As we drove the final four kilometres up the steep road that leads to the Auberge du Vieux Puits in the village of Fontjoncouse in the rugged Corbières mountains of southwest France, little seemed to have changed since our first visit 15 years ago. La garrigue, the scrub in this part of the Mediterranean that is full of rosemary and thyme, stretched out on either side; the sun played behind the mountains; the cicadas sang loudly.
A string of carefully tended vegetable plots marked the entrance to the village. Then, directly under the plane trees and at precisely 7.15pm, a sight unfolded that is common to all those small towns and villages across France where a highly regarded restaurant is the main employer.
Rather like a call to prayer, people were striding out on to the main road. There were young girls in red jackets, members of the housekeeping team; bustling waiters and waitresses putting on their uniforms; and several cooks languidly enjoying their last moments in the fresh air before entering the heat of the kitchen. As I drove round the back of the restaurant I noticed a staff member hastily cleaning the windows.
Once inside, however, it was clear that a great deal has changed for Gilles and Marie-Christine Goujon since they took charge of this restaurant just over 20 years ago for a trifling sum. It now has 14 bedrooms, the kitchen has garnered the maximum three Michelin stars, and Goujon has won the coveted title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France. The Goujons have also generated many jobs in a region where the traditional sectors, agriculture and viticulture, are in decline.
At midnight, as we left the restaurant and stood under a starry sky, Goujon confessed that it has all been something of a struggle (it must be wild up here in the long winter). But he has never lost his joie de vivre. In fact, I don’t think I have ever encountered such an apparently happy chef as Goujon. He beamed with pleasure and pride as we walked into his restaurant. Such was his concern for one member of our party, who had been laid low and spent the evening in her room, that he almost ran over to our table as we sat down, offering vegetable bouillon and any other elixir at his kitchen’s disposal. When we left he was genuinely delighted to hear that we had eaten well.
Which we had, albeit with reservations. It was the service not the food that was disappointing. While the young waiting staff buzzed around the restaurant enthusiastically, there seemed to be a lack of communication at the upper echelons. We were asked on two separate occasions whether we would like to order our meal; our requests for water went unanswered; and of course, this being haute cuisine in France, there were far too many interruptions.
Perhaps one reason why Goujon retains such a sunny disposition is that he takes a straightforward approach to his menu. The à la carte menu offers just three choices of starter, fish and meat main course and four desserts. There is also a €175 surprise menu and a €145 menu entitled Quelques pas dans la garrigue, which we all chose.
Our menu began with an appetising essence of gazpacho from local tomatoes but then took off down the eastern coast of Spain to Palamós, source of excellent red prawns. We were served one whole each, expertly peeled and cooked sitting inside a “bracelet” of crisp black rings of potato combined with squid ink. This was excellent despite the unnecessary addition of a smoked ham foam.
We then travelled west to Guadeloupe for a mild version of sauce chien, or dog sauce, with a fillet of turbot – and then south to Morocco for a rendition of pigeon and apricots in a well-crafted pastilla, or meat pie.
Our champagne aperitif was excellent value, a bottle of non-vintage Chartogne-Taillet’s Cuvée Sainte-Anne (€80) ordered in a vain attempt to restore our friend’s appetite. The three of us then shared a stunning bottle of Château de Fonsalette 2001 red from the southern Rhône (€187).
The cheese trolley featured more than 50 varieties made from cow’s, goat’s and ewe’s milk and various combinations thereof. The best local producers are on show at breakfast with honeys, jams and an excellent cherry juice.
I left Fontjoncouse with two vivid impressions: of a restaurant deeply rooted in its “terroir” and of a resolute, and happy, chef.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Auberge du Vieux Puits
5 avenue St Victor, 11360 Fontjoncouse, France +33 (0)4 68 44 07 37