A taste of France close to home

By Anne Else

I fell in love with things French at my first language lesson. I've managed to get there a few times, but it's hardly a weekend outing. Fortunately, it's now possible to find a genuine taste of France much closer to home. Wellington offers a rapidly growing cluster of thoroughly French experiences.

Ma Maison, at the city end of Island Bay, is a good place to start. Margo Frost, who has "French blood on my mother's side", set out five years ago to create the feel of an authentic French country bed and breakfast, from the fine bed linen to the painted floors and furniture. Visitors from France have left comments showing how well she has succeeded, from "This romantic room in the French taste" to "We feel as if we're at home". Well, we feel as if were in France.

A French weekend is always going to centre on food and wine. We plan to behave as we do in France, avoiding highly priced haute cuisine in favour of the classic cafe and bistro food the French eat every day.

Cafe Bastille is perfect for Friday evening, because you can't book. As in France, we go early to beat the rush. Harvey homes in on home-made pork sausage, onion and mash; I have a superb salad of black pudding, crunchy pigs ears, blue cheese, apple and walnuts, then a spinach and gruyere souffle with ratatouille.

Dessert has to be creme caramel. By this time every table is full of people cheerfully shouting at each other, and it has been a long day, so we retreat to Ma Maison.

Saturday breakfast is a bicultural affair. Margo says the French eagerly devour her crepes and bacon. But there's a new French creperie in town, so we keep to home-made muesli and yoghurt, raspberries, and croissant.

Today we plan to fit in five French-themed places that won't be open on Sunday.

First, Wellington's grande dame department store, Kirkcaldie and Stains, which has expanded next door into a neat little shop selling 45 different cheeses, though not all at once.

Availability depends on what's in season in France, and whether the cheese you want has sold out. Tasting is encouraged, so we try Saint Agur, an Auvergne blue; orange, caramel-tasting Memolette from Calais; and one of the oldest French cheeses, Laguiole, a kind of cheddar.

Just ahead is our morning snack. Sandrine Urvois is from Brittany, the home of crepes. Married to a New Zealander, she launched Crepes a Go Go because it fitted with raising two little boys.

While sweet crepes are their best seller, there's growing demand for savoury brown galettes. These are made from Canterbury buckwheat, are gluten-free, and definitely better than the ones I had in France.

Food leads naturally to wine, and Peter Rumble's cellar is a Wellington institution. His range covers all major French wine-growing regions, priced from $15 to a jaw-dropping $5000 for the older vintages of grand clarets from the late 1940s and mid 1960s. We try, and buy, his best seller, a modest $20 blended red: Cuvee des Oliviers 2004, from Domaine Massamier La Mignarde in Peyriac.

Round the corner in La Maison, Frederic Lafont responds warmly to my tentative French greeting. He imports a range of traditionally made French products for the home and the person. All have their own history, "un vieux savoir faire".

Even the green Marseille olive oil soap dates back to 1230. The prices of the strong moulded glassware in "le style ancien", some with the Versailles scallop shell or Napoleon's bee, are as reasonable as our wine. The maker, La Rochere, founded in 1475, is the oldest glass and crystal maker continuously operating in France.

For late lunch, we track down La Cloche along the Hutt Rd. Manager Francois Echequet is passionate about "the culture of gastronomy" which he has seen developing here. La Cloche aims to provide "l'experience francaise" without spending huge sums. Alongside the carefully selected wines, cheeses, and groceries are smallgoods (Toulouse sausage, duck or snail pate, wild boar or goat rillettes), all made here, to French recipes. We sit in the winter sun and devour a crisp croque-monsieur big enough to share, green salad, and frites.

We have missed the Alliance Francaise - open one Saturday a month - but there's usually a French film playing somewhere in the city.

We manage to get tickets for a late afternoon session of The Valet, a sparkling satirical comedy complete with Karl Lagerfeld frocks, at the magnificently restored Embassy.

So we're in the right frame of mind for dinner at Francois. Harvey homes in on oysters and steak-frites, but I branch out with gateau bressan, a brilliant warm chicken and liver pudding, and pork with cider sauce. It's good to be able to get single glasses of a viognier, a tanniny Bergerac red, and a 2004 Cote du Rhone.

We sleep late, so we turn morning tea into breakfast. Jean-Louis Macadre and his New Zealand wife Gail started Bordeaux Bakery in 1992, so he could make the kinds of breads and cakes he knew. Now they run the bakery, the spacious parent shop-cafe, and two little city offspring.

So much choice, so little room ... baguette first, naturellement, with orange jam; then I manage to kid myself that a large slice of tropezienne is lighter than an almond croissant.

A virtuous uphill walk is called for. We pay our respects to Katherine Mansfield (she's a French icon, too) at her superbly restored Thorndon birthplace, then browse the shops up to Cherry Orchard Antiques.

Despite the name, Mary-Clare Wilson buys solely in France, collecting homely, quirky pieces. Time for one last leisurely lunch before we leave ... Wellington's newest French cafe, Simply Paris, is simple and sophisticated. There are soups, quiches, salads, and a plat du jour - today, roast lamb with gratin.

The French drink enormous quantities of fancy tea, and here are 27 kinds. Their in-house patissier uses imported French purees to give his delicate creations their intense fruit flavours. I start to fantasise about selling up, renting the flat upstairs, and becoming the Simone de Beauvoir of Cuba St.


Getting there

Air New Zealand has regular flights to Wellington from Auckland and other airports around the country.

Where to stay

Ma Maison, 9 Tamar St, Island Bay, phone/fax (04) 383 4018, email bedandbreakfast@paradise.co.nz. Double $130, single $110, including breakfast.

Where to eat

Cafe Bastille, 16 Majoribanks St, (04) 382 9559, Mon-Sat 5.30pm-late

Crepes a Go Go, 57 Manners Mall (04) 499 1820, Harbour City Centre (04) 499 1900, Mon to Fri 9.30am-5.30pm and Sat 10am-5pm.

Francois, 10A Murphy St, (04) 499 5252, lunch Tue-Fri from midday, dinner Mon-Sat from 6pm.

Bordeaux Bakery, 220 Thorndon Quay, (04) 499 8334, bordeaux bakery@xtra.co.nz, daily 7.30am-5pm.

Simply Paris, 181 Cuba St, (04) 801 5486, gourmetnz@gmail.com, Tue-Thu 7.30am-5.30pm, Fri-Sat to 10pm, Sun 8am-4pm.

Where to go

Check the Alliance Francaise website for events: see link below.

Rumbles, 32 Waring Taylor St (04) 472 7045, rumbleswine@xtra.co.nz.

Kirkcaldie and Stains, cnr Lambton Quay and Brandon St, (04) 472 5899.

La Maison, 142 Featherston St, (04) 499 5350, lafont@paradise.net.nz.

Katherine Mansfield Birthplace, 25 Tinakori Rd, Tue-Sun 10am-4pm, admission charge.

Cherry Orchard Antiques, 344 Tinakori Rd, behind Fords Cafe), (04) 499 8533, daily 10am-4pm or by appointment.

La Cloche, 134 Hutt Rd, (04) 473 4892, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, weekends 9am-3pm.

Absolutely positively one to win

How would you like a weekend trip for two to Wellington to see the Constable exhibition as well as enjoying the capital's cafes, art galleries and museums?

Herald Travel, Air New Zealand and Positively Wellington Tourism are offering the chance to win a package including:

* Two return air tickets to Wellington flying Air NZ.

* A night's accommodation for two at one of Wellington's classiest hotels, the Bolton Hotel, in downtown Wellington, just a few minutes' walk from Lambton Quay. Also, enjoy breakfast for two at the hotel's exquisite restaurant, Bisque on Bolton.

* Sit back and relax at the end of your day with dinner for two at one of Wellington's premier restaurants, The White House Restaurant, which offers a range of fine cuisine at an idyllic site on Oriental Parade.

* Take a step back into 19th-century Europe with tickets for two to Constable: Impressions of Land, Sea and Sky, on at Te Papa until October 8.

* Take a ride on one of Wellington's most iconic attractions with tickets for two on the Wellington Cable Car. The journey will whisk you from downtown Lambton Quay to the tranquillity of the Botanic Gardens, where you'll enjoy stunning views of the city and harbour.

This package must be taken before the close of the Constable exhibition on October 8. It must be taken on a weekend; and accommodation at the Bolton Hotel is subject to availability at the time of booking.

* In addition, Air NZ is offering nine consolation prizes of return air tickets for two to Wellington to be used by June 30, 2007.

To be in to win put your name and address and a daytime phone number on the back of an envelope, give the name of Wellington's national museum, and post to:

Wellington Weekend, Travel Section, NZ Herald, PO Box 3290, Auckland.

Entries must reach the Herald by noon on September 5. Winners will be listed in Travel on September 12.

* Anne Else was assisted by Positively Wellington Tourism.

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