Travel review: France's own Jurassic Park
If your child is a fussy eater, can a holiday in France to the region that gave Jurassic Park its name help them learn to love good food? Kate Whiting tries to find out.
In an old stable in the French town of Arbois, four local winemakers are absorbed in hooking grapes together on a frame to make an enormous bunch, which, when finished, will weigh nearly 100kg.
One of the men turns to my two-year-old son and hands him a small bunch of red pinot noir grapes, which make up half of the stripy pattern of red and white varieties on the annual harvest offering to the town’s patron, Saint-Just.
The following day, we’ll watch as ‘the Biou’ is paraded through the town and hoisted aloft in the church. But for now, my son’s enjoying gorging on his own miniature version. The winemaker doesn’t know it, but his simple gesture is feeding my plan to broaden my son’s taste buds, which is why we’re in France.
A typical toddler, Ollie’s a picky eater and generally sticks to what he knows. I’m hoping that exposing him to a range of exciting new flavours and textures will help him learn to love good food for life.
The Franche-Comte region is on the mountainous east, sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland. It comprises the Jura, Doubs, Haute-Saone, and Territoire de Belfort departments – and it’s in the Jura where we’re staying, in the wine capital Arbois – once home to Louis Pasteur.
Besides my parents, who’ve made their second home in a nearby village, you’ll hear very few English accents. The main tourists are Germans and Dutch and it seems relatively undiscovered by the Brits.
The Jura is famous for its hard, salty and flavoursome Comte cheese and its unique wines, including the barrel-aged vin jaune (yellow wine) and sweet vin de paille (straw wine).
But where better to start your first culinary adventure in France than at the local market? Here Ollie has his first taste of France, with sweet green figs and juicy donut-shaped flat peaches. But the real test comes at lunchtime, when we head to Le Grapiot (www.legrapiot.com) in the nearby wine-growing village of Pupillin.
Ollie insists on sitting on my lap to eat Goujons au Comte (choux pastry made with the local cheese) but by the time his fillet of daurade, sauteed in butter, with carrots and giant peas arrives, he’s been coaxed into a big-boy chair.
He’s also keen to try Grandpa’s puy lentils, which he loves. I plump for the excellent Nage de Homard – it’s not cheap at €30, but is perhaps the best lobster I’ve ever had. More reasonable is the lunchtime menu for €20, which includes a starter, main, dessert, wine and coffee. The menu enfant is €12 for a main, dessert and drink.
While nothing can quite match the Biou for excitement, Besancon’s zoo comes close. Set in the Unesco World Heritage Site of Vauban’s Citadel, there are baboons grooming in the moat and goats leaping along the walls. From the turrets, you can see exactly why this 1660s military structure was built where it is, as the town sits in the middle of an oxbow lake.
The plan is to dine at the restaurant where Raymond Blanc first learned to cook on Place Granvelle (now called Brasserie 1802), but in true French fashion, the staff is on strike.
So we go instead to the Brasserie du Commerce on the main high street, the only remaining cafe of the Belle Epoque – all floor to ceiling mirrors and grandiose gilded chandeliers – where Ollie eats more frites than poulet.
Just outside Besancon, we go back in time to when dinosaurs roamed the earth at Dino-Zoo, which opened in 1993, just six months before Stephen Spielberg’s game-changing Jurassic Park came out. Dinosaur remains were found in the limestone Jura mountain range, which gave its name to the famous prehistoric period.
A hilly woodland trail brings us up close to life-size, scientifically accurate models, including a 13m-high, 25m-long brachiosaurus. It’s taller than the trees and eerily lifelike, but doesn’t seem to scare Ollie in the slightest.
We’re staying at Castel Damandre in the village of Les Planches, at the end of the valley through which Arbois’ river Cuisance flows. It looks like a castle, but was in fact an old mill
Once the sun has dipped, we head back to our room with its four-poster bed and Jacuzzi, and get ready for dinner at the cellar restaurant, run by chef Pascal Mathieu.
With my parents babysitting Ollie in our room, we indulge in a six-course meal that starts with an amuse bouche of Foie Gras Panacotta and includes the Jura’s signature dish, Poulet aux Vin Jaune et aux Morilles (chicken in vin jaune with locally foraged morel mushrooms). Simply put, it blows expectations out of the water – and is that little bit sweeter without a toddler in tow.
On our final day, there’s a final test for Ollie with lunch al fresco at arguably Arbois’ finest eatery, La Balance. French beans and mash go down a treat, but he barely touches the fish or the ice cream, preferring instead to run his fingers through the water in the fountain nearby.
Ollie may not be a complete convert to their cuisine, but we’ve all had a culinary adventure in France.
Kate Whiting travelled by train to Mouchard in the Franche-Comte with Railbookers (020 3327 1600, railbookers.com), specialists in organising bespoke holidays by rail to Europe and beyond. A short break to Lyon starts from £259 per person.
A suite at the Hotel Castel Damandre, near Arbois, is 250 euros per night, plus 10 euros per person for breakfast. Visit casteldamandre.com/uk
For more information about the region, visit en.franche-comte.org