Cycling and motoring itineraries differ in this respect: car tours are constructed around points of special interest – sightseeing or eating; on a bike ride you see things, and eat and sleep in places, that happen to be on the way. Both kinds of itinerary lead to the hill village of Vézelay, which wins three stars from the green Michelin for its 12th century pilgrimage basilica and similar in my red bible for Marc Meneau’s gastronomic pilgrimage hotel L’Espérance. It also marked the exact mid-point of the line we drew across France. L’Espérance would be our halfway house.
Like pilgrims of old, we saw the church towers from afar and watched them fail to grow appreciably larger as we toiled along. After a hard afternoon in the Morvan hills it was a relief to find L’Espérance on the valley floor, leave our bikes behind and walk up a hill for a change, carrying nothing at all.
And, like many other modern pilgrims, we checked in to a cheap B&B hotel across the road from L’Espérance. Running such establishments near trophy restaurants must be good business. They are like the little birds that live on the back of hippos, grooming them and feasting on their bugs. If the Meneaux found them too annoying, they could open a cheap annexe of their own.
“Would you like to meet my husband?” Madame Meneau asked, when we presented ourselves for dinner. It was an unexpected honour, and a slightly disconcerting one, to have the great man sit down to watch us eat.
“Pas comme ça!” Meneau said severely, when I dipped the flesh of an oyster in the mound of rock salt on which it had been served. “The salt is for decoration.” Oops.
We had warned the Meneaux that we were arriving by bike, hoping that they would look kindly on the shortcomings of our travelling wardrobe. Marc Meneau had constructed a special menu for us, starting with a sumptuous thick soup, as he explained, “to rebuild your strength at the beginning of the meal.” The soup did the job, and we attacked the ensuing banquet with gusto, drinking Meneau’s brother’s Vézelay rouge (“much better than mine!”) while the chef expounded his culinary theories and reminisced about catering for private hunting parties with royal guests from England.
“Like you they are sportif and they have a real appetite,” he said appreciatively. “It’s a rare thing these days. Most of the time here we are cooking for the eye and the mind, not the stomach.” M Meneau’s exploding foie gras balls were a spectacular treat for the mouth, and we would still taste them as we pedalled up to Vézelay the following morning.
When it comes to rolling the eyes, talking rubbish and nodding off during dinner, I have previous, and I was worried about staying awake through the evening. It had been a long day in the saddle and our sightseeing stroll up the hill had taken longer than expected, leaving no time to regroup, horizontally, before dinner.
I don’t know if it was M Meneau’s brilliant menu planning, or the invigorating effect of exercise; but to my relief the upper lids defied gravity without the aid of matchsticks or an emergency dash for le petit coin. And Galaxy was on top conversational form, quizzing Meneau tirelessly about game – how to translate it, kill it, and cook it. The two sportsmen discussed woodcock for ages, after a lively display of animal charades to establish that they were talking about the same bird. It may not be true that you learn something new every day, but that day we learnt the word bécasse.
Two new things, in fact: I was interested to discover that Meneau, who is proud of his local origins and cuts a mildly raffish figure with his penchant for jazz and abstract modern art, is a keen golfer, and has expanded his empire to include a new gastro-golf resort in northern Burgundy, well placed for the Parisian ‘stay and play’ market.
“So where do you usually play?” I asked, exploiting a pause in Galaxy’s long-winded exposition of the criteria for admittance to the Woodcock Club when my reverie alighted on the fact that I had not noticed a little red flag on the map anywhere near Vézelay. “Chez moi,” Meneau replied in lordly fashion, and went back to his woodcock conversation.