Saturday, 5 May 2007

Cub Trip Two: The Bentley

Day One: Norfolk to Coulombiers

Engines, start your gentlemen

It’s 8.00am on Saturday, and a venerable Bentley crunches the gravel outside Martin’s house. It’s a 1993 Turbo R, lovingly preserved by Hall-Carpenter as part of his campaign to show what we British could build before the Germans finally conquered us. Adrian has added me to the insurance so that I can take charge of her. I’m flattered.

I like music, OK? So I need a lot of CDs. Adrian doesn’t understand why the six-stacker isn’t enough for the miles ahead. Hall-Carpet, you have no soul. He tells me that the 217 essential CDs I’ve pre-selected have to be reduced to avoid infringing import/export regulations. Does he think I’m that gullible? I’ll check when we get back…

The last time Adrian was ever wrong

This time we’re all travelling together. Adrian takes the con down to the Eurotunnel, then hands over to me. We’ve booked ahead to save time, but computer says no. The terminal’s on all systems crash and it’s every man for himself. In the confusion we somehow arrive at passport control before being issued with tickets and get turned back to the terminal. We all need food and caffeine by now, so I’m all for buying it at the terminal. Adrian is confident that there’ll be full facilities the other side of passport control. My contention that there weren’t any when I was here two weeks ago falls on deaf ears and, ticketed up, we head for customs. Again.

This time they search us out of revenge.

Tunnel-side there’s, of course, nothing. AHC finds a coffee machine, but this doesn’t qualify as refreshment facilities. This is significant – it’s the only time I’ve ever known him to be wrong. The relief to find he’s human after all is profound.

I’ve been extolling the virtues of the Eurotunnel. It’s slick , it’s reliable, it’s cheap…

It’s broken.

This is one tunnel that would have defeated Charles Bronson
After an hour and a half of minimal information delivered by a surly youth with more pimples than IQ we’re told we’re being “rotated”. What does that mean? The shrug may be Gallic, but the accompanying “Dunno mate” is pure Essex. Ah, how Europe has made cosmopolitans of us all!
It transpires that rotation means moving to a train that isn’t broken. We park for a further thirty minutes on the platform while Adrian does some telephone research and begins to explain the concept of customer service to Eurotunnel. Apparently their terms and conditions relieve them of any responsibility actually to convey anyone anywhere. The typing in the background sounds like an infinite number of monkeys preparing their next legal waiver of common sense.
With 100km to go before Niort we take to the back roads, once again in search of the elusive quaint auberge. This time, in Coulombiers, we find it. It’s called l’Auberge Centre de Poitou.
l'Auberge Centre de Poitou. Go there. Now.
First impressions of my room are favourable. It’s small and cosy, with comfortable sofas and homey décor. I open what I take to be the door to the bathroom. And find the rest of my suite. Vast, indecently comfortable bed, beautiful bathroom, separate bog. Nice.
Downstairs in the restaurant we broach the subject of vegetarianism. Pas de problème m’sieur! We leave it to the chef as suggested. Madame brings us a huge basket of fresh truffles to sniff. The wine list is distinguished, service is cheerful and attentive. This is good. We like this. The food is just glorious. My starter is delicately herbed scrambled egg, with generous shavings of fresh truffles. Martin declares his vegetable soup to be the best he’s ever tasted, while Adrian earns charlatan Brit points by requesting Tabasco with his oysters.
The main course for the cranky veggies is an astonishing assiette de légumes. It’s made up of individual delights like warm pickled red cabbage with chestnuts, unbelievably light and crisp potato slivers and an astounding creation of leek strips with more truffles. All this accompanied by a lovely, light, cherry-flavoured red Sancerre (A little too light for AHC - he likes wine that congeals. I suspect that he fears sunlight). Adrian’s lamb and foie gras folded inside a cabbage leaf comes close to challenging the principles of les vegetablistes.
Food, wine and service of this quality are rarer than steak tartare and we begin to fear the bill. They've seen the Bentley haven't they?
L'addition comes to 300 euros, which seems eminently reasonable for food of this quality. Then we realise it includes the rooms and breakfast.
This place is very special. It's one of those hotels that you look forward to visiting again. And again.

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