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An Irish Chef in France - Driving Through France

Eiffelss Bridge

Euro-Toques chef Martin Dwyer, is much missed in Ireland since he and his wife Sile sold their eponymous restaurant in Waterford and moved to France. They now live in the Languedoc, where they take guests - and feed them very well.

This month: Driving Through France.

Last month we went back to Ireland for a catch-up with the friends and relatives. As we were going for about three weeks we thought it worth while to drive to Cherbourg and take the ferry across to Rosslare. As we live in the very south of France, we can see Spain from our terrace - on a clear day - we are over a thousand kilometres from the Channel so this is a journey we don’t do often on our trips back to our native land.

Modern air flights and charges mean that it is no longer practical for us to take the long road home, and sadly I mourn this. I love the long slow ten hour (about 14 with stops) drive through France.

The first time I was ever in France I was en route for Spain, this was in 1963 and flights, if they even existed, were expensive and infrequent. The route to Spain was by train through France and, as these trains were equipped with sleeping berths, I remember the whole experience as being a very pleasant one.

When I had my own family we still used the ferries to go on our camping holidays in France. These started out (as all Irish family camping holidays did) in Brittany and Normandy. Then, as the weather in northern France became more and more like Irish winter weather - and the children became able to endure longer trips - we began to descent further and further into La France Profonde. It was on these trips I guess when I began to fall in love with the amazing and much varied regions and departments which the French like to call l’Hexagone.

Having spent a most enjoyable three weeks in Ireland this Spring we boarded a ferry again in Rosslare, as we had often before, and after eighteen hours of complete relaxation cruising on the (this trip) still, calm waters of the Atlantic, we headed south, home to the Languedoc.

Leaving the ferry in Normandy can be very un-surprising for an Irishman. The countryside is familiar, the farming bucolic like our own. There are cows and horses, crops and gardens. Hedges are much like Irish ones with Hawthorn and Sloes and in the banks there are primroses, much as you would find in Wexford. The temperature is also familiar, in April there will still be a nip in the air and not a lot of indications that summer is coming in.

Moving into the next part of France things start to become a little more exotic. The area known as the Pays du Loire always has been (and still is) one of the more affluent parts of France. Here the houses and villages are made of cut stone and you cannot avoid passing over wide slowly moving rivers, very beautiful in their tree bordered elegance.

Small detours in this area will bring you to marvellous chateaux. This is the area where the kings and aristocracy liked to build their hunting lodges and these in time often became their main residences. This was often the area where we broke our journey to visit one, this trip was no exception and we managed to fit in two!

Leaving the Loire area we come to the centre which is probably the bread basket of France, where large areas are planted with crops with fields extending as far as the eye can see and with the small fields of Normandy with their hedge boundaries now just a memory.

This is the part where I just put the foot down and drive. It is flat, and dull, here. In previous summers we used to pass through huge fields of sunflowers here but this spring these seemed to have been replaced by acres of bright yellow Rape shining brightly in the sun.

The South centre of France is a plateau which rises from the Loire Valley and the Limousin and doesn’t descend again until it comes to the Languedoc and the plains of the Mediterranean.
This part of the journey is probably the most beautiful.

As one rises into the Massif Central the vegetation changes dramatically. Here one is surrounded by poorer land, moorland cropped short by sheep and goats and the hardy cattle of the Auvergne. Everywhere are the old stubs of volcanoes, fabulous primitive shapes which become snow covered in winter, and provide skiing holidays for the people in the know.

This road we are on now, the A 75 Autoroute is toll free once we pass Clermont Ferrand. This is because it was built by the French government, started in the socialist mid-century, to provide a route for the workers of the north to the beaches on the Languedoc. It was finally completed about five years ago.

The undoubted high point of the A75 is passing over the Viaduct of Millau, it is one of the highest bridge spans in the world and passing over it is a bit like flying.

But before Millau the autoroute will have passed another beautiful bridge. The Viaduct de Garabit straddles the Truyere river its delicate steel supports making it look like the Eiffel Tower is lying on its side across the river. This is not surprising really as it was designed by the same man (in 1842) and in its day was also one of the tallest bridges in the world. It is worth stopping to look at from the nearest rest area.

After Millau we descend down the Massif into the warm sunny Languedoc. (Last week it went from -1C in Normandy to 21C on our terrace.) Here again we are surrounded by the red roof tiles of the Mediterranean and surrounded by familiar grape vines which are the dominant crop of the area.  We are home.

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Martin & Sile DwyerMartin Dwyer started cooking professionally over 40 years ago in the legendary “Snaffles Restaurant” in Dublin. After a time in a Relais Chateau in Anjou and in “The Wife of Bath” in Kent he opened his own much acclaimed restaurant, “Dwyers”, in Waterford in 1989. In 2004 he sold this and moved south to France where he and his wife Síle bought and restored an old presbytery in a village in the Languedoc. They now run Le Presbytère as a French style Chambre d’Hôte. Martin however is far too passionate about food to give up cooking so they now enjoy serving dinner to their customers on the terrace of Le Presbytère on warm summer evenings. Martin runs occasional cookery courses in Le Presbytère and Síle’s brother Colm does week long Nature Strolls discovering the Flora and Fauna of the Languedoc. 

Le Presbytère can be seen at: www.lepresbytere.net
email: martin@lepresbytere.net

Twitter: www.twitter.com/DwyerThezan

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