Just before Christmas it generally snows in France. And every time the entire country seems to be taken by surprise, provoking extraordinary panic and disruption on the roads, in the airports and on high-speed rail tracks.
This year was no exception. Heavy snow brought Paris and the northern part of the country to a standstill. The year before, we got also stuck in the snow as we were driving from Paris to London via the Channel Tunnel. The return was even more adventurous and we were in a desperate hurry because my 95-year-old mother had just broken her knee and been rushed to hospital – the joys of Christmas.
But 10 years ago or so, thanks to the pretty awful pre-Christmas weather, I stumbled by pure chance on an unusually uplifting gastronomic experience. My son Charles and I were driving from Paris down to the Riviera in an old automatic Jaguar that was clearly not very happy on the icy road. As night fell, I felt we simply had to stop. We were in Burgundy and near Tournus. I quickly looked in my Michelin Red Guide, telephoned the Hotel de Greuze there and booked dinner at the next-door restaurant Greuze.
The hotel was a lovely old mansion that overlooked the wonderful abbey of Tournus. We walked into the restaurant and immediately fell upon one of the classic figures of French cuisine. Jean Ducloux stood there with his toque on his head clutching a walking stick. Together with Paul Bocuse in Lyon, his restaurant had become one of the great watering holes for anybody travelling up or down the autoroute du soleil.
I recall all this fondly and sadly because Ducloux died at the age of 90 at the beginning of December. Like Bocuse, he was an eccentric figure, embodying what the French call “l’art de vivre à la française”. He opened his restaurant in 1947, naming it after Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the 17th-century painter and native of Tournus. In 1949, he won his first Michelin star. In 1978, he got his second. He never made three, but his establishment richly deserved them for his classic and generous cooking, his quirky elegance and his towering and entertaining presence.
That night a decade ago, he showed us to a table next to a roaring fire. My son ate snails for the first time, something Ducloux said was essential in the education of any budding gastronome. I stuck to his well-known pâté en croûte. We shared a Poulet de Bresse with marvellous seasonal root vegetables. During dinner, Madame Ducloux came round to ask if we were enjoying ourselves and admired my son’s Ralph Lauren sweater. There was a sudden commotion when Baroness Rothschild walked in. She, too, had been caught in the snow but unlike us had long been a regular here.
Ducloux retired a couple of years later but continued to live in Tournus. His main sous-chef took over but it was never quite the same. The restaurant lost a star and a bit of its soul; it has since changed hands again and been taken over by the hotel. The new chef and his wife are a jolly couple and have successfully revived the restaurant thanks to clever and quite affordable menus.
It remains one of my favourite stops on the road to the Riviera. But it has never matched that night a decade ago when the snow pushed me through its door. For all its efforts, the spirit of Jean Ducloux is no longer there.
Next week: Peter Bazalgette sips the finest detox teas