Four days in France, and a glittering opportunity, you would think, for the home of fine dining to show this grubby Londoner how it's done and restore my faith in gallic food. Four days, therefore, to cram in as many restaurants, vineyards and cheeseboards as possible in the sixth largest city in France and capital of the Loire valley, Nantes.
But the omens weren't good. Instead of the baking sunshine I had been used to during my brief return to London, Nantes seemed to be under a permanent cloud of drizzle and on our arrival relatively early on Thursday evening, there was apparently nothing open - not a supermarket, boulangerie, delicatessen, nothing - in the entire city. Taking advice we drove to the Carrefour in Beaulieu, where we arrived just as that was also closing and spent our first night picking at greasy crêpes in a strip-lit mall and got lost in the mind-bogglingly complex Nantes one-way system on the way back. It was to be our most enjoyable meal out of the trip.
The next day, foodie salvation came in the form of a brilliant cheese shop in the centre of town where a friendly French lady helped me pick out a selection of local produce and made our first lunch in Nantes a thoroughly satisfying journey of cheesey discovery. Highlights were a local camembert rolled in alcohol and hazelnuts which had a pungent burn and attractive mushroom shape; a doughnut-shaped goat's which was rich and smooth and disappeared almost immediately; a fantastic spongey unpasturised cow's cheese washed with the local wine which was mild and fresh without being plain; and an astonishingly strong Epoisses-style cheese called l'Ami du Chamberlin which wasn't local but I love Epoisses and couldn't resist.
But the best thing I bought from that cheese shop wasn't even a cheese. "Beurre Cru a la Baratte Bois Moulé a la Main - Demi Sel" (to give it its full title) is literally the best butter I've ever tasted and immediately became the most in-demand item on our lunch menus. As fresh and smooth a butter as you're ever likely to taste, all I can suggest is you visit the sole UK importers Teddington Cheese (other countries you'll have to do your own research!) and get yourself a pack now. You will never want another butter again, I promise you.
That evening, we visited a local institution called La Cigalle, which was an impressively eccentric room containing palm trees, moorish tiling and mirrors and which served food entirely without merit. My gaspacho was OK but had some frozen prawns pointlessly lurking at the bottom of the bowl, and my main course of duck parmentier tasted and looked like dogfood and was served on a searing hot glass plate onto which they'd dumped a wilted serving of green salad. My other dining companions were served cold and overcooked fillet steak - quite an achievement really. The place was rammed too, so either the residents of Nantes rated décor over food or nothing else was open. Either is likely.
Saturday was a day devoted to wine. The vineyards of the Loire Valley are rightly famous for their incredible variety and produce everything from sparkling reds to dark rosés to everything in between. A style that we saw a lot of on our tour was 'Muscadet Sur Lie', a slightly fizzy minerally white which is unique to the area and makes a great aperitif. Another of my favourites was a red made with the Gamay grape, which was light and fruity without being too sweet. It's also worth mentioning that without exception the wine producers were genuinely enthusiastic about their products and led us through the tastings with charm, patience and an excellent command of the English language. Working in a place you love making a product which is appreciated the world over, every day the commute being a leisurely punt through the rolling French countryside with nothing more taxing than the odd stray cow to avoid on the way home. No wonder they all looked so serenely happy, the lucky, lucky bastards.
That night came a second chance for Nantes dining to redeem itself. L'Atlantide is the only Michelin-starred restaurant in town and I thought would be a guaranteed way to sample the best that Nantes had to offer. First, the good points. The room was attractive (if uncomfortably hot until one of our party managed to jimmy a window open) and had great views of the river from its 5th floor location. Service wasn't bad either, although the wines didn't always arrive with the food. And an amuse of eel and langoustine mousse was smooth and fresh, if a little on the buttery side. Thereafter, it was all downhill.
The best thing you could say about the langoustine starter was that it was unchallenging and the prawns were large. But with larger shellfish you have to think about deveining, and these hadn't been. The waste pipes were bitter and soily and spoiled the dish completely. An amateurish mistake for a Michelin-starred restaurant.
The next course of red mullet was overcooked and not very fresh tasting, although the accompanying wild mushrooms were nice. But even if the fish had been fresh and cooked well, it was drowned under an overpoweringly sweet crust of honey and nuts and topped with some tiny shell-on shrimps which nobody had any idea what to do with. Shell them with tweezers or eat them whole and crunchy? Answers on a postcard please. Very odd.
Meat course of lamb shoulder with gnocci and lambs kidney was overcooked and messily presented. The gnocci were dense and stodgy, and the kidney was a tasteless dry lump weirdly set into the lamb meat so the whole thing resembled a large diseased eye.
The dessert was better, but not much. The wild strawberries were surprisingly tasteless - the first time I've ever had bland wild strawberries so heaven knows what they did to them - but the sorbet was quite nice.
The bill came to about €80 each which I suppose isn't bad, but the standard was far below what I could have reasonably expected for a starred place, and certainly below the standard you could get in London for the same price. I know London is a major world city and Nantes is just a regional centre, but this is France - my memories from childhood holidays was just rolling up to the nearest roadside brasserie and having the best meals of my life. What on earth has happened in the last ten years?
I should reiterate, however, that although my experiences in restaurants in Nantes was uniformly poor, there seems to be a healthy and sophisticated food culture on the ground level that you would expect from a major French city. The Talensac Market has a mouthwatering array of fruit, veg, fish, meat, cheese and regional specialities that would shame any regional market in the UK. We saw about five minutes of it before it closed.
Frustrating opening hours turned out to be a running theme of the trip - one vineyard we attempted to visit was literally only open from 10:00-12:00 on Saturday. A window of two hours to get in, get your tastings done and get the hell out. Maybe the owners were just too busy enjoying life to be bothered running a viable company. How very French, and how very enviable.
La Cigalle 4/10