ROBERT ST. JOHN: Final days of Battlefields and Baguettes tour filled with good stuff

ROBERT ST. JOHN

ROBERT ST. JOHN

I write this in a Paris hotel room, at dawn, peering out to an empty street and looking back over the previous nine days, wondering if the local patisserie will open before our group boards a bus to the airport. Yesterday morning I hit the streets early in search of a neighborhood bakery and found an excellent one just a few blocks from our hotel.

The initial idea for this Battlefields and Baguettes tour was born over a late-summer dinner in Hattiesburg and, last night, we toasted the tour’s closing event over dinner in Paris. It’s been a great ride.

To recap, this inaugural Battlefields and Baguettes tour was sponsored through the University of Southern Mississippi’s International Programs department and was coordinated though that office. Southern Miss professor, Dr. Andy Wiest, has covered the historical aspects of this tour – World War I and World War II battlefield visits, cemeteries, and lectures – and I have handled all of the dining logistics.

Many people return from Europe and talk about how they couldn’t find any good food. That always amazes me. Too many people stop at the closest restaurant near a major tourist attraction and assume the food there is representative of that region or city. That’s almost never the case. To understand a culture and its cuisine one must go where the locals go and eat what the locals eat.

Day Seven: I was fortunate to have “nailed it” on most of my dining choices over the course of the trip. It’s a challenge to book a dinner for 20 people, on a limited budget, in a small European café that is used to serving parties of two and four. It’s a process that is made even harder if you’ve never visited that town or don’t speak the language. L’angle Saint Laurent in Bayeux might have been the best choice of the entire trip. The quaint, corner establishment could have been a movie set for a French café, and the young husband and wife team who operated the establishment were straight out of central casting. Our group dined on foie gras with pear, lamb with gnocci, olives, snails and anise foam, and a delicate chocolate Napoleon with raspberry sorbet.

The day started with a bucket-list walk on Omaha Beach, followed by a visit to Pointe du Hoc and the American cemetery. We could have called it quits at sundown and eaten at an Autogrill and it would have been one of the most memorable days of my life, but to have ended it in this perfect little French café was the glaze on the tart.

Day Eight: We made our way from Bayeux to Paris and I met up with Craig Dennis, my former sous chef who was part of the 1987 opening crew of the Purple Parrot Café. He has been my “guy on the ground” in France for the past two months and has been a crucial component in helping me communicate with all of the restaurants. Dennis splits his week between Paris and La Rochelle. I gave him full discretion on our final two dining choices. He nailed both of them.

Our first Parisian dinner was just a short walk from our hotel at Wadja where we were served lobster and avocado for a first course, lamb shank or sea bass for a second and sorbet for dessert.

Day Nine: The group had a free morning in Paris. My wife and I visited the L’Orangerie museum in the morning and met up with Dennis for a steak frites lunch. In the afternoon, Wiest scheduled a lecture/interview with an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who was taken from his home in Paris at the age of 15 and shipped to Auschwitz. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Dinner that evening was the perfect end to a great trip. Dennis booked a large table at Au Moulin Au Vent, a café that hasn’t changed a lick since it was opened in 1946. Our group dined on sautéed frog legs, escargot, frisee salad, chateaubriand with all of the accompaniments and several desserts. Perfect.

This Battlefields and Baguettes tour started nine days ago in London. We have covered a lot of ground and eaten a lot of food since then. The experiences shared and memories made will last a lifetime.

In my experience, great journeys are about place, but they are also about friendships and sharing discoveries with friends. On this trip we made new friends, we secured and rekindled old friendships with our fellow travelers, and we reconnected with friends on the continent. When all three are combined in one journey, the experience is magical.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.