When we first started visiting Provence, we would happily spend a couple of hours, sitting at a cafe or restaurant enjoying lunch, whilst we were out on the bikes. I remember the first time we came, arriving at Goult in the heat of the day, exhausted after what, at the time, felt like a long morning’s ride, finishing on a killer of a hill. We collapsed into chairs on the terrace in front of the Cafe de la Poste, and enjoyed a superb lunch, with a glass or two of wine as well, before hopping gingerly on the bikes again for the ride back to Lagnes, where we were staying.
It just felt like it was the right thing to do, and we continued with these lovely lunch-stops for many years, including when we first started cycling with the boys. But over time, our eating habits have changed considerably and, whereas there used to be nothing we liked more, than those slow, gentle lunchtimes, now we would much rather stop for breakfast.
I say breakfast, as it tends to be far too early to be described as elevenses. In effect it is much more of a second breakfast, as we inevitably have something before we leave home, as cycling on an empty stomach is never good -that’s my excuse anyway.
There is always something irresistable about the thought of a freshly baked croissant, still slightly warm from the oven, with its crisp golden ‘crust’ ….
or a pain au chocolate, with two solid cores of chocolate (anything less and I feel cheated)….
or perhaps the sticky, slightly gooey, pains aux raisins, with the squidgy, plumptious raisins held in place between the flaky, coiled layers of dough,
And then the ultimate treat of a soft, marzipan-scented almond croissant, topped with flaked almonds and enough icing sugar that it dusts the end of your nose as you try to eat it, and believe me when I say, there is no elegant way of doing it.
So over the past few years these breakfasts have become as much a part of our rides as putting on our cycle shoes, and we have some favourite places to go to, often organising a route around which boulangeries will be closed on specific days.
Arriving at a chosen boulangerie, only to find it closed, does not make for a happy ride, and can really upset my day. In fact the day I was involved in an accident that resulted in our french car being written off, I had cycled to Bonnieux in the morning, only to find the weekly closing day had been changed. I’m not saying that this actually caused the accident, but it certainly put me out of sorts for the rest of the day, so for me there is a sub-conscious link between the two events.
Of course the quality of the viennoiseries is important, and the best are those that can be peeled apart, layer by buttery layer, with flakes that fall onto the plate below. I know that often we see people dunking their croissant into a coffee, or hot chocolate, but that approach doesn’t appeal to us, we are much happier tearing back the layers and eating it that way.
The second important factor is the ambience of the boulangerie, and the best are those that seem to be the beating heart of the community. Those with little seating areas, where we love to sit and watch the early morning bustle of people popping in for their daily baguette, seeing children tugging on parents’ elbows pointing eagerly at the delights on the counter, or simply listening to the gentle chatter of old friends discussing the weather, or the latest headline in the La Provence newspaper.
In the summer, some have queues of people outside, waiting patiently to be served, hoping that the person in front doesn’t manage to get the last croissant or brioche. But in winter the queues are gone and the tables are moved inside, where there is a cosy, warm atmosphere as they fill with villagers, chatting about their day ahead, stirring sugar into their coffee.
We always welcome the chance to sit inside, peel off our gloves and nurse a hot cup of coffee with cold, tingling fingers, feeling our cores warm, delaying the moment we have to walk back outside.
Sometimes though, the boulangeries don’t have seating areas, so we tuck our pastries into a pocket, and head to a favourite wall, where we can sit and enjoy the view, savouring every last crumb that has dropped into the bag
There is something very gentle about these second breakfasts, and they have been the thing I have missed most over the last few months, apart from being able to see and hug friends and family.
The boulangeries are still open, but all the tables have been removed, so although we buy the croissants, I often feel that half the experience is missing.
There is something very pleasant about these slow mornings, stopping after the first part of a ride, ready for a little sit down, before getting back on the bikes. I’ve also been walking a lot over the last few weeks, and have found myself eating my croissants in some strange and unusual places, including trying to shelter from the pouring rain under an insubstantial pergola at Bonnieux … The coffee was cold and the croissant was almost as soggy as I was by the time I had finished!
For me though the breakfasts are, and always will be simply irresistible and I will happily have my second breakfast in preference to lunch any day of the week.
Even writing about them has made my mouth water and I look forward to the time we can enjoy our slow mornings again.