Farewell, faux châteaux—those stuffy hotels that awkwardly aped the aristocracy. Today a new generation of aubergistes is resetting the pendulum of French hospitality for the 21st century by renewing that great Gallic invention, the auberge, or traditional country inn à la française. If the original idea was to offer travelers a good feed and decent lodgings for a fair price, the fresh take boots up the concept with superb contemporary bistrot cooking and affordable rooms with a lot of style.
It’s a major and very welcome change, too. Over the last half-century or so, many French auberges lost their way, becoming finger-bowl fancy and adding layers of “luxury” intended to generate an aura of elegance, and higher prices. The benchmark for this expensive, pretentious fussiness was set by the Relais & Châteaux chain, and the wonderful core values of the French auberge disappeared in the shuffle.
Today’s new aubergistes are pulling out the superfluous stuffing and returning the auberge to its roots, just in time to appeal to the growing number of travelers who prefer slow food, green travel, real hospitality—conversation trumps television—and easygoing prices.
At their best, historic French auberges usually offered a well-focused experience of regional cuisines and customs. Eating based on local terroir remains a major element of updated French auberges, too, but instead of the corny pastiches of the recent past, the new wave nods at traditional recipes, local produce and regional wines without becoming captive to them.
If the really terrific food at the new auberges is the headline good news, the happiest detail in the story is that new French innkeepers are also junking hotel-school prissiness for a more relaxed and natural approach.
No auberge in France better illustrates the renewal of the genre than the Auberge du Paradis in the Beaujolais region, not far from Macon. I was bowled over when I arrived at this handsome old stone building in pretty Saint Amour Bellevue, a perched village surrounded by some of the greatest vineyards in Beaujolais. Previously the local social hall, the building has been completely renovated by chef Cyril Laugier and his wife Valérie Bugnet.
I was initially disappointed by a twee detail—each of the eight rooms is named for a spice. But that was before I caught a first eyeful of the laidback but grand-slam good taste of the place. Just past the reception desk, two silver medicine balls skidded along the surface of a creeper-shaded black-tiled lap pool. A Jacuzzi bubbled away on a sheltered outdoor terrace, next to a sunny library filled with beautiful art books and piles of novels and magazines. This particular paradise could fill pages in a decorating magazine, and yet it never feels staged or overdone.
Upstairs, it got even better. I can’t remember the last time I opened the door to a hotel room I liked more than Gingembre (ginger). I’m a tough customer, but for €135 the room is a knockout. Not only does it have a discreetly chic mix of antique and design furnishings—bleached-oak parquet floors, marble-topped dressing table, Philippe Starck lamps, velvet chaise longue, potted white orchids—but it was light, spacious, quiet and kitted out with all the right gear, including Tivoli Audio table radio, free wireless internet and flat-screen TV.
Dinner was remarkable too. Laugier’s signature is a bold, masterful use of spices from all over the world—perfectly dosed gusts of flavor that make his impeccable cooking sexy and so much fun. That night a first course of roasted green asparagus was followed by pork loin marinated in red curry paste and served with shitake mushrooms and smoked bacon in a lemon coulis. A plate of raw-milk cheeses was garnished with garam masala, and dessert was a rhubarb fool, a chilled swirl of rhubarb puree and whipped cream. Many repeat visitors come for weekends just to enjoy Laugier’s delicious nightly prix-fixe menu, and maybe do a couple of wine tastings in neighboring towns, including Juliénas and Saint-Amour-Bellevue.
As we chatted over a terrific country breakfast the next morning—local strawberries, fresh goat cheese, smoked ham and sausage, homemade yogurt and jams, soft-boiled eggs from a nearby farm, freshly baked bread—Laugier said that the chef who most inspired him is the Breton maître d’épices Olivier Roellinger. “What I learned from Roellinger is the power of spices-they usually don’t need the medium of a sauce, and just a pinch of a fresh, high-quality spice like the nutmeg I use on green asparagus makes the vegetable eloquent.”
A dozen years ago Laugier decided a traditional chef’s trajectory just wouldn’t work for him-“I couldn’t play the Michelin game and still cook the way I like to cook,” he explained, so he struck out on his own, first with a wine bar, then a restaurant, and now the auberge. “What Valerie and I have created is the kind of hotel we hope to find when we travel, a place where you eat well, have a good time and feel at home. And now I love being able to tell people that France isn’t stuffy anymore.”
The rolling plains of the Pas de Calais, France’s northernmost province, were green and golden, as I headed north from Paris to La Cour de Rémi. Highway 39 was punctuated with tidy brick towns that inevitably featured a war memorial or two, a busy café where local residents were downing draught beers, and the occasional hand-written signs announcing FRITES! Church spires and old-fashioned blue-and-white road signs signaled villages tucked away off the main road. Bermicourt was one of them.
Part of the fun in discovering the new auberges is that they bear the distinct, sometimes winningly quirky imprint of their owners. What drew me here was that Sébastien de La Borde had trained at L’Ami Jean with Stéphane Jego, one of the best bistrot chefs in Paris. To create La Cour de Rémi, Sébastien and his brother Balthazar had renovated the farm buildings on their family estate and turned them into a hip but low-key auberge.
The estate’s handsome 19th-century château, formerly a hunting lodge, belonged to their great-grandfather, Jean de Hauteclocque, a dashing local grandee and tobacco planter who also had a distinguished career as an international diplomat. The hotel was named after Rémi Portemont, the fourth-generation farmer who worked the estate’s fields, well-known for the excellence of his kitchen garden. The farm buildings that became the hotel had been Rémi’s fief.
I settled into Room 4, a cozy suite under the eaves of an old brick barn, until time for dinner. “The Pas de Calais is one of the great crossroads of Europe,” Sébastien de La Borde told me. “And this is why I take my inspiration from all over France and beyond. As a gars du Nord (boy from the North), though,” he added, “I love generously served country cooking.” Which is exactly what he proposes on the blackboard menu that changes almost daily.
We began with bulots (sea snails) with guacamole, and continued with a luscious chicken liver terrine; rabbit braised in white wine with shallots and tarragon; casserole-roasted pork tenderloin with a rich sauce of pan drippings; and a terrific cheese course that included a Losange de Saint Pol, a strong Northern cheese that almost never makes it to Paris. “Our great-grandfather loved a good time—great food and wine, lots of laughs, and a mix of people—that’s what inspired us. I think he’d be proud to know that we’re serving delicious northern French farm food at the auberge,” Sébastien said, over a tear-inducing after-dinner snifter of genièvre, a Northern juniper-berry specialty that’s a lot like gin.
Beautiful to behold
I had heard raves about chef Eric Guérin’s cooking at La Mare aux Oiseaux long before I finally made it to the village of Saint Joachim, a huddle of thatched cottages on the Ile de Fédrun in the Parc de Brière, a remote and beautiful nature reserve in the département of Loire Atlantique. “No one used to come here before the boy opened his inn,” offered a rotund, beret-topped dog-watcher after I asked him for directions. “So today I get an American, yesterday three pretty Japanese ladies. It makes me proud.”
Only 40 minutes from Nantes and ten minutes from the chic Atlantic beach resort La Baule, the Brière is a vast, hauntingly luminous salt marsh, where patches of still water in the shaggy green landscape mirror the sky on a flat horizon, blurring the boundary between the two.
Guérin’s auberge occupies a snug, whitewashed 18th-century cottage with a steep reed-thatched roof right in the village center. The best rooms—9, 10 and 11—are in a clapboard outbuilding overlooking one of the many canals that lace the region. The comfortable rooms have a maritime vibe, with white-varnished wooden walls and decks with Adirondack chairs.
Guérin’s cooking thrums with an antic, unbridled creativity, and it’s beautiful too, every dish as carefully composed as a Flemish still life. I don’t like some of the trademarks of young French cooking here—Guérin uses too much sugar, often in the wrong places, like a tuile of salt caramel filled with crabmeat and guacamole, in which the sugar overpowered everything else. Add the fiddly sorbets used as garnishes, and the nursery nostalgia expressed in reworked kiddie favorites like Fraises Tagada (strawberry marshmallows). But I suspect he’ll shed these gimmicks eventually, because he’s a very talented chef.
My sea bass carpaccio in two sauces—foamy buttermilk and orange-and-apricot coulis-was served with roasted and raw asparagus and a salad of mustard cress and nasturtiums; it was as pretty to contemplate as it was delicious to eat. A terrine of tête de cochon was brilliantly garnished with fava beans and lemon-marinated squid rolled in a slice of country ham. And Guérin’s fresh goat cheese soufflé with Moroccan-inspired, cinnamon-marinated carrots and oranges, served with carrot-apricot sorbet, was one of the best desserts I’ve had in a long time.
Between meals, there is lots to see and do nearby. A canal outing in a chaland, or flat-bottomed wooden boat, is highly recommended, and so is a visit to the fascinating walled city of Guérande, the center of the salt pans that produce some of the world’s finest salt, fleur de sel de Guérande.
I streaked across eastern France to Alsace on the newest high-speed TGV, curious to see if a region with a notably feisty reverence for its own traditions could be part of the new auberge movement.
Fifteen minutes from Colmar, Kaysersberg’s cobbled streets are lined by pastel-painted half-timbered houses. At Easter, the trees are festooned with hand-painted eggs, while December brings garlands of twinkling lights and a famous Christmas market. All year, kugelhopf (Alsatian brioche), flammeküche (bacon and onion tart) and choucroute are served in snug winstub taverns. Against incredible odds, it remains an honestly charming place where the clock seems to have stopped a century ago.
At the entrance to town, Le Chambard, a stout 1899 building with a steep red-tiled roof, doesn’t break with the gemütlich village decor until you step inside for a fast-forward to a 21st-century version of Alsace. The Nasti brothers bought the old inn in 2001 and have since made it one of the hottest destinations in eastern France. Olivier, who trained with Roellinger in Brittany and Marc Haeberlin at L’Auberge de l’Ill, does the cooking, while Emmanuel, an architect, designed the hotel’s makeover and as sommelier also runs the dining room with his wife Corinne.
The interior has been boldly redecorated—gold leaf, zebra stripes and a sleek bamboo-green front desk. An indoor pool, a spa and most importantly a superb restaurant have been added. “Nothing stands still,” says Emmanuel, “so the best way to protect the integrity of Alsatian tradition is to create a complimentary modernity… to prevent the classic from becoming kitsch.”
Not only is it modern, Olivier’s cooking is stunning. Morel mushrooms, gathered the same day in the neighboring Vosges mountains, were stuffed with a delicate chicken mousse, topped with slivered green asparagus just harvested from local fields. An eggshell filled with chicken liver mousse and finely diced country ham completed the seasonal, regional and perfectly balanced dish.
A half portion of goose foie gras came with a bold ribbon of beerawecka, a traditional mix of candied fruit and nuts. Cod steak with a shellfish marinière was a perfect foil for a Gustave Lorenz Altenberg de Bergheim 2005 Pinot Gris. “If there’s a reflexive resistance to change in Alsace, the region is also very gourmand. What won over the neighbors is my brother’s cooking,” says Emmanuel. “Now they’re proud to have a hotel-restaurant that’s modern and innovative while still respecting tradition.”
Among Normandy’s constellation of terrific new inns is the Auberge de la Source, just outside Honfleur. Driving from Deauville, I caught glimpses of the steel-gray English Channel through the hedgerows and wondered at the fine white confetti fluttering on a strong breeze. Was it ash? Paper scraps? Then I turned down a farm lane into a gentle blizzard of blossoms being swept from the boughs of an apple orchard. The Auberge de la Source came as a similarly delightful surprise.
“I decided to take a chance on the wisdom of being simple,” said the auberge’s friendly proprietor Jean-Marie Boelen, explaining why he had left the nearby Ferme Saint-Siméon, the renowned hotel run by his family, dramatically changing his game. With his wife Christine, Boelen converted this half-timbered 17th- and 18th-century farm into a 15-room inn, naming it after the gurgling spring and the brook that courses through the gardens.
“A certain post-war French idea of luxury as an ever-fattening goose is over, and what people dream about has changed,” he explained. “They don’t want to pretend they’re royalty anymore. Instead, they’re looking for a quiet, ecologically preserved environment, a strong sense of place, cooking that’s seasonal and regional and uses excellent produce, and simple, stylish comfort. That’s what the new auberge movement is all about.”
For less than $200—just the starting price at La Ferme Saint-Siméon-my room, number 17, was one of the nicest at the auberge, occupying part of the dormer attic of an old half-timbered barn, with bleached oak floors, taupe walls, cherry-and-cream checked curtains. A big fluffy duvet covered a very comfortable bed, with excellent reading lights-a welcome rarity.
Dinner that night in front of a sweet-smelling apple-wood fire in the original farmhouse was delicious, too. Chef Yannick Bernouin’s €38 menu began with generous hors d’oeuvres of pink and gray shrimp, radishes and a ramekin of zucchini cream soup. They were followed by superb duck foie gras with fig compote; tomato risotto garnished with langoustines, scallops and chunks of crabmeat; camembert baked in phyllo pastry; and pear-and-pineapple clafoutis.
Whiff of the sea
Down the Norman coast from Honfleur, beyond the D-Day landing beaches, the Cotentin peninsula is little known to the outside world, and that has always been just fine with the well-mannered families who’ve summered in the village of Barneville-Carteret for many generations. Eating here had forever been about crêpes and plateaux de fruits de mer—big platters of fresh shellfish—but now it’s suddenly on the gourmet map for seafood fans from far afield.
Three years ago, young chef Laurent Cesne took over L’Hôtel de la Marine, on the edge of the deep tidal estuary that cuts in past sandy beaches and a steep promontory, transforming it into one of the most appealing hotels in northern France.
Guessing that the attractive blonde woman at reception was the chef’s mother, I asked if the hotel was a family affair. “Absolument, Monsieur. We’ve owned it for five generations,” she said with bashful pride. The family never pressured Laurent to go into the business, she said, and originally he studied medicine. But after two years at school he started spending more and more time in the kitchen. “Then one day he said, ‘It’s time for me to go beyond the five recipes I know how to do,’ and he went into the kitchen and put on an apron.”
Almost entirely self-taught, Cesne now has a Michelin star and a reputation as one of the best fish cooks in France. He’s just overseen a dramatic renovation of the 26-room hotel, redone along the lines of a sleek white ocean liner, with staggered terraces lined by white railings and lit at night by big white lamps that look like giant Chinese lanterns. Rooms cleverly combine modern and traditional furniture, with comfortable wicker armchairs facing out to the sea and the distant roar of the surf.
Cesne’s cooking style is similarly clean, pure and elegant. His accurately entitled starter, “Bouffée d’Iode” (Whiff of the Sea) is a beautifully conceived dish of gray-shrimp bouillon spiked with ginger and lemongrass, ladled over thin sweet slices of raw scallops, chewy bulots (sea snails) and tiny, briny gray shrimp, accompanied by large croutons topped with creamy langoustine tartare. Sea bass with artichoke caviar, roasted tomatoes, Parmesan and taggiasca olives was spectacular, too, the Mediterranean garnishes delicately parsing out the natural flavor of the fish.
In its bold new incarnation, La Marine says it all about the revolution that’s sweeping the country inns of France, making it a more delicious, and affordable, destination than ever.
Alexander Lobrano’s book Hungry for Paris is published by Random House. website
Auberge du Paradis Plâtre-Durand, Saint-Amour-Bellevue, 03.85.37.10.26. Doubles from €130. website
La Cour de Rémi 1 rue Baillet, Bermicourt, 03.21.03.33.33. Doubles from €80. website
La Mare aux Oiseaux Parc National de Brière, 162 Ile de Fédrun, Saint Joachim, 02.40.88.53.01. Doubles from €145. website
Hôtel Le Chambard 9-13 rue du Général de Gaulle, Kaysersberg, 03.89.47.10.17. Doubles from €157. website
Auberge de la Source Chemin du Moulin, Barneville-la-Bertran, 02.31.89.25.02. Doubles from €100. website
Hôtel de la Marine 11 rue Paris, Barneville-Carteret, 02.33.53.83.31. Doubles from €90. website
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of France Today; updated in March 2012