“We are not going out” is the mantra by which we all are condemned to live in these troubled times. Were I to be young at this time in history I would find the “we are not going out” restriction hard to bear or, more succinctly, unbearable: but I am not young, I am old. As one imperceptibly grows old it makes one aware that there is a difference to the oldness perceived from the outside when compared with one’s view from inside where it appears that nothing much has changed apart from the body becoming less obedient to simple commands. The “we are not going out” of which I speak is the self contained life into which we, my wife and me, have metamorphosed over the last 20 years in the French countryside; a slow conversion from hyper active city dweller to semi dormant hermit happily existing and creating in peace and isolation. There is a virtual “we are not going out” that affects me and it relates to memories; memories of particular bars or restaurants where I ate or drunk something unforgettable at different times of my life: to some of which I may return, to others of which I have a faint hope of returning and to those to which I will never return as they are gone, changed or too far away.
Of those three conditions, “changed” is by far the worst. Among my memories of ideal bistrot food was that served at Chez Allard. This is a restaurant that I loved but it is also a restaurant that has changed as it is now an Alain Ducasse establishment which is the polar opposite to the nature of the restaurant that I remember and loved. I have the memories and the new Chez Allard had, and hopefully will have again, the tourists. There were few drawbacks to Chez Allard save being able to draw back one’s chair from the table as they were so tightly packed together – not a place for those with a weak bladder. Seeing the waiters, with laden arms raised high above their heads, dance agilely through the minimal gaps between tables without accident was to witness a bravura performance of adagio dancers. My first visit was in the late 60’s when Paris was being terrorised by the OAS ( Organisation de l’Armée Sécrete who were deeply anti de Gaulle) with random killings in bars and restaurants. It was a nerve racking time and I spent one night, after I had been picked up while wandering the streets by a passing Gendarme van, for my own protection. It was an entertaining night sitting at long tables drinking coffee and learning French in a fortress, which is what police stations had become in that era. Back to Chez Allard: I can’t remember what I ate but I do remember feeling very uncomfortable as a long haired hippy surrounded by crop haired Colonels, from the Légion Étrangere or REP (Régiment Étrangere Parachutiste), who were entertaining either a male or female lover, sometimes both, before setting off to join in planning yet another attempt to assassinate de Gaulle. It looked like they didn’t like the look of me and I didn’t like the look of them: I was fascinated by the theatre of the place and yet felt that I should exit stage left sooner rather than later. I ate quickly, left quietly and came back 35 years later. This time I was able to enjoy the nature of the place in a more relaxed fashion. The tables were still as close together but it was the extraordinary tobacco patina of the place that caught my eye: it appeared as though it had been untouched by duster or spit and polish, well maybe spit, since my last visit. But, above all, it was the feeling that I was in a place run by people that really knew about good food and wine and who did not feel that interior design would play any part or improve on the food that they served. Chez Allard was not known for “fine dining” but for the old classics, not reinvented, but served perfectly cooked and served simply as was originally intended: it was not a place for gastronomic adventures, rather it was a place where one would meet up with classic bistrot dishes as if with old friends. « Les clients ne viennent pas chez nous faire des découvertes gastronomiques mais faire de vieilles connaissances culinaires » They specialised in Volailles de Bresse, meaning a whole Bresse chicken with a mountain of girolles or cépes to be shared by two people, or duck and olives, escargots, pigeons and peas, rabbit stew, salads of beets and mache; quite wonderful gear. And I’m sure the same dishes will be on the menu when Chez Allard reopens but it won’t be the same ; it has changed.