You could say we managed to cram a fair bit into the first leg of our grand road trip, though that would imply that the rest of it has been slower paced. The first stage of our two week, 2,700 mile European tour in two classic cars (one 50 year old MGB and one 43 year old MG Midget) went…relatively smoothly. No breakdowns thankfully, which was a bit of a concern as our MGB had essentially been stripped down and totally restored in the preceding three months after my husband Tim discovered a potentially catastrophic (and very well hidden) rotten “patch” back in February. Tim has spent nearly every waking hour since on the strip down and rebuild, and managed to get it back on the road a grand total of 10 days before we were due to leave – plenty of “running-in” time…
Nevertheless, stage one and the first 1000 miles were fairly smooth sailing, with the exception of my parents (the occupants of the MG Midget) needing to catch the next ferry, 24 hours after us, following an unexpected work-related hitch. They missed our first night’s stop-over in France on Saturday, but Dad managed an epic 600 mile blast in 12 hours and caught us up in Italy on the (second) Sunday night. We actually were watching each other’s progress throughout the day using a GPS tracking app, and we pulled up to our B&B within ten minutes of each other – Top Gear style.
Tim and I, however, had a rather more sedate weekend. We arrived in France on Saturday morning and made our leisurely way to our first B&B, Au Grenier de la Chouette, near Beaune. The name translates to “In the attic of the owl”, and is apparently named after the resident of the barn pre-B&B-renovation. We arrived hot, sweaty and in need of a glass of wine (or several). The owner, Maryse, greeted us warmly and she was very understanding about the fact that there were only two arrivals instead of the planned four people. There had also been a miscommunication regarding dinner; I had not received her email asking if we wanted her to cook for us, but thankfully she had prepared food just in case – the last thing we wanted to do at that point was get back in the car to search for our supper. She showed us round to our lovely bedroom, her beautiful garden and brought us out a delicious bottle of local Saint-Romain white wine and some pretzels to snack on while we relaxed in the sun.
When we sat down to dinner, we were offered a taste of two home-made aperitifs; peach wine and spiced cherry wine. Both wines were in fact made using local white and red wines respectively as a base, which were then infused with the crushed leaves of the chosen fruit tree. The peach aperitif was one of the best liqueurs I have ever tasted, and I was very disappointed to find that it was not possible to buy it anywhere. The pale pink liquid has a slightly almond aroma, while it tastes just like the flesh of the peach itself. I would have sworn that you would need to use whole fruit to produce such a flavour. Unfortunately this is something I am going to struggle to reproduce at home, as apparently the peach tree is unique to the area, with fruits the size of apricots. It is used in the local vineyards as a “canary”, as it is so sensitive to poor conditions or disease that it will succumb first, allowing early measures to be put into place to protect the grape vines.
Maryse sat and shared dinner with us, which further added to the homely feeling, and allowed me to quiz her in detail about what we were eating. Our first course was actually made by her mother, a type of pork terrine with parsley (fromage-de-tête, literally translated as “head-cheese”, or brawn). This was served with wild asparagus, foraged locally by her family. I had never heard of wild asparagus before, and so was suitably over-excited by this discovery. This triggered a discussion on foraging, with Maryse showing me photos of huge baskets of different species of wild mushrooms they collect from the local woods, while I was left wildly envious – West Wales is not a great mushrooming hotspot, much to my annual disappointment. Our main course was (another mother recipe) a rich Boeuf Bourguignon, a traditional regional beef stew.
Following a comfortable night in our beautiful, rustically-decorated room and a delicious breakfast of fresh bread, and homemade jam and cake we were ready to roll again. Sunday was the day of our 6th wedding anniversary and we were looking forward to our day; heading into the mountains, passing through Switzerland and into Italy for the night. We had breakfast in France, lunched in Switzerland and ate dinner in Italy! From Au Grenier de la Chouette we travelled east, and shortly began to see signs of serious snow-capped mountains in the distance.
We crossed the Swiss border and dropped down into Lausanne, sitting on the edge of Lake Geneva, just in time for lunch. We ate at Café de Grancy, which had relatively high reviews on Tripadvisor and had outdoor seating. We both chose “Le Cheeseburger de Grancy”, which was served with a big salad, a pile of crispy grilled bacon and pommes de terre grenaille. These, it turns out, are essentially roast potatoes, but the “grenaille” classification refers to the small size of the potato – these are usually the tiny potatoes clinging to the roots when you remove a potato plant from the ground; they are sold separately to the main crop and usually cooked whole and unpeeled. My pommes de terre grenaille were sweet fleshed with salty, crispy skins and I shall definitely be popping my own teeny tiny potatoes out of the ground and into the deep fat fryer in future. Regarding the burger itself, one of the things I enjoy when coming to the continent is the availability of pink juicy burgers that haven’t been cooked brown all the way through. I also appreciated the coarse texture, the experience of chewing defined pieces of meat rather than a smooth finely ground paste formed into a patty that is so often the case. My only criticism was that it could have done with more seasoning – slightly disappointing in an otherwise well-made and well-cooked burger. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph the dish before diving in and demolishing it – this was to be a feature of the holiday where my appetite got the better of my memory; you can play spot-the-meal-with-the-bite-taken-out-of-it… However I did remember to take a snap of my pudding – which naturally being in Switzerland was a rich, smooth, creamy chocolate mousse.
With full bellies we left Lausanne and headed towards our crossing point into Italy, The Great St Bernard Tunnel. Previously we had hoped to take the MGs over the Great St Bernard Pass, which is the most ancient pass in the Western Alps and contains the hospice famous for the St Bernard rescue dogs. Unfortunately we were passing through two weeks too early, as the pass itself doesn’t open until the beginning of June. Nevertheless, the road either side of the tunnel was a beautiful drive, and at 1,918m is still an impressive altitude – the old car was noticing the lack of oxygen, as its performance began to drop off and the temperature rose considerably. We dropped down into Italy through the Aosta valley as evening was setting in; as the light on the slopes changed to a warm yellow we turned off the main road and began to climb again up towards the commune of Champorcher and our first night in Italy, the Relais des Reines.