Tables d’hôtes — the best thing since French bread

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by Paula Prindle, Orient, OH

Many of you have stayed in bed-and-breakfasts in Europe and know that they have but a slight resemblance to those in the U.S. European B&Bs are not simply quaint alternatives to hotels; they are usually cheaper. There are other benefits as well, such as living with the locals and profiting from insider tips — without the Martha Stewart penalty.

But B&Bs, or chambres d’hôtes as they are called in France, are just the tip of the iceberg. The real find is the chambre d’hôte that includes a table d’hôte, dinner offered to guests staying on the premises.

The benefits

Just like chambres d’hôtes, tables d’hôtes are available in all price ranges. (Meal prices quoted here were accurate at the time of consumption.) The more expensive B&Bs naturally put on the more expensive dinners. Since my husband and I are basically budget travelers, we look for reasonably priced meals, comparable to what we would pay in a restaurant.

Our 2005 B&B in Gigondas.

Then why not just eat in a restaurant? Simply put, we could not afford such meals — even the simplest chambre d’hôte puts on a meal far exceeding the quality and quantity of a restaurant meal in our price range.

They use fresh, local ingredients (often from their own gardens) and generally serve regional cuisine. In addition, the ambiance of eating with a family or other travelers around a convivial table of local specialties and bottomless carafes of local wine is hard to beat.

It’s nice to return “home” at the end of an arduous day and not have to set out again in quest of a decent meal, not to mention driving back after partaking of the local beverage of choice.

Our first experience with a table d’hôte meal was in 1996 in Richecourt, a village in Lorraine five kilometers from the American WWI monument at Montsec. My husband and I were the only guests and the hosts did not eat with us, although they and the rest of Richecourt could well have, considering the portions.

We were served six beef fillets (from the neighbor’s farm) with potatoes, carrots and peas (from the garden), a huge green salad (also from the garden), three cheeses and a whole cherry pie.

A large, fresh baguette and a bottle of local red wine accompanied this “simple peasant meal,” as our hostess called it. It remains to this day the best 10-dollar, 4-course meal we ever ate. (Contact Yvette Benard, 22 rue Principale, 55300 Richecourt; phone 03 29 90 43 65.)

Worth repeating

We have eaten six dinners at the Normandy chambre d’hôte Le Relais de la Vignette (Bertrand and Catherine Girard, Route de Crouay, 14400 Bayeux; phone 02 31 21 52 83 or visit http://perso.wanadoo.fr/relais.vignette), just west of Bayeux. Each one has been a masterpiece. We have dined indoors and alfresco and loved every bite and sip.

Dining alfresco in Normandy in 2004 during the 60th anniversary celebration of D-Day. Photos by David and Paula Prindle

Each meal has begun with a creative apéritif concocted by Bertrand from fruit from their own trees. Then Catherine takes over and entices the palate with course after course of Norman cuisine.

Our first meal, in 2001, consisted of a crêpe flambée of tripe and apple swimming in calvados. This was followed by ham and pineapple with rice in a light cream sauce. Then came the trou normand, which was sorbet in calvados, followed by the cheese platter and, finally, a huge bowl lined with lady fingers and filled with a strawberry-and-cream delight. The meal was accompanied by cider and red wine and ended with coffee.

Our most recent meal there (I refuse to call it our last meal), in 2004, began as usual with Bertrand’s “apéritif surprise.” A plate of charcuteries was followed by fish en papillotte with noodles and a light cream sauce. Then came the trou normand, the cheese plate and a birthday cake with sherbet and flutes of champagne. (It was Catherine’s birthday.)

If you plan a stay here, you can’t miss. Our dinners cost €21 ($25).

A memorable meal

Between Sancerre and Bourges is a choice chambre d’hôte with excellent dinners, La Reculée (contact Elisabeth Gressin, La Reculée, 18250 Montigny; phone +33 2 48 69 59 18 or e-mail e.gressin@wanadoo.fr). In 2001 we had a meal there that we will long remember (cost, $15).

Of course, we had Sancerre wines, both white and red, and Crottin de Chavignol, the local goat cheese. We began with a tarte au fromage blanc (different from a dessert tart) and a seafood paste. Veal in red wine was accompanied by haricots verts with tomatoes.

Then came the cheese course and, finally, a coconut flan in caramel sauce. Our charming hostess described each course and its origins.

Our latest finds

For our September ’05 trip to France, we carefully chose our B&Bs with tables d’hôtes in mind. We wanted to spend most of our time in two areas of Provence, so we settled on two well-located properties. I am delighted to say we chose wisely.

Paula Prindle in the arènes de Nîmes.

We stayed three nights just outside Gigondas, well known by wine connoisseurs. It is located east of Orange and south of Vaison-la-Romaine on the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Our B&B, La Ravigote (contact Sylvette Gras, La Ravigote, 84190 Gigondas; phone/fax 04 90 65 87 55 or visit www.laravigote.com), was charming and rustic and the welcome was warm.

We opted to have the €17 ($20) dinner two of our three nights (unfortunately, our hostess did not cook every night). Dinner was served family style, making it so easy to help oneself to extra servings.

Our first meal began with grated carrots with olives and a wonderful tapenade. The main dish was scallops cooked with fennel and served with a grain much like couscous.

The cheese course consisted of six cheeses and was followed by crème brûlée. Rosé and red wine (both local vins de pays) accompanied the meal, and coffee or tisane followed.

Our second meal began with a salad of tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olives and potatoes in vinaigrette. Then came quail in grape leaves with rice, all covered with a sauce made of grapes. The cheese course was followed by a very rich and tasty mousse au chocolat.

Our B&B hosts in Maillane, Christian and Caroline Crestin.

You can understand why we plan to return this year.

We stayed five days at our next chambre d’hôte, Le Mas de la Christine (contact Christian and Caroline Crestin, Le Mas de la Christine, 13910 Maillane; phone +33 4 90 95 79 49 or visit www.masdelachristine.com). Our hostess offered the table d’hôte meal (€19) every other night. Each meal began in the lounge around the fireplace.

Conversation accompanied the choice of apéritif and split olives, tapenade and bull sausage. We retired to the dining table a half hour later where we launched into pine nuts and warm chèvre on toast with lettuce sprinkled with Canadian bacon.

The main course was a sort of daube de boeuf, made from bull; the bulls of the Camargue region are well known, as is the wild rice that accompanied it.

Five cheeses were followed by a pear in spiced wine sauce with ice cream. Red wine from Nîmes and coffee or tea completed the meal.

Our third and final table d’hôte meal in 2005 started with a papeton — thus named because it was a pope’s favorite dish — an eggplant and zucchini flan with spicy tomato sauce. Tuna fillet provençal and mashed potatoes followed. Then came the cheeses and a wonderful egg custard. We loosened our belts and waddled upstairs with smiles on our faces.

Table tips

Some notes of caution are in order. Be prepared; these dinners often last until 11 p.m. They are not merely meals, they are the evening’s entertainment. Relax and enjoy.

Also, no matter how good the first course is, I wouldn’t recommend seconds. These meals are not only delicious, they are copious. You may want to wear your buffet pants.

By the way, the “entrée” in France is the first course, the entrance to the meal. The main dish is called the plat principal.

If a green salad is served, it generally comes after the main course to cleanse the palate before the cheese course. If a pointed section of cheese is served, don’t cut off the point bluntly; make a new point by slicing diagonally.

Gee, just thinking about these meals is making me hungry. I think I’ll see what’s in the fridge.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Paula Prindle, Orient, OH

Many of you have stayed in bed-and-breakfasts in Europe and know that they have but a slight resemblance to those in the U.S. European B&Bs are not simply quaint alternatives to hotels; they are usually cheaper. There are other benefits as well, such as living with the locals and profiting from insider tips — without the Martha Stewart penalty.

But B&Bs, or chambres d’hôtes as they are called in France, are just the tip of the iceberg. The real find is the chambre d’hôte that includes a table d’hôte, dinner offered to guests staying on the premises.

The benefits

Just like chambres d’hôtes, tables d’hôtes are available in all price ranges. (Meal prices quoted here were accurate at the time of consumption.) The more expensive B&Bs naturally put on the more expensive dinners. Since my husband and I are basically budget travelers, we look for reasonably priced meals, comparable to what we would pay in a restaurant.

Our 2005 B&B in Gigondas.

Then why not just eat in a restaurant? Simply put, we could not afford such meals — even the simplest chambre d’hôte puts on a meal far exceeding the quality and quantity of a restaurant meal in our price range.

They use fresh, local ingredients (often from their own gardens) and generally serve regional cuisine. In addition, the ambiance of eating with a family or other travelers around a convivial table of local specialties and bottomless carafes of local wine is hard to beat.

It’s nice to return “home” at the end of an arduous day and not have to set out again in quest of a decent meal, not to mention driving back after partaking of the local beverage of choice.

Our first experience with a table d’hôte meal was in 1996 in Richecourt, a village in Lorraine five kilometers from the American WWI monument at Montsec. My husband and I were the only guests and the hosts did not eat with us, although they and the rest of Richecourt could well have, considering the portions.

We were served six beef fillets (from the neighbor’s farm) with potatoes, carrots and peas (from the garden), a huge green salad (also from the garden), three cheeses and a whole cherry pie.

A large, fresh baguette and a bottle of local red wine accompanied this “simple peasant meal,” as our hostess called it. It remains to this day the best 10-dollar, 4-course meal we ever ate. (Contact Yvette Benard, 22 rue Principale, 55300 Richecourt; phone 03 29 90 43 65.)

Worth repeating

We have eaten six dinners at the Normandy chambre d’hôte Le Relais de la Vignette (Bertrand and Catherine Girard, Route de Crouay, 14400 Bayeux; phone 02 31 21 52 83 or visit http://perso.wanadoo.fr/relais.vignette), just west of Bayeux. Each one has been a masterpiece. We have dined indoors and alfresco and loved every bite and sip.

Dining alfresco in Normandy in 2004 during the 60th anniversary celebration of D-Day. Photos by David and Paula Prindle

Each meal has begun with a creative apéritif concocted by Bertrand from fruit from their own trees. Then Catherine takes over and entices the palate with course after course of Norman cuisine.

Our first meal, in 2001, consisted of a crêpe flambée of tripe and apple swimming in calvados. This was followed by ham and pineapple with rice in a light cream sauce. Then came the trou normand, which was sorbet in calvados, followed by the cheese platter and, finally, a huge bowl lined with lady fingers and filled with a strawberry-and-cream delight. The meal was accompanied by cider and red wine and ended with coffee.

Our most recent meal there (I refuse to call it our last meal), in 2004, began as usual with Bertrand’s “apéritif surprise.” A plate of charcuteries was followed by fish en papillotte with noodles and a light cream sauce. Then came the trou normand, the cheese plate and a birthday cake with sherbet and flutes of champagne. (It was Catherine’s birthday.)

If you plan a stay here, you can’t miss. Our dinners cost €21 ($25).

A memorable meal

Between Sancerre and Bourges is a choice chambre d’hôte with excellent dinners, La Reculée (contact Elisabeth Gressin, La Reculée, 18250 Montigny; phone +33 2 48 69 59 18 or e-mail e.gressin@wanadoo.fr). In 2001 we had a meal there that we will long remember (cost, $15).

Of course, we had Sancerre wines, both white and red, and Crottin de Chavignol, the local goat cheese. We began with a tarte au fromage blanc (different from a dessert tart) and a seafood paste. Veal in red wine was accompanied by haricots verts with tomatoes.

Then came the cheese course and, finally, a coconut flan in caramel sauce. Our charming hostess described each course and its origins.

Our latest finds

For our September ’05 trip to France, we carefully chose our B&Bs with tables d’hôtes in mind. We wanted to spend most of our time in two areas of Provence, so we settled on two well-located properties. I am delighted to say we chose wisely.

Paula Prindle in the arènes de Nîmes.

We stayed three nights just outside Gigondas, well known by wine connoisseurs. It is located east of Orange and south of Vaison-la-Romaine on the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Our B&B, La Ravigote (contact Sylvette Gras, La Ravigote, 84190 Gigondas; phone/fax 04 90 65 87 55 or visit www.laravigote.com), was charming and rustic and the welcome was warm.

We opted to have the €17 ($20) dinner two of our three nights (unfortunately, our hostess did not cook every night). Dinner was served family style, making it so easy to help oneself to extra servings.

Our first meal began with grated carrots with olives and a wonderful tapenade. The main dish was scallops cooked with fennel and served with a grain much like couscous.

The cheese course consisted of six cheeses and was followed by crème brûlée. Rosé and red wine (both local vins de pays) accompanied the meal, and coffee or tisane followed.

Our second meal began with a salad of tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olives and potatoes in vinaigrette. Then came quail in grape leaves with rice, all covered with a sauce made of grapes. The cheese course was followed by a very rich and tasty mousse au chocolat.

Our B&B hosts in Maillane, Christian and Caroline Crestin.

You can understand why we plan to return this year.

We stayed five days at our next chambre d’hôte, Le Mas de la Christine (contact Christian and Caroline Crestin, Le Mas de la Christine, 13910 Maillane; phone +33 4 90 95 79 49 or visit www.masdelachristine.com). Our hostess offered the table d’hôte meal (€19) every other night. Each meal began in the lounge around the fireplace.

Conversation accompanied the choice of apéritif and split olives, tapenade and bull sausage. We retired to the dining table a half hour later where we launched into pine nuts and warm chèvre on toast with lettuce sprinkled with Canadian bacon.

The main course was a sort of daube de boeuf, made from bull; the bulls of the Camargue region are well known, as is the wild rice that accompanied it.

Five cheeses were followed by a pear in spiced wine sauce with ice cream. Red wine from Nîmes and coffee or tea completed the meal.

Our third and final table d’hôte meal in 2005 started with a papeton — thus named because it was a pope’s favorite dish — an eggplant and zucchini flan with spicy tomato sauce. Tuna fillet provençal and mashed potatoes followed. Then came the cheeses and a wonderful egg custard. We loosened our belts and waddled upstairs with smiles on our faces.

Table tips

Some notes of caution are in order. Be prepared; these dinners often last until 11 p.m. They are not merely meals, they are the evening’s entertainment. Relax and enjoy.

Also, no matter how good the first course is, I wouldn’t recommend seconds. These meals are not only delicious, they are copious. You may want to wear your buffet pants.

By the way, the “entrée” in France is the first course, the entrance to the meal. The main dish is called the plat principal.

If a green salad is served, it generally comes after the main course to cleanse the palate before the cheese course. If a pointed section of cheese is served, don’t cut off the point bluntly; make a new point by slicing diagonally.

Gee, just thinking about these meals is making me hungry. I think I’ll see what’s in the fridge.