Sunflower fields in the south of France were just the start of a memorable B&B experience.
Sunflower fields in the south of France were just the start of a memorable B&B experience. iStock

Free-flowing abundance served up in France

If you follow this travel column (and I hope you do) you'll know I wrote last week about quirky B&B experiences I've had.

After I'd finished writing, I remembered my first B&B experience and cursed that I had not included it.

It was in the South of France, so that makes it special for a start.

We had just started travelling after being grounded for a couple of decades raising children.

We flew into Lyon, hired a car and drove into the unknown. This was in the days when I allowed my husband to tell me it was a good idea to arrive in a country without booking any accommodation.

"We'll find something," he said confidently as we drove nervously on the wrong side of the road with the windscreen wipers flapping because we kept turning them on instead of the blinkers.

We arrived at a small town two hours later and found a reasonably-priced hotel. But when we dragged our bags up wooden stairs so rickety we thought they might collapse under our weight, we found a claustrophobic, windowless room so unclean (and that's being kind) we ran down the rickety stairs and fled.

And drove on.

By this time it was late afternoon and we had nowhere to stay. We found an information booth in the next town recommending a newly opened B&B a few kilometres away. We didn't have much faith, but we didn't have much choice either.

We drove off the main road along narrow tracks flanked by vineyards and sunflower fields and although it was picturesque beyond description, it appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. When we eventually found it, we were greeted by a timid man who gave true meaning to the look a rabbit has when caught in the headlights. Maybe it was we big Australians, but this man was terrified of something.

He showed us to our room, very nice, and kept saying "wheat, manger, wheat, manger, wheat, wheat." He had not a word of English and my schoolgirl French had long fled.

"Why does he want us to know about wheat in the manger?" I asked the husband when we were alone. "Is it something biblical?"

When I worked out the frightened man was actually saying "Huit, manger" I was overcome with embarrassment. "8pm, eat."

We were the only guests in the small dining room overlooking green vines. We did not know dinner was included in the small B&B price, quite the bonus, but we had no expectations.

First, the frightened man brought small salads, lightly dressed and so fresh and simple and perfect, our tastebuds awoke from a lifetime of slumber. Then came a chicken dish, moist and succulent and with little roasted potatoes and green beans. Then a plate of cheeses we had never encountered before - munster, roquefort, cantal. And carafe after carafe of good red wine. And bread, oh, the loveliness of the French bread.

We tucked into everything, astonished at the generosity (especially, the unlimited wine... heaven). The only downside was the frightened man who kept poking his nervous head around the door, obviously checking to see if we were ready for the next course or wanted more wine.

It was as though he was hiding just outside the door spying on us. He was very nice, but obviously scared of us, although visibly impressed at our ability to polish off all the bread and cheese. On his next peek around the door he brought with him perfect creme caramels, all wobbly and creamy and so delicious we couldn't speak for a while. Then coffee. And petit fours.

We knew not then of the abundance of the French dinner table: the free-flowing wine, the sublime cheese, the unlimited bread, all an integral part of a meal, just as important as the entree, main course and dessert.

We've never looked back.

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