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Eating à la Française

A. Burchard meets man on a mission to let Cheltonians escape to a little corner of France - just for a few hours. crack

We all dream of living in paradise where the sun plays on white sandy beaches and clear blue seas. So what makes a man exchange this for the cold, wet and windy parts of Europe? I could hardly believe my ears when I met a man who swopped the perma-blue skies of the Seyschelles for the UK.

People kept telling me of a new French bistrot/restaurant in Cheltenham. Of course, this propelled me into the streets, expecting the typical frontage. I didn’t find it, so I rang up the man behind the name of Bistrot Coco. ‘Could I speak to Marcel,’ I asked and soon found myself sitting under a parasol on an elegant and sizeable and very secret courtyard terrace, face to face with Marcel Frichot, the owner. Quite honestly, it was hard to believe that such a place existed when I took the narrow steps down to a basement in Cambray Place.

Marcel is a Frenchman through and through. His father had coconut plantations in the Seychelles. ‘I almost never speak French,’ he said, though I would never have known it. The French and their culture are such that no matter how long they live abroad, no matter how seldom they speak their own language, they always retain their unmistakable accent and their love of food.

‘I studied economics in the UK and Australia,’ he says. What did you set out to do when you began, I ask. ‘I wanted to become minister for tourism in the Seychelles,’ he says with a smile, ‘but then I sort of fell into hotel management.’ He quickly became Food and Beverage Manager of a large hotel group in his native Seychelles. This culminated in a position at the exclusive Denis Island Hotel, a five-star destination. But he had his eye on bigger things. It seems that with Marcel work is where the heart is. And of course, in matters of the heart there was that special girl from Liverpool. Marcel has been in England and Scotland for more than twenty years. ‘I still speak French and the local Creole language of the Seychelles,’ he says with a fair hint of a French accent, ‘but my wife and the kids speak English in the house all the time.’ So you are definitely outnumbered, I say. He laughs.

His first big venture was Knockinaam Lodge in South West Scotland, a hotel right on the Scottish coast, a long, long way from the Seychelles climate. Not much sun or cooling off under palms here. It is said that Churchill chose this remote location to hold secret meetings with General Eisenhower to plan the D-Day landings. Soon Marcel Frichot made his own conquests. He won a coveted Michelin star and the Country House Hotel of the Year Award. In the late 1990s, he became proprietor of the Elms Hotel in Worcestershire, a stunning 18th- Century country house.

What brought you to Cheltenham? Did you move South, I ask, to escape thick woolly socks and the stoking of the fires all year? ‘Sort of. Scotland is incredibly cold,’ he admits, ‘and then there were the kids and their schools.’

The Lypiatt House Hotel in Cheltenham was just one of his new ventures. He aquired the Daffodil, the former cinema, one of Cheltenham ‘s landmark. ‘I enjoyed it for seven years. Then I suddenly found it too big for what I want now, so I sold it.’

When going for a meal Marcel and his wife longed for the kind of food you get in French bistros and restaurants served in places where all kinds of people sit down for two hours to a three course lunch which in the UK would pass for quite a sophisticated meal.

A classic French bistro was originally simply a bar, but not as the British understand it today. Here simple people could eat cheaply in equally simple surrounding. They were not much more than the neighbourhood café providing the community with lunchtime meals, evening aperitifs and a bar to lean on to exchange local gossip. French brasseries, owned by the rich breweries, were more fancy affairs, with ornate mirrors and ceilings. Over time however the style of bistros and brasseries started to overlap in many ways (see books below).

Marcel bought a tall building in Cambray Place. There was a very large basement as well as a sunny raised courtyard. He dug out some massive original flagstones in the basement, the kind you find in very old churches. The idea to make a typical, intimate Paris-style bistrot was born. And where did the name Coco come from? Is it inspired by Coco Chanel, I wondered. ‘From the coconuts, of course. My chocolate brown Labrador is also called Coco.’

When people think of French food, they think ‘complicated’ or ‘labour intensive’ – and expensive. There is of course nothing wrong with spending time preparing food that you love, but as Marcel will tell anyone, a lot of French food can be prepared in no time at all, provided you get the quality of the ingredients right. He has brought Tim Hayward, his trusted chef from the Daffodil to the Bistrot Coco.

We sit in the sun of the courtyard and chat about food - what else do the French talk about when they meet in England? Like all French people I know here, I complain that food has become a kind of extreme sport in the UK. Chefs wield blood-curdling language and cleavers, brandishing both like demented Samurais – it’s Top Gear food for ‘the boys’. I also dislike the current obsession with what I call techno-food, the architect-built constructions on my plate that I am expected to demolish before the bill empties my bank account. The Blumenthal ‘science’ does not make my mouth water. Just the idea that someone is experimenting, Frankenstein-like, with perfectly good food provided by nature, seems to me almost pornographic. Marcel diplomatically says, ‘I’m no great fan of all that either.’ Understandably, it would be ungracious to criticise others in the business.

A lot of work has been put in to give his bistrot a really authentic feel. The walls as well as the ceilings are covered with photographs of the great French singers and movie stars – all in black and white, bien sûr. The music too is in keeping. I shall be very tempted to settle on the courtyard terrace when I give French lessons - weather permitting, of course.

On the menu are classic French dishes like Coq au Vin, Poule au Pot and Confit de Canard. So, are you on a mission to convert the English to real French food, I ask. ‘Genuine French food doesn’t have to cost the earth,’ he says. Like many French people, he is passionate about the quality of the produit du terroir, local produce, bought when it is in season and cooked in traditional French fashion. And just two months after opening word has already got around - when the weather was so beautiful recently, the terrace courtyard was full to the brim – at lunchtime!

To get you into the mood and to sharpen your appetite, there are some fascinating books that tell the story of both bistros and brasseries.

* The Bistros, Brasseries and wine bars of Paris, by Daniel Young

* The Brasseries of Paris,
by François Thomazeau

* The Authentic Bistros of Paris,
by François Thomazeau

And there is no better source of information than Elizabeth David’s famous book

* French Provincial Cooking. Here you will not only find all the information about typical French foods, but they are also listed with their French names. No one should travel to France without this book in their bag.