What does a fondue restaurant by the River Oise have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? Nothing at all, and that is the point. I am currently in an Oxfordshire village in England, sitting out the lockdown at my sister’s house, having decided to leave my Paris studio just hours before the travel ban came into effect on 17 March. Like everyone else, I don’t know how long this will last. But even though no one can travel within France at the moment I’m posting this blog as a reminder of the good things in life Before Coronavirus and as an affirmation of their continuity After Coronavirus.
Back in February, while trying out a Sunday walk along the River Oise 30 km north west of Paris, not far from the village of Auvers sur Oise made famous by Van Gogh, I came across a modest little restaurant with a garden
The tables, gay with red and white checked tablecloths, were packed with local families, and when I went inside to ask for their card I noted that the house wine was half the price you’d pay in Paris and the place was pervaded with the delicious smell of melting cheese. They specialise in the Savoyard dishes of fondue and raclette. My friend and I didn’t stop but I made a mental note to go back and try it out. Soon after that we passed the Carrière à Pépin, a former limestone quarry
which displayed a photograph of several Parisian visitors posing outside it in 1902, including Claude Débussy and his wife.
I found out later that Eragny, like Auvers, had become quite popular with Parisians when the train line to Cergy made the villages along the Oise easily accessible. We continued along the river until we reached the bridge to Cergy Port, a modern but attractive little marina with several cafés, before taking the train back to Paris.
Several weeks later my family came to visit me for a few days in Paris. I booked the fondue restaurant on the Oise for Sunday lunch, feeling sure that it would be a success. But when I went to collect them I found my niece and two nephews, all in their twenties, looking very fragile. They had been out clubbing the night before, had got home at 3 am and were clearly suffering from hangovers as well as from lack of sleep. My sister and her husband had slept badly too, as their luxurious-looking bed was uncomfortable. It was raining again and the forecast for the day, which turned out to be accurate, was that the rain would be continuous.
I got them onto the RER train at St Michel and watched as the 30-minute train ride had its usual calming effect. My youngest nephew slept off his hangover while the rest of the family started to take an interest in the rural scenery opening up around us as we left Paris behind. But I didn’t have a clue about how to get to the river, as the station was one I had never been to. The millennials took over, whipping out their phones to locate us on Google, and we three elders trailed after them through a nondescript suburban landscape, washed by rain.
And then we found the path to the river. Abruptly the noise of traffic ceased and we heard birdsong. The family, who are used to birdsong, pricked up their ears. ‘It’s not the same’, they said, and ‘How loud they are!’ We concluded that some of the woodland birds might be different from the ones found in Oxfordshire, and for all I know this is true.
By the time we had walked the kilometre along the River Oise to the restaurant everyone’s mood had changed. We were all fascinated by the huge working barges silently sliding past us along the the grey river, through softly falling rain. My sister was intrigued by the grand nineteenth century houses with gardens sloping down to the towpath, probably second homes built by Parisian escapees. My brother-in-law stopped to read a notice giving the history of the restaurant and excitedly informed me that it was a former guinguette. These were modest riverside restaurants with a dance floor, patronised by working class Parisians spending their Sundays boating, walking or fishing, which reached the peak of their popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was not surprised, as the busy friendly atmosphere of the restaurant was far removed from the ‘traditional’ half empty restaurant in Paris, also sporting red and white checked tablecloths, where we had been ripped off the night before.
We dripped inside, where a table for six had been laid near the window. Every other table was taken, full of multi-generational local families, so although we were the only foreigners we were not particularly conspicuous.
The rest of the afternoon was pure pleasure. The apéritif was a generous glass of rosé wine flavoured with griotte cherries, something none of us had tasted before, accompanied by little home-made canapés, and it was good. The bubbling fondue arrived, and it was very good. So was the house wine. The charcuterie tasted like charcuterie, not like something taken out of a packet. The salads were freshly made. My youngest nephew, in between appreciative mouthfuls of fondue, asked whose idea the restaurant had been. I modestly acknowledged that it was mine, to general approbation.
As we were nearing the end of the fondue the owner’s wife came over and showed me how to stir it properly to prevent it sticking. I explained that I had been doing that, but clearly not well enough. She smiled, so I volunteered the information that we had come from Paris by train just because I liked the look of the restaurant, and that we had not been disappointed.
‘You came from Paris by train in this weather!’
I explained that five of us had actually come over from England, let alone Paris. She went away, and a few minutes later her husband appeared and offered to drive us back to the station, as it was still raining. I was about to politely decline when I saw the family’s faces and realised that this was an offer not to be refused. Meanwhile my sister had noticed the old photos of the restaurant and of barges on the walls and asked the owner about them. His face lit up as he told her that several generations of his family, including his own, had made their living from the river.
His car held three of us and the remaining three elected to walk. Not for long, because he passed us trudging through the rain on his way back and offered to drive the second batch too. I hesitated for only a second this time and we were whisked away to join the others at the station, where our English voices elicited fascinated interest. Clearly, Eragny doesn’t get many international visitors, unlike Auvers or Barbizon, where you can sometimes feel that you are in an over-visited theme park.
Later my niece wrote to me that the high point of her Paris visit had been the trip to the fondue restaurant. As I think it was for all of us, even though we had abandoned the planned walk by the river. The short stretch we had walked in the rain to a genuinely local restaurant had been all that was needed to transport us to a different time and a different world and the whole family had appreciated the experience.
Now that all six of us are likely to be sitting out the coronavirus pandemic in isolation together for an indefinite period, that happy memory will be even more precious.
Below are details of the walk for when better times return.
Savoyard restaurant on the Oise: www.o-chalet.fr, tel 01 34 66 02 51, open noon-2.30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, except August.
Nearest stations, around 1 km from the restaurant: Neuville Université RER A, every 20 minutes or less, taking 30 minutes from Châtelet-Les Halles or Eragny Neuville SNCF, every 30 minutes, taking 35 minutes from Gare St Lazare.
The recommended walk is 2.5 km along the river from the SNCF station St Ouen l’Aumône Quartier de l’Eglise (38 minutes from Gare St Lazare) to the restaurant. It’s worth visiting the 12th century church when you arrive. After lunch at the restaurant (booking essential) you could return via either of the above two stations or continue for another 5 km. Follow the river and cross the bridge over to Cergy Port to reach the RER A station at Cergy Préfecture, from where it is 37 minutes to Châtelet-Les Halles.