To the French, golf is best enjoyed as a game of two halves – separated, ideally, with a
two-hour lunch. Photo journalist Mark Alexander travelled to the La Vienne region of central
France to experience a culinary tour de force
Every nation has something is excels at. The
Italians have their style, the Germans are sticklers for efficiency
and the Spanish know a thing or two about passion.
So when it comes to the French, it’s simple. They do food.
Better than just about anyone.
When the l'enfant terrible of cooking, Gordon Ramsey,
wanted to learn his trade, he upped sticks and moved to
France, and with good reason. While the foul-mouthed
foodie certainly knows his way around a kitchen, his culinary
success rests with the Frenchies who taught him
everything he knows.
But good food in France isn’t merely a preserve of
celebrity chefs; it’s a part of daily life. Le déjeuner (lunch)
is still regarded by many as a two-hour feast to be
savoured and enjoyed rather than eaten on the hoof. And
as indulgent as it may sound, this considered culinary
approach even eats into golf.
“One of the greatest traditions in France is that golfers
play nine holes, eat for two or three hours and then play
another nine holes,” says Mark Denley, a PGA professional
at Golf du Haut Poitou, which lies 25km north of the central
French city of Poitiers. “For the French, golf is enjoyable
but it’s something that sandwiches the meal, if you
pardon the pun. The food is the main thing.”
Panoramic views of Saint-Cyr Lake
greet members and visitors at
Haut Poitou, a club renowned as
much for its menu as the golf
Positioned on a hilltop overlooking the Saint-Cyr Lake,
which is surrounded by the rolling countryside of the La
Vienne region, Haut Poitou’s clubhouse enjoys remarkable
views (amply represented in the accompanying photo). Yet,
despite the vista and a striking sunset, the veranda is empty.
Inside, the dull thud of drums from a live band can be heard
over a buzz of conversation and laughter. The place is heaving
and the restaurant is packed.
Like many golf clubs in France, Haut Poitou is a meeting
place where people gather to play golf and indulge in fine
wines and good food. “If you don’t have the cuisine, it’s
very difficult to attract paying visitors,” says Denley, who’s
originally from London but has lived and worked in this
part of France for two years. “Yes, they want to play golf
but they also want to eat well. Buggy rentals are expensive
here because the French expect to keep the buggies parked
outside the clubhouse while they eat. When I advertise
buggy rentals, I have to specify whether it’s for 18 holes or
18 holes with a three-hour lunch stop.”
The course itself has been laid out to capitalise on the
lakeland scenery and rich woodland, which provides more
than a touch of drama. From the elevated position on the
first tee, you get a fine view of what lies ahead. Long, sweeping
doglegs with the occasional spit of land surrounded by
water creates an attractive yet challenging golf course.
And as you finish your round, the promise of French
food freshly prepared certainly puts a spring in your step.
Fresh seafood, salads and steaks are the order of the day
and the locals love it.
It’s the same story at Château des Forges. Located 37
km west from Poitiers, des Forges Golf Club is surrounded
by an olde worlde countryside that is broken up by small
hamlets and picturesque village squares with decrepit churches and lonely fruit stalls. The club’s director, Didier
Broquerault, says the seclusion means visitors tend to
spend more time at des Forges than they do elsewhere.
“Because we’re off the beaten track, when people come
here they make a day of it. They play golf and eat here,” he
says. “This is one of the most rural counties of France, so
there are lots of small fields and hedges which make it look
like England, and that’s why a lot of Brits retire here.”
beaten track, your reward
for making the effort to visit
Chateeau des Forges, 37km
west of Poitiers, is gourmet
golf & fine-dining to match
Although the accents in the clubhouse are predominantly
French, the atmosphere is distinctly cosmopolitan, with
expatriates from the UK, Holland and Sweden discussing
swing tips over apéritifs. They’re also there for the food.
“You have to remember, you’re in a golf environment so
you have to provide golfers with what they want,” says
Broquerault, who spent 18 years in the UK including a six year
stint at Wentworth. “There’s nothing worse than finishing
your round at 4pm and there’s nothing to eat, so we
serve food all day.”
All-day services have been a staple of British clubs for
years but that hasn’t always led to a fine-dining experience
– a heated up sausage roll and frothy pint would hardly
warrant a Michelin star. So while the farmhouse feel at des
Forges was pleasant enough, the thought of an all-day
breakfast hardly set my taste buds alight.
In reality, the surroundings don’t do the food justice.
France’s central belt is renowned for its wild game, calves,
Charolais cattle, Géline fowl and high-quality goat cheeses,
and, true to form, a plate of tender, locally reared lamb sent
my mouth watering. Other dishes on show (the steamed
trout in particular) were equally appetising and everything
was served with rich local wines.
Perhaps foolishly, the food was consumed ahead of the
golf and my game suffered as a result, although the course
did its best to help. In fact, the greens at Les Forges – which
is a 27-hole complex – are some of the truest I’ve played and
in some cases world-class. They’re also deceptively inviting,
with some wicked contours. The Blue Course is regarded as
the most attractive of the trilogy, with a collection of beautiful
holes anchored around a central lake shaded by woodland.
Like the food, Les Forges was something of a surprise.
Less surprising was Le Manoir de Beauvoir. This former
country home was everything I’d hoped French golf would be, right down to the Victorian-style
chateaux with an ornate pond that
reached out to the wide fairways
and arena greens of an attractive
Although golfers are serviced by a
separate clubhouse, the place to eat
is the hotel which has three dining
rooms. We found ourselves out on
the terrace overlooking the pond and
were presented with a tantalising
menu that included an ox cheek and
prune terrine, roasted monkfish and
assortment of hand-made deserts.
Our selected dishes were delicate and
attractive, the food was colourful and
succulent and presented in such a
way to prompt conversations about
the obvious talents of the chef.
Although dishes like the striking scallops and mixed pepper
starter were easily the best we’d tasted, Michaël Lebeau,
the hotel and restaurant manager, dismissed any suggestion
they might be haute cuisine. “People expect good food,
for sure,” he laughs, “but we don’t produce gastronomic
food here. It’s good and it’s local.”
A former country
home is the centre-piece of
Le Manoir de Beauvoir,
where the food and the
service is faultless
And while the food was undoubtedly first-rate, the service
was faultless. During our meal, one of my cohorts asked
about the origins of the wine and a printed description of
its delicate aromas was duly dispatched to our table. The
correspondence was greeted by universal nods of approval.
But perhaps Le Manoir de Beauvoir epitomises golf in
France in its most extreme form since the course itself
lacked the care and attention that was adorned on the food.
Uneven tees and disappointing greens took the shine off an
otherwise enjoyable resort track.
There is no doubt that French golf often plays second
fiddle to the culinary excesses for which the country is
famed, but there is an increasing number of good courses
to choose from. If you like your golf served up with fine
wines and great cooking, there’s nowhere better.
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine