seafood on the Ile d’Oleron
We went to the Ile d’Oleron by accident really, after changing our plans and searching for the sun. The drive across the causeway to it is punctuated by oyster shack after oyster shack stacked high with treats that have been plucked from the sea right there. We stayed in La Cotiniere which is the seventh busiest fishing port in France and a a seafood and shellfish lovers paradise.
There’s a huge indoor fish market with everything from cockles, whelks, oysters, clams and mussels to bream, bass, turbot, monkfish and more. On top of that there are outdoor market stalls selling more of the same and a whole load of restaurants. We lunched at L’Assiette du Capitaine, a great fish restaurant that uses slightly oriental influences to offer something a bit different. It’s also a rum-lovers haven with a whole range of them, including empty bottles from across the world decorating the loo.
Cassoulet in Carcassonne
Carcassonne was on our amended route as we switched from one side of France to the other in search of sun so it would have been sacrilege not to stop and check it out. This ancient citadel is definitely worth a visit, even if it’s just for all the restaurants packed inside its walls and cobbled streets. All of them serve cassoulet, a traditional dish from the region, and something I’d only tried once before.
It’s a proper peasant’s dish, slow cooked and packed with filling white beans and meat. There were myriad versions on offer at the restaurants in Carcassonne and we ended up with one that included Toulouse sausage as well as confit duck leg. The perfect warming food for what was a bit of a grey rainy day on our visit.
Discovering Andorra’s food scene
No, I didn’t know Andorra did food particularly well either. Turns out it does. A mooch around Andorra La Vella’s Old Town reveals all sorts of appealing restaurants that we would happily have gone into but we’d already been recommended to try Kokosnot, a relatively new fine dining place that was FABULOUS (more on that in another post very soon). We also had a drink at a gorgeous wine bar called 13,5° Wine Bar that apparently does great tapas. Rather impressed to say the least.
The discovery of the holiday. I’ve heard a LOT about chuleton, also known as Txuleton. We first tried it at Kokosnot in Andorra (see above) and then couldn’t resist having it again in Alquezar in Spain. If you haven’t heard of it, Chuleton are huge, thick cut, bone-in rib-eye steaks found in the North of Spain and Basque cider houses. Unlike the younger beef you more commonly see, these are from 8-16-year-old dairy cattle in Galicia.
They fat runs through in epic marbling as well as sitting outside in a thick layer, and their flavour is deep, intense and impressively ‘beefy’. When I say thick, I mean over two inches thick, and once they’re cooked the meat is hacked off the bone, sliced and then rearranged next to it and presented to you in its entirety.
In Alquezar I was lucky enough to be allowed into the kitchen to watch the chef hack our lump of beefy gorgeousness from the whole rib before covering it in sea salt and tossing it on the grill over hot coals to cool. It was delivered to us complete with our own mini table-mounted grill so we could show each slice a bit of heat (but only a bit – one second each side were our strict instructions). Heaven.
I know, something you expect to see in France slathered in garlic butter, but not necessarily something I’d expect to find on a tapas menu in Spain. We had these in Alquezar (I know, we ate a LOT there) and instead of the usual garlic butter they came served in a thick, sweet, rich sauce – almost like a spare rib sauce – complete with chunks of pork belly. It turns out a good strong sauce is a great balance to the earthy, meaty snails. Go on, try it, I dare you!
Pacharan in the Pyrenees
We discovered this little digestif up in Alquezar and were rather taken with it. Known as Patxaran in Basque, it’s made from crushed and fermented sloes. It’s got an intense, fruit smell and was served to us over ice after the meal.
If you like a negroni you’ll probably like this. Strong, but great when sipped over ice. And apparently it’s got medicinal properties, especially for curing stomach problems and pains “relating to old age”. Glad I found it!
It seems wrong to go to Spain without having a paella. We picked the evening after a day of hiking, exploring and wild swimming at Salto de Bierge in Aragon near Alquezar to make sure we fully enjoyed a hearty feed. The campsite we stayed in (Camping Alquezar) owns a restaurant across the road which does simple but tasty food including paella if you pre-order.
We managed to dash in on our way back to the site from our grand day out in time to get an order in for dinner that night and enjoyed a paella packed with chicken, rabbit and a whole load of seafood, all washed down with a jug of sangria for me and beer for Mr M. Just what the doctor ordered.
Pintxos in San Sebastian
San Sebastian has been on my list for quite some time. Home to a stack load of Michelin starred restaurants, it has a reputation for being a food-lover’s paradise. However, it wasn’t fine dining we were here for on this trip (a bit difficult with a Rottweiler in tow). Instead, we wanted to check out the basque version of bar snacks – Pintxos.
I tried these in Bilbao when I visited a few years ago and fell in love with the idea so couldn’t wait to get more. The sight of these tasty morsels lining pretty much every bar in the Old Town even blew Mr M away and is enough to get you salivating as you try some sightseeing. We decided to take a tour with Mimo to find some of the hidden gems which was well worth the money and a great experience. Expect more in its own blog post very soon!
Wine Tasting in Bordeaux
Of course, no trip to France would be complete without a bit of wine tasting. We discovered that not only can you find the odd French chateau that gives you a tour and sells you their wine, but some also let you stay there. For free. We stayed at the Chateau de Marquis de Vauban in Blaye which lets motorhomers and campervans pitch up among the vines, complete with electricity, free of charge.
They do a range of tours in English and French where you learn the history of the chateau, tour round their cellars, have lunch accompanied by their wines or just do a straight tasting. They even organise aperitifs in the Citadel at Blaye in the evenings if you fancy it. Needless to say, we came away with a case of wine…
And there you have it – a few of the highlights from our roadtrip through France, Andorra and Spain. I have hundreds of photos, tonnes of meals, and all sorts of experiences I could bore you with, but I’ve decided to stick with just a few.
It goes without saying it was a brilliant adventure. But did we miss anything? Have you tried some of the things above? Anything we missed out on that we really should have had? Let me know in the comments and, as ever, thanks for reading!