The Auberge de Chassignolles
Unravelling the spiderweb of SE1’s food mafia has been quite a slow process for me, akin to a small child learning to piece together a jigsaw puzzle, the final piece only slotted in on a recent trip to France. It is in fact incredibly simple and involves basically four institutions and two families. We start with Harry Lester, famous for his dangerously local (to me) Anchor and Hope. He is linked to the delicious natural wine suppliers Georgovie of 40 Maltby Street where you can sit amongst the arches drinking phenomenal wines at nice prices and eat beautifully simple food on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. This establishment is the brain child of Raef Hodgson and they are linked by the fact that Harry Lester is in partnership with young Mr Hodgson.
The plot is thickened when you realise that Hodgson’s parents are the owners of Neals Yard and Monmouth Coffee, albeit via Covent Garden but now firmly established in SE1 both in Borough Market and Maltby Street. It is no wonder that he has such great taste in food and wine, growing up surrounded by some of the country’s finest cheeses and sacks full of wonderful coffee beans must certainly have set his tastes and views of food at a very high level. Most of us develop this heightened sense of taste throughout life as we expose ourselves to varying qualities of food – I certainly find that as time goes by my palate is getting increasingly refined (or perhaps I’m just getting more fussy?). So it is no wonder that his bar is such a truly excellent spot.
This web of SE1 deliciousness expanded itself to the southern climbs of France six years ago with Lester’s opening of the Auberge de Chassignolles and who would have imagined it, but Mrs Monmouth (whose actual name I’m not sure of) has a house just across the square. These close-knit relationships initially spun me into feeling a little on edge – seemingly privileged people setting up these businesses somehow took the rustic / salt of the earth edge away from them. Also, it fleetingly felt vaguely conspiratorial – with hindsight I can link this to me perhaps just feeling a little left out of the circle of these people who I hold in very high regard. Furthermore, when you see how hard Lester and his wife work or indeed notice how Hodgson is always at the heart of his business (not once have I been into 40 Maltby Street and not seen him there) the fastidiousness of these guys is comforting against any doubts. If success is relative to dedication they deserve every ounce of it that they gain.
With all that said, I urge you to slow down your pace, pack an appetite and visit the Auberge. We flew into Lyon and on picking up a hire car drove ourselves south west, the final leg of the journey found us weaving up and down the beautiful forested hills of the Livradois-Forez Natural Park. At the summit of our climb, some 900 meters, we found the small sleepy village of Chassignolles with the Auberge resting in the middle of it opposite a stunning 13th century church – if early-morning bell ringing isn’t the thing for you perhaps some earplugs would be advisable. The welcome is friendly, relaxed and informal as are the rooms and the general atmosphere.
This for us was a summer holiday to relax and enjoy some wonderful food and wine and that is precisely what we did. The food tastes as though it has come straight out of the ground and it all feels very local – delicious tomatoes from the local farmer’s market, lentils from nearby Puy and cured meats from the Auberge itself. On the Saturday we took ourselves down to the local market to get some salami, cheese and bread for a picnic only to come across the delightful Rosie carrying load upon load of the freshest and juiciest of fruits and vegetables to take back to the Auberge.
I am not going to go into too much detail over the individual dishes, but suffice to say that that they are of the utmost deliciousness. If you’ve been to the Anchor and Hope, imagine that food only more rustic, more French, perhaps a little less fussy, but ultimately so good that the only reason you want to leave is because you’ve gained half a stone and your trousers are too tight. If you haven’t been to the Anchor and Hope (go) and that reference point is useless, imagine good hearty food that tastes of the country. The wine is of a perfect match, all natural wines if you’re into that kind of thing, and a hugely extensive list that is both affordable and interesting.
The whole place is in fact incredibly good value. We opted for the nightly rate including breakfast and dinner for the two of us and it was a simple 110 euros – believe me, for what we were getting this was hugely worth it. The breakfast is a simple affair with bread you can only find from a small french boulangerie, delicious cheese, cured meat, large kilner jars of home made jams and lots of mouth watering fruit. The dinner was a five course marathon, but somehow it never felt too much even when it should have done on the Sunday – we had the amazing breakfast, the five course lunch, a short walk, a read and a sleep and then back at the restaurant for a five course dinner. I think that was almost my most perfect Sunday ever.