Savour the real taste of France

Published: 21 Dec 2011 09:30

FRANCE is one of those destinations that draws you back time after time - there is always something new to discover - from glorious scenery to cultural treasures or regional cuisine.

This captivating country has a vast choice of places to stay, ranging from chain hotels to smaller, more traditional accommodation, frequently offering regional food.

Many people miss the chance to sample the latter, by opting for the well-known international names. However with a little research, you can discover some delightful, individual hotels. One good place to start is the English website of Logis de France - a federation of independent hotel-restaurants. No two hotels are the same, but all offer an identical philosophy of quality accommodation, and regionally-inspired cuisine.

We recently had the opportunity to try out two Logis hotels at Royat, an attractive spa town in the Auvergne area of central France.

We stayed at La Belle Meunière (The Beautiful Miller) run with great aplomb by Laurent Jury and his wife Christine. Once an old mill, legend has it that this hotel was the refuge of a famous French general and politician, General Boulanger and his mistress, Madame Marguerite de Bonnemains.

The hotel's four stunning rooms, all feature high quality bathroom fittings and are named after famous French people. The decorations are chosen to reflect this, with art deco for the Coco Chanel room, contemporary for the Pompidou and Chinese for Varenne, a Governor of Indo-China.

We stayed in the Boulanger suite which appropriately had a "boudoir" atmosphere in shades of red, pink and aubergine, with marble-topped furniture plus a startling, modern "statue" of a scantily-dressed lady!

Perhaps not the room to book for your granny or maiden aunt - but we loved the mix of style, fun and luxury. The bathroom was huge with fluffy towels and robes, a free-standing bath and walk-in shower. The price of this suite is 280 euros a night - with the current cheapest room at 130 euros. However, Monsieur Jury is converting six more rooms to be priced about 95 euros. Breakfast is 15 euros.

La Belle Meunière would be a lovely place for a special family celebration.

Mr Jury, an experienced chef who has worked at the Ritz in Paris, offers imaginative dishes such as grilled lobster with béarnaise sauce, or a peach dessert, roasted with lavender honey accompanied by pistachio-flavoured macaroon and ice cream with almonds. Four-course set menus start from 39 euros.

Our dinner for the evening was booked at another Logis in Royat - the imposing Hotel Royal Saint Mart, run by five generations of the same family since 1853. The present owner is Mme Béatrice Carrot-Dulac.

Like the Belle Meunière, it has a fascinating history. From 1940 to 1942, it housed the French secret service before it was taken over by the Germans, reverting to a family hotel after the war.

To start, we enjoyed an apératif of champagne with home-made crisps and olives in the attractive garden.

When we were shown to our table, the dining room was full. It was clear the hotel was popular with older clientele - in Royat to take the waters.

For a starter, I chose brunoise de legumes Nicois en millefeuille - a colourful and tasty dish of layered, puréed vegetables skewered with sheets of wafer-thin millefeuille pastry. My husband opted for a plateful of dry-cured ham which he enjoyed.

My main course of filet de sandre roti au beurre rouge was a delicately-flavoured fish with butter sauce accompanied by roasted new potatoes, cauliflower and two vegetable purées. My husband opted for Croustillant d'Andouillette de Troyes a la graine de Moutarde, a rather unusual-looking dish of sausage in a sauce with a crispy topping. A half-bottle of St Nicolas de Bourgueil, a crisp, Loire Valley red, accompanied our meal.

The cheeseboard offered a great choice of cheeses from the region, and we were so full, that we had to pass on dessert. Despite the crowded restaurant, we received excellent, attentive service.

A set four-course menu at The Hotel Royal St Mart is from 28 euros. Room prices range from 75 euros to 135.

After a comfortable night's sleep at La Belle Meunière, breakfast served there the next morning was a delight, including home-made crusty bread rolls, croissants, peach jam, an apple sponge, and fresh fruit, all beautifully presented. Everything was absolutely delicious and our very English request for tea with milk left Mr Jury unfazed and offering us a huge choice of teas from an elegant box.

We said a reluctant farewell to La Belle Meunière, promising ourselves a return visit as soon as possible.

Mary Cherowbrier

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