Accent on Living

IN THE days when automobiles were outnumbered on the French highways by horse-drawn carts and the franc stood at around twenty-three to the dollar, an overnight stop for two at a country inn, with a good dinner, wine, a comfortable room, breakfast, diligently shined shoes, and a 10 per cent boost for service, could be had for a dollar or two per person. One such stop, I recall, and a delightful one in every respect, came to $1.40 for my wife and me, including a liqueur which we had prodigally bought for a fellow lodger who had dined with us. We made dozens of such stops, rarely paying as much as $4.00 in all. and these were prices charged us as transients. At Tours, full pension for us both in a pleasant old house cost a shade over $10.00 a week. If these prices seem low today, they were in fact most agreeably low at that time, and I believe that comparably low rates, allowing for today’s higher price levels throughout the world, are still to be found in excellent French inns.

The formula for finding such inns is simplicity itself: one has only to choose a town or a region and consult the Guide Michelin for any hotels in that area having a dining room that the Guide has designated as a one-star restaurant. A fair generalization would be that any restaurant accorded one star by the Guide is a good one and that any hotel maintaining it is similarly well conducted. The Guide Michelin for France, as almost anyone who has used it would agree, is certainly the most comprehensive and dependable set of recommendations on food and lodging in existence in any country, and nothing remotely approaching its authority and integrity and scope has ever been even undertaken in any other. Practically every establishment in any of the Guide’s categories is worthy of the rating it gets, and there are many restaurants below the one-star group that would delight the wayfarer. But we decided, arbitrarily, to try out last summer three of the one-star places, and here is what they proved to be, a selection in Savoie dictated solely by their proximity to our base in Megeve.

In the small industrial town of Sallanches, about thirty-five miles from Geneva and near the foot of Mont Blanc, the Guide gave a star to the Hotel Chaumiere. We arrived there, ten in our party, at the height of the lunch hour, strangers, foreigners, without reservations. We were received with a fine air of hospitality. The only two unoccupied tables in the small dining room were put together, a fresh cloth was spread, and in a minute or two we were ordering what proved to be a most gratifying meal. The Guide lists three of the specialties of any restaurant receiving one or more stars, and one is always well advised to try them out. At the Chaumiere, they included a truffled pate and a cheese omelet, which might reasonably have begun a fine luncheon in a far more expensive place. The luncheon, with a good white wine, cost slightly under $2 each, and the general impression of well-being that one got from the Chaumiere was such that we inquired about rates by the week for room and meals. This would come to $28 per person, we learned. To judge from the luncheon, it would be a very good buy indeed.

A few miles outside of Albertville, not far to the south, we refused to be put off by the name and lunched at a pleasant inn called Chez Teddy, perched high on a hillside, which the Michelin gave one star. The opening course here was called, noncommittally, “Délice Savoyard,” which could have meant almost anything attractive. It was no easier to identify precisely when it was served: small oblongs with a golden-brown exterior of fine crumbs; presumably fried in deep butter; firm enough to have been formed with square corners and edges, as neat as so many miniature shoe boxes. Yet the interior substance was at the melting point, a creamy-yellow Alpine cheese, lightened to a delicate jellylike consistency by what some of us conjectured to be a white wine and honey.

The proprietress was pleased by our question but smilingly declined to tell us what was in the Délice Savoyard. We never did learn how her small kitchen was able to produce so many of them so quickly, for a large platter of them, smoking hot, reached our table within a few minutes of our arrival.

The third and probably the best of our one-star ventures was Le Beauregard in Samoëns, a hamlet only a short distance from an extraordinary mountain formation in a vast semicircle called Fer de Cheval. All sorts of buses and sightseers had pulled up to the Fer de Cheval, but Samoëns itself seemed almost like an artificial stage setting in its tranquil simplicity, with its fine old trees and ancient buildings around the village square. The Beauregard dining room was filled with pensionnaires, and we were offered a luncheon table on the terrace. Again, all was prompt and perfect. The luncheon began with a marinated artichoke most ingeniously prepared, and continued with a fritterlike fish course of indescribable delicacy and rare roast beef all presented by the waitresses with the well-warranted confidence that everything in the meal would be completely enjoyable. The rates at Le Beauregard were much the same as those at Sallanches: $28.00 a week for everything, including lax and service.

Places like these have in common a true professional quality in the rosy-cheeked, self-possessed women who run them. They are skilled in pleasing the traveler and giving him something better than he expects, and they are usually abetted by an energetic female staff who take equal pride in the establishment. The plates that ought to be hot are hot, and the succession of them as they are deftly replaced is impressive. Few hotels of this sort would meet conventional ideas of what plumbing ought to be, but in other respects they represent, even at today’s prices, a great value for the American tourist.