Carry Me Back to Ol’ Gascony
“La Fontaine de Mars?” exclaimed our taxi driver excitedly when we named our destination. That’s right. “Barack and Michelle ate there!” he almost squealed with pride and delight. “C’est reputé!” By now my wife and I were almost as excited at the prospect as he was, so infectious was his enthusiasm, and we almost forgot how excited we already were, even before we heard this. So extraordinary was the Obama magic to this French African, that merely dropping passengers off at this hallowed place was to touch the hem of glory.
The restaurant sits on the corner of a tiny, arcaded square, not far from the Eiffel Tower, that contains, no surprise really, the Fountain of Mars, an elegant neo-classical source of fresh water, complete with the bars where you could rest your bucket in the days before hot ‘n’ cold running was available, on tap, in your own home. In warmer seasons you can apparently sit out under the arcade and in the square (ah, dining outside! – an oft-dreamed-of treat for Brits benighted by their murky weather). Tonight, however, the temperature outside is below freezing, and scarf, hat and thick coat are order of the day as diners walk briskly towards the restaurant’s rosy glow.
If what you’re looking for is the feel of an older France, for one of those mythical eating places, casually encountered, once, in passing, on a road trip long ago, and looked for ever since, but never found again, then La Fontaine de Mars might be the place for you. The minute you enter, the signs are good. There’s no modern designer designery-ness. There are no white linen tablecloths with creases so sharp you could cut yourself, no chandeliers. There’s a crowded, cluttered, old-world inn feel, which does not seem artfully artless (even if perhaps it is), but rather, simply, charmingly disarming. No need for putting on airs, it says.
We’ve been invited by Parisian friends, who lead us straight through the ground floor towards the stairs. Apparently La Fontaine de Mars is very trendy, very voir et se faire voir (see and be seen), and, as happens when this happens, it can seem very noisy, especially, so we’re told, downstairs. So we head up the stairs to a room that promises as much gastronomy, no less bonhomie, but far less cacophony (and so it turns out). The first thing that hits you is the artfully artless wallpaper – a Toile de Jouy style pattern with (instead of the more usual white) a mushy-pea green background that’s been poured around the red-on-white figures. The effect, apart from being almost eye-wateringly hallucinogenic, simultaneously evokes eighteenth century coaching inn and provincial bad taste, which works perfectly.
There are four of us, and we’re seated on each side of a square table, so much more sociable than the two-by-two almost adversarial effect of a longer, rectangular one. The ladies begin with Kir, the gents with Americanos. The Americano, new to me, is an aperitif that I’ve never seen in America, consisting of a Campari and soda with added vermouth and enough fruit trimmings to put a proper English Pimms to shame. As aperitifs should be, it’s a refreshing tongue tingler, bitter, dry and sweet all at once, in an icy little glass.
Our waiter, clad in a red gingham style bib apron which exactly matches the restaurant’s signature rustic table cloths (no bow ties here), brings over the blackboard with today’s specials on it and explains it to us. Normally a determined fan of whatever is on the paper à la carte menu, I am astonished to find myself ordering both starter and main course from this board.
Richard, one of our hosts, tells me while we’re waiting that La Fontaine is a bistrot style restaurant. A bistrot, he explains, serves, by tradition, nothing fancy, just the authentic local cuisine of the area it’s in. La Fontaine’s chosen home territory is the South-West, what used to be, in pre-revolutionary days, Gascony. The region is to this day determinedly about as far from Parisian urbanity and cosmopolitaness as it can get itself, still rural, still rustic, still the producer of classic French produce like Armagnac, foie gras, goose, duck, plums and prunes.
Richard explains that hearty (if heart unfriendly), earthy stews like the one I’ve ordered would have been a second breakfast for the farm workers, who had often begun the day before dawn with a light (presumably ‘continental’) breakfast, and then returned for a more substantial, calorie-injecting one. Working the fields can of course consume several thousand calories a day, a fact that’s also behind the fatty, filling breakfast, so beloved by the British, of fried eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, beans, fried bread and anything else cardiac-arrest-worthy that you can cram onto a plate.
My starter, Velouté de champignons, arrived as a bowl, empty but for a small medallion of pan-fried foie gras in the bottom. This approach to soups seems to be fashionable these days – resist at all costs the urge to tuck into what you might think is a complimentary amuse gueule. Horreur! What a gauche faux pas that would be. Because shortly afterwards a tureen arrives, and the soup itself is ladled around this little island, surrounding it and finally submerging it, leaving only a savoury slick curled in a creamy sea to betray its submarine presence. The result is delicious, delicate, buttery, savoury and very smooth, the purest of purees mixed with the softest of pates.
My main course, when it follows, is a coup, a tour de force, not in any sense of complex theatricality, but in the sheer joie de France of it. It’s Cassoulet aux haricots Tarbais, a recipe from the Languedoc (where once they spoke the langue d’oc, the language of the West). It’s a thick stew of white beans (from Tarbes, near the Pyrenees), with carrots, tomatoes, celery and other vegetables, with three large pieces of meat sitting seductively in it. There’s a big cylindrical chunk of saucisson à l’ail, the kind of often-eaten-cold cured sausage the English don’t make, here imparting an almost sweet savouriness to the proceedings. There’s also a very large, home-made Toulouse sausage, which is like the largest and best English-style banger you’ve ever had, its coarsely minced pork working wonders in the almost soup-like sauce. Finally there’s a large piece of cuisse de canard confit, duck thigh cured in fat, which meltingly contributes to the extremely rich, creamy, meaty mix.
It’s all enormously filling, and enormously satisfying, casting you straight back to that lost restaurant you idly stopped at many years ago, the wonderful food they served there, the unpretentious surroundings, and there you were, thinking this is what food was like everywhere in France. The years that followed, you found, were a rude awakening. Well, the classics of the South-West served at La Fontaine will send you back to your dreaming, if the rest of the menu is anything like my velouté and cassoulet.
Finally, the coup de grace, or perhaps I should say the coup de glace, Pruneaux à l’Armagnac, prunes stuffed with brandy, with ice cream. What is it with us English? We never seem to consider the delicious, delicate, flavoursome, dried product of the plum, the prune, to be a fitting fruit or flavouring for desserts. Perhaps we can’t get past its pseudo-medicinal reputation as a laxative, as if it were the fruit equivalent of cod liver oil. What we’re missing!
My dessert comes on both a bowl and a plate. The plate hosts two pods of prune ice cream, which for creamy, unctuous but delicate sweetness outclasses many a brasher fruit that we so commonly think of as ideal for ice cream. In the bowl, the prunes themselves are another coup, perhaps a coup de main this time, as each is individually filled with a burst of Armagnac that explodes like a grenade in your mouth as you bite into it. If you could bear to part with them, you could probably light these incendiary delights and storm the barricades with them (aux armes, les citoyens!), so alcoholic are they.
As I slipped into sated fullness, I reflected that, although I had not set out to do it, my three courses turned out to be a kind of menu dégustation of the rural delights of the bucolic South-West, from foie gras, through a Languedoc recipe with Tarbes beans, to prunes and brandy (this is not quite the obviousism it sounds, as La Fontaine also serves non-Gascon fare). If this is the kind of thing you like, I can tell you, based merely on these three dishes, look no further.
Some small, espresso style coffees and red gingham wrapped chocolates later, and the bill arrived. The price for fours aperitifs, a glass of white wine and a bottle of Medoc, some Evian and four sets of three courses each, was 330 euros, about £270, or £70 a head. Ah, so the prices, unlike the food, are Parisian rather than peasant. Compared to London prices for the same kind of thing, however, it was excellent value. But, if you ask me, even costing more, it would have been a small price to pay to be cast back into a dream of rural French food that I thought I’d long lost. Especially as, in this case, with great generosity, our hosts paid. Thanks to both of them! And also to our copains Barack and Michelle, for their little boost in helping put La Fontaine de Mars ever more firmly on the map of France.