Because I come from a backpacker travel heritage, where a good picnic is the answer to a prayer, it's taken me decades to recognize the value of a fine meal. Now I can enthusiastically embrace a long, drawn-out dinner splurge as a wonderful investment of both time and money. Nowhere is this truer than in France.
My friend and co-author Steve Smith and I head to a fine restaurant in Amboise, in the midst of France's château-rich Loire Valley. Some Americans are intimidated when they go to a fine French restaurant, but they needn't be. Many waiters speak English and are used to tourists. It's helpful to know what to expect.
In France, you can order off the menu, which is called la carte, or you can order a multi-course, fixed-price meal, which, confusingly, is called le menu. Steve orders a basic menu and I go top-end, ordering off la carte.
French service is polished and polite, but not chummy. Waiters are professionals who see it as their job to help you order properly for the best possible dining experience. If you get a cranky waiter…ou're not alone. Even the French love to complain about grouchy service.
Aurore, our waitress, is no grouch. She smiles as I order escargot for my first course. Getting a full dozen escargot rather than the typical six snails doubles the joy. Eating six, you're aware that the supply is very limited. Eating 12, it seems for the first eight like there's no end to your snail fun. For the full experience, match your snails with a good white wine.
With my crust of bread, I lap up the homemade garlic-and-herb sauce while asking Aurore how it could be so good. With a sassy chuckle she says, "Other restaurateurs come here to find the answer to your question." Then she adds, "It's done with love." While I've heard that line many times, here I believe it.
In France, slow service is good service. After a pleasant pause, my main course arrives: tender beef with beans wrapped in bacon. Slicing through a pack of beans in their quiver of bacon, I let the fat do its dirty deed. A sip of wine after a bite of beef seems like an incoming tide washing the flavor farther ashore.
My crust of bread, a veteran from the escargot course, is called into action for a swipe of sauce. Italians brag about all the ingredients they use. But France is proudly the land of sauces. If the sauce is the medicine, the bread is the syringe. Thanks to the bread, I enjoy one last saucy encore, a tasty echo of the meat and vegetables I've just savored.
Shifting my chair to stretch out my legs, I prepare for the next course: a selection of fine cheeses. It sounds like a lot of food, but portions are smaller in France. What we typically cram onto one large plate they spread out over several courses.
Aurore brings out her cheese platter, a cancan of moldy temptations on a rustic board, the mellow colors promising a vibrant array of flavors. With the cheeses is a special extra item: raisins soaked in Armagnac brandy. The lovingly sliced selection of cheeses arriving on my plate makes me want to sing — but in consideration for other diners, I just mime my joy silently.
Then comes dessert. Mine is a tender crepe papoose of cinnamon-flavored baked apple with butterscotch ice cream, garnished with a tender slice of kiwi. That doesn't keep me from reaching over for a snippet of Steve's lemon tart with raspberry sauce.
Even though we've finished our dessert, Aurore doesn't rush us. In France, your server will not bring your bill until you ask for it. When I'm in a rush, here's my strategy: When I'm done with dessert, and the waiter asks if I'd like some coffee, I use it as the perfect opening to ask for the bill.
Our entire meal costs us about $60 each. I consider it $20 for nourishment and $40 for three hours of bliss…a spa for my taste buds. I can't imagine a richer travel experience, one that brings together an unforgettable ensemble of local ingredients, culture, pride, and people.
This article was adapted from Rick's new book, For the Love of Europe.