L’ANCIENNE AUBERGE, Vonnas, Burgundy
Vonnas is a smallish village in the middle of a somewhat featureless plain in Bresse, southern Burgundy. It’s not on the way to anywhere, and any business advisor would tell you very firmly not to open a restaurant there. Fortunately for Georges Blanc, his ancestors didn’t know that in 1872 when they opened an inn to cater for egg sellers coming to the weekly market. Their humble country eatery has changed a bit since then. Georges has turned it into one of France’s best restaurants, which has had 3 Michelin stars since 1985. Helicopters decant rich and famous gastronauts for luxury weekend retreats or just for lunch, and tourists come halfway round the world to try his transcendental but traditional Bressane cuisine.
Driving into Vonnas, you get the impression that he’s steadily buying up the whole place. To date he has his original restaurant, Georges Blanc, with 32 deluxe rooms above it, plus the Residence des Saules - less expensive accommodation for people who’d rather spend their money on dinner, and l’Ancienne Auberge, a renovated lemonade bottling plant which features more modest, bistro-style food. There are also several shops and a deli, selling everything from plates to paté to pinot, all with the Georges Blanc label, plus he has restaurants in Lyon, Macon and Bourg-en-Bresse. When we stayed, there were workmen painting a small building next door to the Residence des Saules, so that is probably part of the operation by now. Then there’s his vineyard, Domaine d’Azenay, and a steady output of cook books. A full life.
An English reviewer had raved about a couple of meals he had at l’Ancienne Auberge, and gave the place 10/10, so we thought we’d better try it. The restaurant’s style is a tribute to Blanc’s mother and grandmother, and serves simple home-style food, impeccably cooked, from local and regional ingredients, the sort of food he ate as a child. Our 26 euro three course dinner started very well with a saumon persillé, based on the old Burgundian standard, jambon persillé (jellied ham with parsley). Chunks of salmon and finely chopped parsley were set in a clear jelly and served with slices of tiny potatoes, some purple, some yellow, and surrounded with blobs of oil and green mayonnaise, and sprigs of dill. It was perfectly made and delicious, as was Robert’s fig and duck terrine, with pickled onion jam.
Grandmother Blanc’s Bresse Chicken in Cream is the dish Blanc is best known for, so I had to have that. It was exactly as described - a drumstick and a thigh of Bresse chicken in a densely flavoured cream sauce, with a little pile of rice. That was all. It was the kind of perfect home cooking you dream about doing yourself, but never achieve. Bresse chicken has a set of appellation controllée regulations as detailed and strict as any wine, and each bird has a numbered ring on its leg. More importantly, they are free-range, so they have some flavour and are chewier than a battery bird.
Civet is the French word for a game stew, enriched with wine and blood, and there was a hare civet on the menu, so Robert was pleased. It was gamey, dark and very good, served simply with fresh pasta.
From the small choice of homely pudds, we chose a sour cherry and almond cake, and Grandmere Blanc’s orange cake. Both were nice enough, but not up to the standard of the two previous courses, we thought. Service was a little clumsy at times, and, while I’m glad we went, I would only give it 7 or maybe 8/10, but not Jonathon Meades’ full marks.
For those who really want to push the boat out, Restaurant Georges Blanc, across the square, has menus from 98 to 220 euros. We’re saving that for another visit and a much improved bank balance, but reading the menu in our room I liked the sound of roast turbot spiked with truffles, cepes, cockles and baby squid, or roast chicken cooked in a salt crust or Blanc’s famous potato pancakes, with salmon and caviar and lemon butter sauce. His love of the food and cooking of Bresse is evident in every dish. He even has a Bresse rooster as his logo.
Georges Blanc’s web biography calls him “a cook in Vonnas” which is like calling Mr Al Fayed a shopkeeper in Knightsbridge. The man’s a gastronomic phenomenon, an empire, a major brand.
Georges Blanc, place du Marché, Vonnas - 2024, the main restaurant still has 3 Michelin stars.