Perestrello Geller reviews Cafe des Voyageurs, Banon, Provence.
God I hate these incessant invites to spend time at other people’s houses and the tongue in cheek, ‘no more than three days though, because you know what they say….’
Is there anybody living abroad who does not have this quote in their store cupboard of witticism? It’s said with a complicit, we-are-such-close-friends-that-I-am-not-going-to-offend-you, smugness, that it practically makes me want to vomit.
So you can imagine my state of mind when I received an invitation to spend some time (no more than three days because friends are like fish, they go off after that..boom! boom!) in a friend’s house on the Swiss Riviera. I said I’d stay for one night, and that is only because I have a certain nostalgic fondness for Montreux, where, way back in the day, I used to help Freddie with his gigs at the Jazz festival.
Personally I think it’s an insult to the French that the Swiss have appropriated the name Riviera. I’ll give you that the stretch of lake shore between Lausanne and Montreux, with its steeply shelving fields of vines, has a unique picturesque quality, but other than that, please….I mean where would you prefer to rest your clogs Nice or Lausanne, instead of roller blading ladies in Lycra, there’s the occasional langlaufing Fraulien. When I visited there wasn’t even any snow, but that didn’t stop these speed-walking ski-pole-wielding knee-jerking teutonic women from practising their winter technique.
By the way can someone please tell the French-speaking Swiss that French is supposed to be a Romance language. With their harsh German-aping syllables they’ve turned the once beautiful tongue of international diplomacy into words that rumble with the guttural menace of the Daleks.
‘Exterminate, exterminate,’ that’s precisely what I would like to do to Switzerland. In the 24 hours I spent in the country I didn’t once see a person laugh, and I was treated to perhaps the worst value meal in my life. Charly’s bar and restaurant in Vevey was doing a hunt special and since it was raining (doesn’t it always in Switzerland) and the adjacent Sherlock Holmes bar looked like it was more than capable of rustling up a hash-pipe for its name-sake, I allowed the silver haired Charly to welcome me in.
Now there are places in the world where a steak costing more than 50 euros does not offend. Indeed I can think of plenty of restos on the real Riviera, where the standard steak frite nudges this price. Usually though there’s a compensating view of the dappled sunlight glinting over the onrushing waves of the Med. In Charly’s bar there was no excuse. Drizzle fell over Lake Geneva and as I cast my eyes down the menu, I fought to convince myself that I hadn’t been accidently cryogenically frozen, and then thawed after 100 years of rampant inflation. I know Switzerland has a currency crisis, but when a steak in a restaurant costs nearly 10 times the European minimum wage, there’s something wrong.
Instead I chose a dish from the special hunters menu. Pheasant, with a gnocchi pasta accompaniment. I had no idea why I was being subjected to potato pasta with the game, but the pheasant was half the price of the steak. When the plate arrived, the pheasant breast was submerged in a creamy sauce and surrounded, in addition to the gnocchi, by a melange of over-cooked vegetables, including Brussel sprouts. Yes – it’s Christmas every day at Charly’s, not for the customers, but for Charly, who hands over the credit card machine, and asks you point blank to add a tip.
As the machine was proffered I screamed:’ I am a retired former theatre angel and promoter get me out of here’
The next day I landed back in the sanity of France. Winding my way through the Alpes d’Haute Provence towards the Riviera, the town of Banon blipped on my satnav. Why not, I thought I haven’t had a decent Banon cheese for ages. And do you know whose fault that turns out to be – yes, it’s the humourless, bean counting, international money laundering Swiss’ fault. But I am getting ahead of myself.
First lunch at the Café des Voyageurs, an ever popular stalwart of the area. The inside was full, the terrace was full and there was a small queue of people waiting for a table. The Plat du Jour was roast pork served with a grain risotto. Ninety per cent of people were tucking happily into this, but because I’d been starved of steak in Switzerland, I ordered steak au morilles. The whole dish cost just more than the morilles sauce supplement for Charly’s steak. And it was good, so good, the earthy depth of the mushrooms had seeped into the sauce, the faux fillet was cooked pink but not raw, and there were no gnocchi or Brussel sprouts in sight. Dessert was a chestnut mousse, topped with whipped cream in honour of the Fete de Chataigne, going on in nearby Revest de Bion. I love chestnuts, sweet and earthy, they carry the promise of winter before it actually arrives. They make me want to light a fire and snuggle up with a hearty glass of Bandol.
After lunch I crossed the road and entered the Super Banon epicerie, where I discovered a man with as much enmity for the red and white flag as myself. True Banon goat’s cheese I learnt tastes different every week of the year. The average taster should be able to discern seasonal differences in texture and flavour, because of the changing grazing habits of the goats, but the experienced Banon resident can practically tell the time of day from the taste of his goats cheese.
However you have to go to Banon to pick the real stuff up, and that’s all the fault of our Swiss friends. Nestle bought the cave co-operative in Banon (they own the one in Roquefort too) and have rubberised and uniformed the product, to the extent that the cheese we pick up in the supermarket is only ever going to be an overpriced disappointment.
I’m still trying to think of one positive thing to say about Switzerland – any suggestions?