In France, the automobile and Dionysian delights are far from mutually exclusive.
At your typical German vintage car show, the olfactory pecking order is both clear and dependable. Right after the smells of rubber and petrol – and well before leather or car polish, for example – comes the vapour of Bockwurst getting stale. Towards evening time, beer fart becomes another rather dominant olfactory sensation to the visitor of, say, Techno Classica in Essen.
The vintage car shows of my home country are not exactly hotbeds of sophistication. Some are worse than others in that regard, but one definitely doesn’t attend Techno Classica or Bremen Classic Motorshow for the dry biscuits, rubbery Bretzeln and beer served in plastic cups. An undivertible focus on the automotive exhibits is thus required, if one wants to get the best out of the proceedings.
I was fully expecting Rétromobile to be different in that regard – because France, obviously. Little did I know what my friends from the other side of the River Rhine would have in store for me at Porte de Versailles though, where I’d previously only experienced the decidedly sobering 2018 Paris Motor Show.
First of all, I had to reconsider the French’s relationship with Champagne. As part of my German-Finnish upbringing, I learned that the mother of all sparkling wines is an exclusive matter – cherished only on certain occasions, and only by the few. In France, or at least on Rétromobile’s opening night, Champagne gains an altogether inclusive quality, for the tall glasses of bubbly refreshment are not the domain of secluded VIP lounges, but everywhere.
Or at least they are freely distributed at the stands of Peugeot and Citroën (and DS, but we shall better ignore that brand) to anybody who cares for a drink. If this happened in Germany and involved these brands’ natural competitor, it would be deemed an outrageous, decadent waste (the debate about erstwhile German candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz’s ‘too lavish’ lunches being a prime example of the German stance towards gustatory pleasures). Almost needless to say, the canapés served by PSA were delightful too, down to the crunchy (rather than rubbery) cucumbers on the small sandwiches.
Before I’d receive my next lesson in French gastronomic excellence, I performed a gaffe that would have done Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau proud. The hurdle I eventually overcame in decidedly inelegant fashion was the entry to the lounge space provided by French watchmakers, Richard Mille. There I was supposed to show my ‘VIP Pass’ in order to enter – a black plastic card, featuring a bar code. I briefly searched for this slice of plastic in the pocket of my jacket (amid a few business cards and the like) before presenting it to the security personnel, who in turn refused me entry – on the grounds that I’d shown my hotel room key card.
And not just any old key card, for that matter, as I’d steadfastly refused any courting by Hôtels Ritz, Georges V or de Crillon – but an Ibis Budget key card. This, hardly surprisingly, wouldn’t quite do. But with the correct card quickly located inside the other pocket and presented, I was allowed to immerse myself in what turned out to be the most impressive gustatory experience I had at any kind of show or gala, ever.
The champagne obviously didn’t impress anymore. But the food most certainly did, given the canapés were of such quality that I’d happily have paid for them at a restaurant – with the standout dish being a glass of foie gras (I know, I shouldn’t have…) with plucked coquille St. Jacques, coffee foam and a slice of waffle.
The moment I tasted this sensational dish, that old German saying about Leben wie Gott in Frankreich (‘to live like God in France’) started to make perfect sense. Such an outstanding dish isn’t served to taste ‘nice’ – it’s been created with immense care and devotion to the culinary craft, starting with the sourcing of produce of outstanding quality, over the creative combination of flavours to the diligent preparation of the food.
In that context, the delightful tarte made of three kinds of chocolate, caramel and hazelnuts (served with vanilla ice cream, as well as chocolate & caramel sauce) was merely consistent, rather outstanding – despite being, by usual standards, most definitely excellent. The same goes for the slice of bread with cheese and truffles. All were consistently wonderful.
Roaming the halls before the show was about to close for the night, I explained to my French companions the phenomenon of beer farts at German vintage car shows. They politely expressed their lack of grasp of this concept, just as I was curious to find out what a regular show day smells like. Even in France, I was convinced, they wouldn’t be serving just champagne all the time. Normality would have to set in, in the gustatory and olfactory sense.
In my case, it was the scent of pain au chocolate and an astonishing almond petit tarte (which tasted as though it was a nut-based, apple-free take on tarte tatin, given its strong – and delightful – caramel flavour) that signified breakfast time. Coffee – French ‘Expresso’ in this instance – came courtesy of Nespresso, but at least was drinkable, which is more than I could say about every other coffees (bar one) I had while in Paris. A thin slice of lemon cake looked suspiciously dry, but turned out to be most delectable, owing not just to its moistness, but a hint of lavender too.
Even outside of the culinary h(e)aven provided by Monsieur Mille, France and the French continued to live up to my raised expectations. Rather than plastic cups of beer it was glasses of wine that were handed out during lunchtime. One of the main food stalls also served oysters, prawns and magnificent-looking baguette sandwiches (as well as champagne, of course), whereas a few wine merchants could be found amid the stands offering automotive knick-knacks and ‘art’.
After a light lunch of some charcuterie and dessert of (not exactly light, but absolutely wonderful) Paris-Brest, a final walk across the halls still betrayed a conspicuous lack of yeasty/hoppy smells, though I did come across some stands selling beer. Maybe it’s just in combination with Bockwurst that these odours turn into a stench.
In terms of automobiles, France may have bowed to the pressures of globalisation to a considerable extent. But when it comes to food, our Gallic neighbours still play very much according to their own rules, it would appear. Long may it continue.