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Golf à la carte - La Vienne region of France

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.”

Off the 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 woodland course.

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

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