But now we are not even allowed to jump in our own car and drive to a secluded lodge in a secluded, wooded landscape. Deemed too risky, France is off limits to British holidaymakers for the foreseeable future. So what can we do to get a taste of France without leaving our shores?
I’m not just talking about the kitchen. Obviously, we can all name our favorite French restaurant (although there are plenty of other great examples to try, as we highlight below). But how about a visit to the vineyards or a game of pétanque? What about a well flaky croissant, eaten on a metal table with a large cream? You could continue with a visit to an authentically French chateau, with Louis XV furniture and ornate flower beds. Then maybe end the day with some impressionist paintings, or even something more captivating from the 18th century.
Rest assured, Francophiles: whether it’s the wine, the pastry or the architecture of your dreams, there are ways to soothe yourself without crossing the Channel. You will miss the warm southerly heat but, hey, Dover shares its blue skies with Calais and the Cornish coastline isn’t that different from Brittany – though the pancakes aren’t as good.
Here is our guide to enjoying a little Gallic charm, even in our national confinement.
The British enthusiasm for French cuisine runs very deep and you can still benefit from the influence of several big names who have helped transform the UK culinary landscape since the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps the greatest pioneers have being the Roux brothers. Hailing from Burgundy, they opened Le Gavroche (le-gavroche.co.uk) in Mayfair (now run by Albert’s son, Michel) and the Waterside Inn (Waterside-inn.co.uk) in Bray (now run by Michel’s son, Alain).
At the same time, Raymond Blanc (born in the Jura) still chairs Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons near Oxford (see Hotels), while within a new generation and also at the top, Hélène Darroze, who has raised in Aquitaine, now straddles the English Channel overseeing the Restaurant Hélène Darroze in Paris and Hélène Darroze at Connaught (the-connaught.co.uk).
Darroze trained under the direction of Alain Ducasse who, in addition to a group of Michelin stars in France, has his own eponymous store at the Dorchester (reopening September 10, dorchestercollection.com). Another Ducasse prodigy is Alexis Gauthier with his Soho townhouse in London (reopens September 2, gauthiersoho.co.uk).
Also in London, there are also the old favorites. Mon Plaisir (monplaisir.co.uk) has been serving escargots and coq au vin to Seven Dials viewers for over 50 years, and L’Escargot (lescargot.co.uk) was apparently the first UK restaurant to serve snails . He has a new branch in Aldeburgh. For the best Parisian brasserie atmosphere, I have three favorites: Balthazar in Covent Garden (reopening to come, balthazarlondon.com), Zedel (brassriezedel.com) just next to Piccadilly Circus and Colbert (colbertchelsea.com) on Sloane Square.
Outside the capital, Pascal Canevet’s provincial French cuisine at Maison Bleue in Bury St Edmonds (maisonbleue.co.uk) won him the 2019 Chef of the Year award. In Edinburgh, Fred Berkmiller’s menus are influenced by his education in Tours in the Loire. He is chef-owner of both L’escargot Bleu (lescargotbleu.co.uk) in Broughton Street and L’Escargot Blanc (lescargotblanc.co.uk) in Queensferry Street. And few French restaurants in Britain can match the atmosphere of Cafe St Honoré bistro in New Town (cafesthonore.com).
Global warming still has some way to go before it can match the quality and variety of French still wines. But sparkling things are another matter. Over the past two or three decades, large swathes of the limestone lowlands of southern England have been planted with vineyards and they are giving Champagne a run for its money.
Indeed, Taittinger responded by planting a vineyard in Kent, with the goal of producing wine in 2023 (domaineevremond.com). You cannot visit yet – the winery and visitor center are still in the planning stage. But you can visit a lot of the best UK wineries.
Some of those offering socially distant tours and tastings this year include Hambledon in Hampshire (hambledonvineyard.co.uk), Ridgeview (ridgeview.co.uk) in East Sussex, Chapel Down in Kent (chapeldown.com) ) and the Wiston Estate in West Sussex (wistonestate.com).
Cafes / pastry shops
In London, Maison Bertaux (maisonbertaux.com) on Greek Street has been making authentic French pastry since 1871 and the fruit tarts are as delicious as anything you’ll find in Paris. Just around the corner from Old Compton Street, Café Boheme (cafeboheme.co.uk) is a much newer arrival, but in its own way, just as atmospheric.
Le Vieux Comptoir (levieuxcomptoir.co.uk) in Marylebone is a restaurant with one of the best grocery stores and wine merchants in the capital. In South Kensington, Maitre Choux (maitrechoux.com) describes himself as the world’s first and only choux pastry specialist and modern French pastry shop, with branches in Soho, Kings Road, Canary Wharf and Bicester Village in the Oxfordshire. And if you fancy a macaroon, head to Ladurée (laduree.co.uk) at Burlington Arcade, Covent Garden or St Pancras Station (or Selfridges in Manchester). The packaging is almost as exquisite as the meringue.
Or you can head to Norwich to try MasterChef finalist Tim Kinnaird’s version on the French specialty. His Macarons & More store is located in the Royal Arcade (macaronsandmore.com). In Malvern, Le Delice (le-delice.co.uk) has specialized in pastry, charcuterie and cheese for over 20 years and also make deliveries. In Brighton, Julien Plumart, a Parisian-trained pastry chef, now owns a café and a tea room, both eponymous, serving his delicious sweets. And in Oxford, Hervé Gatineau’s “bakery, pastry shop, chocolate factory” (g Gatineau.uk.com) is doing a big job in Summertown.
There are two periods that most clearly define French painting: the lush, sensual and escape images of Rococo artists such as Boucher and Fragonard who titillated the court and, in Boucher’s case, Madame de Pompadour in particular; and, 100 years later, the Impressionists, more interested in the daily life of their patrons, the budding middle classes.
For a world-class collection of oldies, head to the Wallace Collection (wallacecollection.org) in Manchester Square, London. Among its many treasures, The Swing by Fragonard is one of the emblematic images of French art.
As for the Impressionists, the National Gallery (nationalgallery.org.uk) has the most important collection in the country, with key works by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas and Cézanne. Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum (glasgowlife.org.uk) also has a strong Impressionist collection.
Rugby is the common Anglo-Gallic sporting passion, of course, but I’m not sure we can see any French teams playing here this season.
It is also difficult to find many British towns and villages with a dusty track shaded by a short alley of hundred-year-old plane trees which might be suitable for a game of pétanque or pétanque.
However, Pétanque England (petanque-england.uk) can tell you the nearest equivalent and your local club. You will need to bring your own pastis.
A more highfalutin alternative would be to find one of the very rare true tennis courts in this country, in homage to the French origins of the game as a tennis court. You might like to remember Agincourt and the Dauphin’s ill-fated insult to Henry V as you play. The Real Tennis Society website includes a list of courts (realtennissociety.org).