We cooked on the side of a road, by a beach, on a boat…
Chef James Martin tells us about when he took a road trip around France in Keith Floyd’s old car
When I left the BBC TV show Saturday Kitchen after hosting it for 10 years, I was mainly sat at home twiddling my thumbs. One night my friends and I were in the pub, setting the world to rights and talking about what I could do next. One of my mates then said: “You bought that car, why don’t you take it on a road trip back to France?” The car he was referring to was Keith Floyd’s old car, a Citroen 2CV, that I’d bought from his daughter.
We took the idea to a TV company. Usually you would take lots of charts, videos and pitch documents, but on this occasion I just walked in and said that I wanted to drive Keith Floyd’s old car through France. They said yes straightaway.
I had to get the car restored a little bit. It passed its MOT in France, but failed it in the UK by 32 points. However, it was the perfect car to do the journey in as it meant so much. I met Keith Floyd a few times. I first met him when I was 12 years old. He was stood on stage introducing a meal he had helped cook. He was so drunk he fell off the lectern. Legend is a phrase often used, but in this case it was probably deserved.
When the TV company gave us the green light on our road trip, we then had to quickly work out where we should go. The first port of call, we decided, should be the chateaux in Saint-Emilion, where I used to work during the summer holidays from the age of 12.
It was at Hostellerie De Plaisance I learnt the art of cooking. Within the first five minutes of walking into that kitchen I knew that would be it for the rest of my life. The chef was a complete lunatic. Shouting, swearing, throwing things at everybody… But I loved it. The intensity, the camaraderie… If you’re a footballer, you strive to be the best and play for the best team in the world, otherwise what’s the point? However, when you’re part of the best team, it’s bloody hard work. It’s the difference between walking, running and sprinting. In a three-star Michelin restaurant, you’re sprinting.
So I decided this had to be the first stop on the 18-week road trip that would take me through Provence, Perigord, Burgundy, Alsace, Pay Basque and Brittany.
We also decided that we should cook en route and recreate versions of iconic French dishes. Everything was done on a table that we threw in the back of the van. Over the next three-and-a-half months, we cooked on the side of a road, by a beach, on a boat… We bought our ingredients from local markets. I think that you can really get the feel of a place by walking around a market.
We made lots of memorable stops, including at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Vaucluse, the town that Keith Floyd made his home.
It’s one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever been to. Every Sunday they have this beautiful antiques market as well as an amazing floating market. The market traders paddle up and down the waterways, selling their veg. It looks like something out of Venice. You wouldn’t think that happens in France.
One of the other great stops on the trip, was when we visited Georges Blanc in Vonnas, who is one of the greatest chefs in the world. His great-grandmother opened the restaurant in 1872. He took over the restaurant in 1980 and he’s had three Michelin stars ever since.
When you enter the town you see a sign that says the name of the town, Vonnas and then you see a second sign that says this is the town of his family.
He’s the President of Le Bresse Society. The Bresse chicken is the most expensive chicken in the world. It’s the national symbol of France, thanks to its blue legs, bright white feathers and large red comb. It’s only produced in Bresse and it needs to be fed on corn grown in the province. When I was there he showed me how to cook it. You can’t cook it like you would a normal roast chicken. As it’s free range, you need to cook the legs separately. It’s kind of like a guinea fowl. Very unique.
I became a bit of a groupie when I met George Blanc. I got three signed aprons, four signed tea towels, and every single one of his books – all 15 of them. The film crew put a timer on when he started signing my buys, and 15 minutes later he was still going.
Another great day on the road trip was when we were cooking with Michele Roux Sr at his home near St Tropez. I know him quite well, so I phoned him and asked if there was any chance of him joining us at the local market and cooking with us. He said, “I can do better than that, you can cook at my house. We’ve never had a film crew at our home.” It was one of the greatest cooking experiences of my life. Cooking on his balcony with the yachts in the distance and his swimming pool in front of us… I will never forget that for the rest of my life.
Like any road trip, there were a few things that went wrong. For example, we went to this famous mustard factory in Dijon. You couldn’t film in there. So we just stood outside and stirred mustard for two hours. I thought this was never, ever, ever going to work. All we were doing was grinding mustard in a pestle and mortar. However, it looked great when it was edited.
If I had another holiday I would go straight back to where I went to in France. I saw some of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. I also had the best starter I have had in my life there last year at Le Pre Catelan in Bois de Boulogne, and I need to go back there to have the full meal.
Quick Fire Questions
Strangest thing I’ve eaten: Probably baby camel in the Emirates. They put it under bricks and cook it in the sand. It was gross. I wouldn’t have that again.
My favourite three restaurants: Per Se in New York owned by Thomas Keller. His sister restaurant is the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. I ate 17 courses of food when I was there and I couldn’t tell you how he made any of them; Le Bernardin in New York is one of the best fish restaurants in the world; and Le Pre Catelan in Bois de Boulogne.
Most surprising thing someone has said about my food: “Probably it was Jay Rayner for The Observer – the biggest food critic in the UK. He came to the Talbot for a meal and he didn’t realise I was cooking. He wrote a review two weeks later. It said, “I’m going to stick my neck out here, but this is probably the greatest meal I’ve had in 2015.”
The most famous person I’ve cooked for: HM The Queen – you don’t get any bigger than that. I cook for her quite a lot.
The food trend that should disappear: Foam. It’s like someone has just spat on a plate. It’s disgusting. I almost gave one of my chefs a clout for presenting me with foam during a tasting. I think he did it on purpose. It’s had its day. It should now go.
James Martin’s Home Comforts Series 3 airs on Fridays, 7.25pm on BBC Lifestyle (StarHub Channel 432). Also, look out for a James Martin Home Comforts special (Series 3) from 1 to 19 May 2017, 6.05pm on weekdays, exclusively on BBC Lifestyle (StarHub Channel 432).