To be honest, I’m not sure any right-minded French person could truly come to terms with the notion of grabbing a lunchtime sandwich and a packet of crisps to eat at the desk. Such incomprehensible behaviour would surely produce a dismissive Gaelic shrug, delivered as only the French can. After all, such a lunch makes no sense; lunch is a time to pause, to enjoy a three (or more) course meal and to share time with family or colleagues. Which is why here in South west France, two hours of every day are dedicated to the pursuit of the perfect leisurely lunch.
If you are planning a visit to France this summer, lunchtimes can pose some challenges. Not least of which is that so many shops and visitor attractions will be closed 12-2pm – the 24/7 ‘open all hours’ culture thankfully hasn’t made its way to Gascony yet… so the best approach must be along the lines of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
Look for bistros offering a ‘menu du jour’ for the full experience – usually charged at €13-€18. For this you will enjoy a 3-5 course meal, with wine – I’ll warn you now, you may have to pay an extra €1 at the end for a petit café, but that’s okay.
Although the choice will be limited, the meal will be freshly prepared, often featuring local favourites and served with pride; the ambience is warm and welcoming. Look around and it is what’s missing that catches your eye – no i-pads or smart phones in evidence, no one locked into headphones – just that rare thing in this modern world – the babble of conversation.
Lunch here is a real French experience and by the end of the meal, I promise you’ll be wondering why your own lunch experience isn’t the same at home and wondering too if the lunches alone justify a more permanent relocation to France.
Of course, a big lunch requires some planning. Gascony, our corner of France, is a very relaxed place – people have time for each other; indeed time itself seems to slow down here. So when we have visitors, we find breakfast tends to be a little later each day and enjoyed for a little longer as the week goes on – after all, no point rushing all the lovely fresh pastries. But that does risk leaving the breakfast table at 10 and sitting down for lunch at 12 – be kind to yourselves and opt for a lighter breakfast if lunch is scheduled into the day – trust me, lunch will be all the better if you do.
Some local knowledge is useful, so do ask your host for recommendations. The legendary obscure bistros, hidden 2km down a single-track road do exist, but you may not discover them by chance – so please ask or you may miss out.
And on the subject of missing out, don’t roll up at 1:45 expecting service, just because it says ‘Open to 2pm’ on the sign. The best bistros are effectively canteens for the workers – and since the workers return to their labours by 2pm, so the kitchen closes.
Bistro owners are far too polite to stack chairs on the tables or clatter the plates to make their point, but owners do expect their customers to conduct themselves appropriately – and sitting down to lunch at 1:55 is certainly not that! But feel free to take it up with the chef – if nothing else you may learn some new vocabulary…