A Serious French Failure, and A Swiss Solution: Eating on the Go (or Surprisingly Sated in Slovenia)
During the last few months, I've been traveling all over France for various stories I'm working on, and so I've had a very intense in-the-trenches experience of what it's like to eat-on-the-go in France today. I'm not talking about leisure travelers who have the time to track down a great bistro off of the autoroute and make time for a good meal, but someone who is doing busy, time-short business travel in the country that has long claimed to have the world's best food.
I actually think it still does, with the woefully glaring exception of eating-in-transit situations. French food in airports, on trains and in highway rest-stops is just plain awful, and rather than waste billions of Euros vainly promoting the French language around the globe annually through the Alliance Francaise (do that many people in Katmandu really want to learn French, or does it appeal to Caviar Gauche sensiblities to have an AF there), I'd like to suggest that France launch a NASA style initiative to reinvent mass catering, i.e. fast food. The fact that it was recently announced that McDonald's is soon to pick up another cluster of franchises in French highway rest stops speaks volumes. That said, I agree with chef Thierry Marx, who recently told me, "You can't kick McDonald's--they are only answering a need." Indeed, but let's have a French response instead.
And if anyone is looking for pointers on the subject, please allow me to share a recent hungry-in-transit experience that ended, er, um, happily, herewith:
With Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama planning major road repair and building projects, it’s obvious that this is also the perfect time to totally rethink the quality of what both the French and Americans eat when they pull over for a meal along their country's high-speed road systems. Here, America actually has a longer and vaguely more glorious history, since stopping at the now defunct Howard Johnson’s chain (mostly in the North East and Middle West) used to be part of the fun of the long drive from my childhood home in Connecticut to summer vacations on Cape Cod and Nantucket—HJ’s fried clams were actually pretty good, as was their ice cream, especially the pale green mint chocolate chip. Unfortunately, however, most highway rest stop in both France and the United States have long since become culinary black holes, peddling only fast food and industrial sandwiches.
But as I recently discovered during a meal that was never meant to happen, it doesn’t have to be this way either. Let me explain.
Following a flight from my home in Paris to Llubljana last Fall, I’d planned lunch at Pri Lojetzu, the best restaurant in Slovenia, before heading to the Mediterranean resort of Portoroz to meet friends. Alas, Air France was more than an hour late in leaving Paris, so around 2pm, I found myself hurdling down the highway during a light snow storm in the Justinian Alps with a growling stomach. To be sure, there were restaurants at the rest stops along the way, but since I was pretty certain that the odds of finding a decent meal at a Slovenian truck stop were nil, I pressed on.
Though I’d never make it to Pri Lojetzu in time for lunch, I was still clinging to the idea of a platter of grilled langoustines at one of the little restaurants that overlook the pretty bay of Portoroz. As it snowed harder and harder, however, I realized I’d never get there in time for lunch and so very reluctantly pulled in to a rest stop with a restaurant. With any luck at all, I told myself, I could just get a plate of Prsut, the excellent prosciutto like Slovenian ham, and a nice glass of Teran, the best local red.
If the hokey “old-fashioned country farmhouse” décor of the Marche restaurant where I stopped was rather wilting, the buffet style dining room smelled surprisingly good, like real cooking. Then I took a look at the salad bar and was amazed by the variety—grilled baby onions, marinated baby fennel bulb, five different bean salads, grilled eggplant, artichoke hearts, spelt salad, roasted tomatoes, and several different cabbage slaws, among other very fresh and tasty looking possibilities, plus a condiments stand featuring a bottle of first-rate Slovenian olive oil and another one of pumpkin-seed oil.
After loading up on salad, I warily eyed the main courses, until I noticed that there was a rosti station (rosti is the signature Swiss dish of grated potatoes and bacon bits sautéed until it develops a crunchy crust) manned by a rosti master, and further along, a carvery with delicious looking roast chickens, roast beef and a rolled veal shoulder stuffed with vegetables. There were also three black cast-iron soup pots filled with soup, and a wonderful surprise—a big heated casserole of Jota, a hearty Slovenian classic that’s one of my favorite winter dishes, is also eaten in Italy’s Friuli and Croatia, and is made with sauerkraut, smoked pork, carrots, potatoes, red kidney beans, garlic and onions. I filled a plate with Jota, added a quarter bottle of pleasant Slovenian wine, a small mineral water, a still warm-from-the-oven pumpkin-seed-flecked roll and a slice of gibanica, a pastry-lined cake filled with poppy seeds, nuts, apples and quark. My lunch cost less than $9 and was absolutely delicious.
I hadn’t, in fact, come across such good Euro highway eats since the first time I discovered Italy’s Autogrill restaurants, which serve up a better-than-average pan-Italian menu for reasonable prices along the main roads in that country. Of course I wondered if this Slovenian spot was a fluke, so during the next few days, I tried two other Marche restaurants along Slovenian roads, and both of them were just as unexpectedly good in terms of their regional cooking and seasonal produce as the first one.
Intrigued, I investigated when I got home. It turns out that the Marche chain is owned by the Swiss hotel and catering company Moevenpick, which explains the rosti station I’d seen in the original Marche restaurant. The Marche restaurant web page also offered a succinct and happy explanation of the chain’s gastronomic goals—“The Seven Point Freshness Program: More Flavor Through:
*The use of fresh herbs and spices
*The use of high-quality oils (olive oil)
*The selection of regional and local products
*Our Emphasis on seasonal vegetables
*The fresh preparation of the products
*The gentle preparation of the raw products
*The accentuation of the unique flavor of the products”
Since Moevenpick has succeeded with its Marche restaurants in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland in Europe, plus franchises in Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, it’s very much to be hoped that they’ll decide to take on France and North America. And if they don’t, that some other company will be inspired to launch of a renaissance of highway dining by the admirable quality and surprisingly excellent food the Swiss group. Of maybe the French and U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture could launch a Moevenpick inspired program to show off the astonishing agricultural bounty and regional cooking of France and the United States in roadside settings.