France is a wonderful place to explore on a bike, says writer Felicity Cloake
Over coffee - but sadly no croissants - Ella Walker meets food writer Felicity Cloake to hear about her 2,334km adventure
Many of us dream of going off adventuring for an entire summer - Felicity Cloake brilliantly went and did it.
The food writer and Guild of Food Writers award winner spent six weeks on her own gastronomic Tour de France in 2018, hungrily tracking down the best French fare, from omelette souffle to Provencal fish soup.
For a third of the distance (total: a whopping 2,334.3km) she was accompanied by friends, but did the rest alone - apart from her "very fit" bike, which she calls Eddie, and two packed panniers seemingly intent on dragging her back down France's most strenuous peaks.
One More Croissant For The Road is the result, a travelogue interwoven with recipes and croissant critiques, that cookery book author Cloake proudly calls her first "proper reading book".
She picked France in particular for this adventure because...
Cloake grew up going on family French camping holidays; her parents were both huge Francophiles - her mother a French teacher.
"France is such a wonderful place to explore on a road trip, on a bike particularly. You've got this lovely slow pace - where it's fast enough that you actually cover distance, and you see the landscape changing, the food changing - but slow enough that you notice stuff like that as well," she explains.
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"The times on the bike were the happiest times."
She's always cycled round London, "but never for anything other than getting from A to B", but then a friend moved to the south of France and decided for some "completely mad reason" to cycle there.
"She invited me, I was like, 'No, no, no - not doing that'," but then, "one morning I woke up and went, 'Why not'?! I thought it'd be an adventure."
The trip provided an initial blueprint for her own culinary tour: "I just love being on a bike and thinking about what I'm going to eat."
There's a lot of logistical stuff to deal with if you're going to cycle round France...
"When I was on the bike it was just wonderful, clear head, you couldn't do anything else except cycle and look around," recalls Cloake.
"But when I got off the bike, I would be trying to work out where the best place to eat was, doing all my research, booking accommodation, looking at trains..."
Then there was the worry "that you wouldn't find what you'd gone to a place to look for" - like quiche Lorraine in Dombasle, or chocolat chaud in Bayonne.
It doesn't help that "France is a lot less internet-focused still - you need to go somewhere and ask someone." Cloake fortunately has 'getting by' French, that, by the end of her adventure, was good enough for her to understood almost a whole tour of a choucroute (sauerkraut) factory.
"I would wholeheartedly recommend doing it," she says of her trip as a whole. "Whether I'd recommend writing a book about it is another matter..."
The thing about croissants is, she didn't used to like them...
"Maybe I'd eaten too many stale supermarket croissants, and they're not worth it," explains Cloake, who only began to like the buttery pastries in her late 20s.
"There are relatively few things you get everywhere in France, reliably, and a plain croissant is a really good marker," she says, noting how, because she's "an enormous food nerd" she got into the habit of giving each croissant a little appraisal and a score out of 10, something she's still doing back in the UK.
And yes, she has gone to the trouble of making her own.
"It wasn't as hard as I thought, it's quite time-consuming, all the folding and layering and buttering, and my kitchen is tiny, I was worried I'd have to go round to someone else's house because I didn't think I'd have enough work space for this - actually it was fine."
They were delicious too: "I'm not a pastry chef by any stretch - I'm very slapdash. I was amazed with myself. It's a great sense of achievement. I haven't made them since, I admit - but I will!"
Travelling around France does take some adjustment, especially when it comes to making sure you can actually track a croissant down...
"Their opening hours are just completely mad," says Cloake, still bewildered by France's long lunchbreaks and bizarre trading times.
"There was one point, I'd been cycling on my own, 156km, up and down, up and down, it'd been really hot, then it had rained on me, I'd run out of water - it was just a horrible day.
"Then I got to a campsite and there was nothing to eat, literally nothing, everything in the village was closed, the shop had no food, and the woman at the campsite, who was so nice, took pity on me and came back when I was putting up my tent in a cloud of mosquitoes, with a massive bag of crisps from her own house."
"We're very used to getting stuff when we want it," she adds archly.
"In France, it's very much getting stuff when they want to give it to you."
You have to know the rules too, she says, "so not trying to get (a waiter's) attention when they're not ready to give you attention" and accepting that even salad comes with meat ("So many lardons!").
She will try anything once, even a 15-year-old oyster...
In Cancale she ate a Shire horse hoof-sized oyster, that was 15 years old and needed cutting up. "(It) did put me off oysters for a while," Cloake admits. "A bit too much chewing involved..."
However, "I can't think of something I wouldn't try, unless I knew it had been obtained by unpleasant means," she adds - and this is the woman who once tried her chicken liver pate recipe, made with someone's placenta ("The frisson of thinking I was about to be a cannibal was much worse than the taste of the pate, which did taste like less chickeny chicken liver pate").
"I'm prepared to suffer for my art," she muses.
"I'm the kind of person who goes to a restaurant and orders the weird thing on the menu, not the thing I actually want to eat, just because I want to know what it's like."
What she missed when she got back...
"I was delighted to come back, have a cup of tea, see my dog - I was so excited about seeing him, it was tragic, I felt like I was on a first date going to pick him up," says Cloake with a laugh. "I was so happy to be able to chit-chat (in English) too.
"But then I really missed France; the pastries for a start, and being on the bike and the freedom of it."
One More Croissant For The Road by Felicity Cloake, published by Mudlark, £14.99