A lot has been made of the glory and diversity of America’s road-foods by such hit US TV shows as Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which, if you haven’t seen it, features a bleach-blond moron traveling the highways and byways of this great nation gorging himself on deep-fried hamburgers, the world’s spiciest chicken wings, and platters of barbecue so big you could almost hear his car’s shocks wince. He then jumps back behind the wheel and steps on the gas to make it to the next neon-signed heart-stopper before his cholesterol level has the chance to drop below 300.
As you may have inferred, I am not overly impressed by this show or others like Man vs. Food that marvel at just how gluttonous and boorish the host can be. Perhaps it’s because I frequently over-eat and then avoid looking at myself in the mirror, but in the same way as I don’t favor shows featuring close-ups of young fools guzzling booze, like, say, The Real World, I also don’t enjoy watching some fat guy shoving 4 pounds of pancakes down his pie-hole surrounded by the cheering obese. I find it all, shall we say, sorta gross.
On a more serious note though, if such shows are truly representative of the best road-food in this country, and were I an American truck-driver, I would fear for my health. I know from personal experience that driving isn’t one of the more healthful occupations given the innumerable sedentary hours in the cab, but when the majority of truck-stops offer only greasy fast food, you can be pretty sure that expecting to to enjoy a long and healthy retirement after 40 years in the game may be optimistic.
We mentioned our appreciation for the fare offered at Italian truck-stops a couple of years ago — noting with joy and surprise in equal measure that one can get beer or wine to accompany, amongst other things, fantastically fresh panini — but our recent trip to France has re-opened the debate over which country we’d prefer to be a trucker in.
Known as routiers, French truck-drivers have a reputation for gruffness and industrial action. Rarely a year passes in which they do not blockade the Channel Tunnel or the autoroutes around Paris with blazing oil drums to protest rising fuel prices, increased tolls, or out of sympathy with the similarly militant French farmer. Having driven in France, one sympathizes with their complaints over the miserable state of fuel and tolls, but if there is one facet of Gallic truck-driving life about which they cannot complain, it’s road food.
Perhaps to compensate the routier for his hard life behind the wheel, the weeks away from his family (and it almost always is a him), and the hours of solitude, in true French style, there has grown up a nationwide network of restaurants that principally cater to him: the Relais Routiers. The French trucker network makes sure that wherever he may find himself, from the city to the countryside, from Flanders to Gascony, the hard-working driver can get a three-course meal with wine and a shower without having to resort to such desperate measures as his American (or British) counterpart and settle for fast-food. In fact, a handy pocket-guide is published annually to help them find these often out-of-the-way places.
And therein lies the rub: rather like the average Frenchman who will happily spend an hour of his precious Sunday driving out to a tiny auberge hidden in the hills to support the cooking of a particular chef, the French truck driver will always go out of his way to arrive at a Relais Routiers around noon. And why not? They serve excellent, often regional, food at the correct price that has him returning every time he’s passing by.
But to many throughout the provinces of France, the Relais Routiers are more than just a truck-stop. They are the local restaurant, watering-hole, social club and informal town hall — the locus for ties that bind the community together. And like local businesses everywhere, owners of Relais Routiers know their clientele well enough to understand that their customer’s loyalty to a restaurant is only as strong as its loyalty is to their stomachs and pocket-books. Consequently, they offer reliably good, honest food. Indeed, in these thin times, and with the advent of so many pretentious, expensive eateries causing the collapse of local bistrots across France, some commentators have called Relais Routiers the guardians of the nation’s cuisine. This might be slightly unfair to the Paul Bocuses and Daniel Bouluds of this world, but like a good pub in Britain or quality diner in America, you simply know where you are with a Routiers. You know what to expect and while your expectations might rarely be exceeded, they are always met, and familiarity and comfort are what most people seek most of the time.
Until comparatively recently, the laws governing alcohol consumption and driving in France were less than strict, and it was perfectly normal for a routier to wash his three course meal down with an aperitif, half a bottle of wine and a digestif (all except the digestif being included in the price) before breezily climbing back into the cab of his 10 ton machine and trundling off. These days the carte routiers still includes three (sometimes four!) generous courses, but with the booze sensibly capped at a 1/3 bottle, often served in a small jug that looks touchingly dainty in the nicotine-stained hands of blue-chinned trucker.
When we visited Auberge St. Martin — a Relais Routiers on the RN31 in Pontarcher, Ambleny, between Compiègne and Soissons in the Oise department of France between Christmas and New Years — our delicious three course lunch and half-carafe of house red plus coffee set us back an astonishing 22 euros ($29) for the two of us. The charge of one euro above that levied on many of our fellow diners was due to our inability to flash our routiers membership card.
The Carte Routiers had its customary three options that day, a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts: a charcuterie plate (containing slices of the local specialty, andouillette, or tripe sausage) or pork rillettes, followed by poulet Basquaise (Basque-style chicken with peppers and onions in a spicy sauce) or biftek (rump steak with french fries), and fromage blanc (a delicious thick natural yogurt) or assiette de fromage (cheese plate) for dessert.
The food was simple and delicious, and the service prompt and informal. The sole problem we encountered was in following directions to the bathroom which appeared to lead to the bar, but in fact directed you outside to a separate door where the shower was located. The most enlightening aspect of the whole experience — quite apart from note penned on the menu listing a shower for 2 euro or 3 euro with a towel — was that this place really did a lot of its business with truck drivers. Outside, packed tightly together on the muddy verges of a country road were 10 or more giant trucks, and glancing around us more than half the diners were sitting quietly by themselves, sleeves rolled up to reveal a bevy of tattoos, breaking their midday bread in companionable silence. We looked at each other and both said, almost simultaneously, “this would never happen in America.” It was a moment of sincere cultural recognition on our behalf, and we raised our glasses to toast these heroes of haulage and their continuing role as custodians of the nation’s table.
I should have mentioned, as some readers pointed out, that Alton Brown’s Feasting on Asphalt series on the Food Network brought much-needed attention to many of America’s excellent road-food places. In some ways, I willfully ignored these and made a false comparison between France and America by only focusing on the dearth of good eateries along America’s interstates while specifically discussing eateries scattered around the back-roads of the French countryside. As Alton says, “Steer clear of freeways. You will never see, hear, smell, feel, or taste anything interesting on an interstate.”