Actually not very grand, but rewarding anyway. This year we again decided to start a trip by ship from Plymouth to Santander. We made this crossing for the first time last year, when the infamous Bay of Biscay was as smooth as the proverbial mill pond.  This year it was the opposite and we had an extremely rough crossing. Fortunately, the Brittany Ferry ship was large and comfortable with good facilities and food briketenia-staff– and pretty powerful stabilisers!  We managed not to feel sick and had a good meal and a bottle of red wine. There is a really good cold buffet where one can go up as many times as one likes….which we did! We left Plymouth at 15.45 and reached Santander, 45 minutes late, at 13.00 the following day. We stayed at the same hotel as last year, in the middle of nowhere. The Hotel Etxegana, Ipiñaburu Auzoa 38, near Zeanuri was about an hour and a half from Santander and an hour from Bilbao. We arrived there at just after three, but lunch was no problem. How nice to be in Spain, where one can eat as late as one wants. It is a lovely little hotel with friendly staff and excellent restaurant. The next day we crossed over the border near St Jean de Luz and in to France. We stayed in Briketenia, (rue de l’Église, 64210 Guethary. www.briketenia.com 0033559265134). We ate another brilliant meal in Mattin in Ciboure as well as very good meals in Zoko Moko (6 rue Mazarin, St Jean de Luz  00335 59080123) and in one of Helene Darroze’s favourite seafood restaurants, Ostalamer, (160 route des Plages, Acotz, St Jean de Luz 00335 59858471  contact@ostalamer.com.)

une-table-au-sudThen it was in to the Gers, near Condom, to pay our first visit to our super new Cotes de Gascogne suppliers at Guillaman, before heading east to Castres for the night. The next day we drove to Escales to visit Chateau de la Bastide. This was our first visit since it had changed hands. It is now owned by a very charming lady, Chinese in origin, but who has lived in France for 30 years, so is much more French than Chinese. The property was previously owned by a lovely French couple who have retired to Toulouse. We tasted some new wines, notably the Exuberance and the Optimée, both of which went down extremely well at The Tasting. Indeed we are virtually sold out of both of them! We learnt here that all of their harvesting takes place between the hours of one in the morning and six, in order to maintain nice cool, fresh grapes. We had lunch in a tiny restaurant in the village. You wouldn’t have looked twice at it from the outside, but appearances can be deceptive and inside it was beautifully done with a lovely terrace outside, where we ate. We stayed with a cousin of mine in Pezenas before heading off to Marseilles the next day. I hadn’t been to Marseilles for years as, to be honest, I was a bit frightened of its reputation. However, we stayed in a very nice hotel on the Vieux Port and ate a stunning meal in Une Table au Sud, (2 Quai du Port – Ludovic & Karine Turac. 00334 91906353. E: unetableausud@wanadoo.fr) which has recently won a Michelin star. It wasn’t cheap, but the food was amazing.

Then it was off to Puyloubier to visit our supplier of olive wood products. We had a lovely couple of hours there and took away as much as we could cram into the car. We ate on the plane-tree shaded Place in Puyloubier; a classic Provencal Place with a fountain playing gently in the middle. Next we headed for Forcalquier to visit Francois Faure, who makes the exquisitely turned apples and pears we sell here. He loves showing us exactly how he does it and it really is fascinating. We then made for Vonnas where we had perhaps the best meal of our trip at Georges Blanc’s L’Ancienne Auberge – (00334 74509050.) We have eaten there several times before and always eat the same thing – Frogs’ legs sautéed with garlic and parsley and Poulet de Bresse, roasted with the most delicious pureed potato with spring onions in it, a sort of French Champ! A tarte fine aux pommes and a chocolate fondant finished the meal. It was all perfect, in a lovely place with very good service. The Ancienne Auberge is the training restaurant for chefs and staff alike of Georges Blanc’s 3 Michelin star hotel and restaurant across the square. Georges Blanc is to Vonnas what Rick Stein is to Padstow, only more so. We had to go to an Audi garage in the village after lunch and, lo and behold, it was also owned by Georges Blanc!

That evening we travelled on to the Hostellerie du Chateau de Bellecroix, (20 Chemin de Bellecroix 71150 Chagny. 00333 85871386 www.chateau-bellecroix.com) This is perfectly positioned if you want to visit southern Burgundy, which we did the next day. It’s rather an old-fashioned hotel, impressive from the outside, but with rather tired rooms inside. The dining room was nice and the food pretty good. Of course, we hardly ate anything as we had had such a good lunch! The following day we visited our main Burgundy supplier and were given a detailed tour of the main chateau and their winery and cellars, which were mighty impressive. Of course we had to taste a few superb Burgundies along the line. What a tough life we lead! Then we moved on to Troyes to make a fleeting visit to Devaux, our main Champagne supplier and old friends. Then we meandered up to Le Moulin de Connelles, (40 route d’Amfreville-sur-les-Monts, 27430 Connelles 0232595333  www.moulin-de-connelles.fr) a slightly faded, but thoroughly charming hotel right on the Seine. It has had quite a bit spent on it this year and looked pretty good. The chef had also changed and the food was much better. The service, with friendly and multilingual Pierre in charge, was as good as ever. The next day we drove to Les Jambons d’Antan to visit Jacques who produces the delicious air-dried, smoked Normandy ham. His is a state of the art business yet the actual smoking is done in a huge tall chimney with racks of hams from floor to roof. It takes 6 months to smoke a ham over the tiniest beech fire imaginable, which gives off just a wisp of smoke. If you haven’t tried it, you must! Lunch was a few miles away on the coast at La Cale, (La Plage, Blainville sur mer 00332 33 47 22 72). It is one of our favourite places, sitting right on the beach overlooking large oyster and mussel beds. The food is basic but delicious and very cheap. You sit at a rickety table on the sand watching the tractors busily bringing in the oysters and mussels. We ate, as we usually do, moules frites and superb they were! Our final night was spent in a hotel right on the coast with spectacular views of the sea. L’Erguillere, (Port Racine, 50440 Saint-Germain-des-Vaux. 00332 33527531 www.hotel-lerguillere.com ) is a charming hotel with sea views from most of its rooms. It doesn’t have a restaurant, but there are several good restaurants nearby.  Le Moulin a Vent is within walking distance. La Malle aux epices (Auderville 0233527744 www.lamalleauxepices.com 0233527744) is a 5 minute drive away and there are a few others too. The hotel is light and airy, quite modern with well equipped rooms and bathrooms. A good place to spend your last night before catching the ferry, only a 20 minute drive away.