Aged 14, I stayed with friends of my father’s in northern France for a few days, and that was when I discovered how fabulous French food was.
This family owned an enormous sugar beet farm near Cambrai and lived in a chateau with servants. At lunch and dinner my 11-year-old sister and I dined in solitary splendour, waited on by their white-gloved butler.
I vividly remember gorgeous fillet steak served with a bowl of petits pois from the farm — not fresh, but preserved — and crisp frites. They were the best chips I’d ever tasted. Every day the butler uncorked a bottle of fizzy cider and poured as much as I wanted into my glass. At home I wasn’t allowed alcoholic drinks, but I didn’t tell him that. Back in England, I told my mother how I’d loved the food. She was a little cross. ‘What’s wrong with my cooking?’ she was probably thinking. That trip was such a lovely early experience and I’ve been back many times.
French fancy: The Jura region near the Franco-Swiss border. It is the home of Comté, one of Rick’s favourite cheeses
I fell properly in love with France in the late Seventies and Eighties. After opening my first restaurant in Padstow I went there a lot for inspiration as the best seafood cooking is in Brittany and Normandy. I’d catch the ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff and feast in village bistros: a plate of tiny scallops sprinkled with lemon juice and parsley, buttery conger eel, parcels of puff pastry filled with prawns and cream sauce.
On those early trips I’d think to myself: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a seafood platter back in Padstow?’ But when I started out, you couldn’t get mussels or clams, or even oysters or langoustines in Cornwall. There were lobsters and crabs, and that was about it.
It wasn’t just the seafood that I couldn’t get enough of in Brittany. I loved the way the French cooked fish and their rich butter sauces. And how they charged good money for fish we fed to the cat in those days — like coley or pollock — and everybody was happy to eat them.
While making my new BBC2 series, I had plenty of great seafood in Normandy, Picardy and Le Crotoy on the Bay of the Somme.
If you’re going to a place like Dieppe, it’s worth veering off from the tourist area and heading for the port. Often, you’ll find a restaurant close to where the boats come in and that’s where the locals will be eating.
Rick with the local butcher Patrick Maury, a champion andouillette-maker
For example, I discovered a smart restaurant called Comptoir à Huitres in Dieppe’s industrial docks, and a delightful little seafood restaurant away from the main restaurant hub.
Les Voiles d’Or (lesvoilesdor.fr) is on a headland above the harbour, past a church filled with plaques commemorating countless seafarers who drowned trying to bring in catches of beautiful fish.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the restaurant is owned by Michelin-starred chef Tristan Arhan and the food is sensational.
One-star Michelin places are well worth looking up. When they get two or three stars, it all gets a bit too fussy and complicated for my taste.
One of the joys of France is that you can get good fish anywhere. Every June, I stay near Saint-Tropez in a town called Ramatuelle. The local Spar has the best fish counter. The cheeses and the butcher’s counter are excellent, too. I suspect that you wouldn’t find a Spar anywhere in the UK that can compare.
There’s also a great fishmonger in Saint-Tropez itself, and a fantastic market every Tuesday — and French markets are always sensational.
When I’ve filmed in markets, the camera crew always want to be there when it’s packed, but you’re far better getting there early before stuff sells out. I speak enough French to get by, and I just point if I don’t know the words. People are helpful, especially at cheese counters — they’ll always give you a slice to try.
Canal du Midi, where Rick spent eight weeks filming his first French travelogue from a barge
When I filmed my first cookery show in France 15 years ago, I was worried it might be boring. My director had this madcap idea of hiring a barge to take us from Bordeaux all the way down to Marseilles on the canals of southern France.
What I hadn’t foreseen was how incredibly beautiful this would be, and that’s what made the series really special. The Canal du Midi was the star of the show, with its elegant bridges and constantly changing vista of chateaux, yellow fields of corn and endless vineyards.
It was easy to film as we just stopped and had a meal somewhere, or looked at a church and learned some history. We only did about four miles a day. I think it was everybody’s dream holiday, and lots of people have done it since and loved it.
It wasn’t quite as idyllic as it looked on screen, though. We were on that barge for about eight weeks, and got drunk a lot because there was nothing to do after we finished shooting for the day. It was fun, but we kept falling out because we had hangovers half the time.
This time round, I swapped the barge for my 12-year-old Porsche. My director wanted me to drive an old MGB, but I said: ‘Look, Dave, I know it’s a Porsche, but it’s a convertible, and there’s nothing more romantic than cruising through rolling countryside in an open-top car.’
He let me have my way.
Road trip without maps
The many restaurants in the city of Troynes in Champagne. Rick says it is well worth visiting for its ‘utterly lovely medieval centre as well as its fine sparkling wines’
We’ve called this series Secret France and it was partly inspired by French Leave, a brilliant guidebook written by a guy called Richard Binns in 1980. It was full of recommendations for great restaurants he had found by travelling off the beaten track.
Like Binns, I wanted to follow my nose through France. I knew I was going to end up by the Mediterranean, but apart from that didn’t really have a plan.
Of course, no part of France is really that secret, but I wanted to go to places that were less known — such as the city of Troyes in Champagne, which is well worth visiting for its utterly lovely medieval centre as well as its fine sparkling wines.
Its culinary claim to fame is andouillette, a horrible, stinky tripe sausage that, nonetheless, I’ve always had a sneaking like for. I had a lot of fun at Charcuterie des Halles (aube-champagne.com), tasting the wares of champion andouillette-maker Patrick Maury who flavours his with champagne.
Rick’s new TV series Secret France saw him sampling wine at Chateau Chalon in the Jura region. The series starts on Tuesday at 9pm on BBC2
One of the most beautiful parts of my meandering journey was the Auvergne. I’d never been there before, so in preparation I listened to the Songs of the Auvergne, a collection of folk ballads arranged by Joseph Canteloube in the Twenties and Thirties.
I went around asking the locals: ‘What do you think of the Chants d’Auvergne?’ And they said: ‘Quoi?’ They hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.
The countryside turned out to be as delightful as the songs. If it was in the UK, the Auvergne would be celebrated like the Lake District, but there’s so much beauty and emptiness to be found in France, it’s just another rural region in central France for them.
The Jura Mountains near the Franco-Swiss border are also sensational. They’re like the Cotswolds on steroids: limestone hills with honey coloured buildings. In the highest part, the Haut-Jura, you can ski in winter and hike through Alpine pastures in summer.
Or you can enjoy an eight-course dinner of cheese at family-run Restaurant du Fromage (lafourchette.com) in Malbuisson as I did. Basing your entire menu on cheese seems absurd, but it was so good.
The Jura region is the home of Comté, which is one of my favourite cheeses. The locals like it young and fresh — the stuff that tastes of the pastures — and they call the older Comté ‘fromage de snob’, although I think it’s exquisite.
I also love Auvergne’s Cantal, and Roquefort of course and Normandy’s Neufchâtel . . . I came back from filming and said to my chefs: ‘I’m fed up with just having English cheese in my restaurants. I want some French cheese back.’ In France, the smell of ripe cheese is a sign of a good restaurant, and I really like that.
In the Jura, we also found a bar that reminded me of those Irish stores that you used to get in somewhere like West Cork in the Seventies, where half is the shop and half is the pub. I couldn’t believe it still existed, and no, I’m not going to reveal where it is — it’s staying my little secret.
Sticking with tradition
While I was making this series, I felt frustrated at times. Some days I was too late for lunch because they close their kitchens at two o’clock, and once I was refused a table because the chef didn’t want to cook for eight people at 9.30pm. Often their menus are samey and lack inventiveness because the French only seem to like their own food.
But I ended up admiring them because they want to keep their traditions. They’re formal in the way they sit themselves down and get the napkin out.
I’ve always believed eating is the most important thing you do in life, so you might as well make something of it — and I love that the French have such a respect for food.
If you nose around, you can still eat really well in France. And it’s the most beautiful country in the world, so why wouldn’t I keep going back?
- Rick Stein’s Secret France begins on Tuesday at 9pm on BBC2. His cookbook Secret France is out now (BBC Books, £26).