Back in the distant days of my youth, when people called their children things like “Ug” and were afraid of fire, an exotic weekend break involved sitting in the car for four hours on the way to some dank and drear seaside town where hope was as conspicuous by its absence as the sunshine. Today, thanks to cheap air travel, if you’re not spending your weekends sipping Pilsner in Prague or vino in Venice, you’re missing a trick.
In this new series, chef, author, TV presenter and gastronomic tourist Rick Stein travels on long weekends across Europe, basically eating the hell out of each one. He might nip into the odd museum or visit the occasional tourist attraction, but basically, he’s on a mission to gorge himself on the local cuisine. This is travel and food porn in perfect symbiosis. He’s like Travel Man’s Richard Ayoade, only less sarcastic and more likely to invent a meal between breakfast and lunch.
In this series opener, he takes the 90-minute flight to Bordeaux, known as France’s Sleeping Beauty, sprawled along the banks of the sedate River Garonne. The city is built on mud and clay, so there are no high rise buildings, adding to the feeling that this is a place that has changed little in the last 150 years. “There’s a feeling you could film a period drama without changing a thing,” says an enthusiastic Rick.
Related: Discover the treasures of Bordeaux and the Dordogne with Saga
He’s staying in unflashy accommodation – rooms above a restaurant, presumably so that after a hard day’s eating, he can be sure to get a square meal at the end of it.
The restaurants Stein visits are, it must be said, glorious. They are unpretentious, serving fabulous, hearty local dishes, washed down with a few glasses of the local tipple. Apparently, around Bordeaux, they know a thing or two about wine. Who knew?
Each dish looks sumptuous, local French food at its rustic best. “I hate the term food porn,” opines Stein (eek, sorry about paragraph two, Rick) before admitting that this food comes close to warranting the tag. Even the breakfasts – local bread and jam, with café au lait – have him waxing lyrical. He looks so thrilled to be here, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
He’s not content just to potter from his room to the restaurant downstairs three times-a-day, which is probably for the best, televisually speaking. An hour of Rick Stein getting steadily fatter while moving a few feet from bed to table would be a bit slow (if I wanted to watch people do nothing but eat and sleep, I’d tune in to Big Brother). Instead, he’s off to explore the vineyards, restaurants and chateaux of the region, in the iconic French motor, the Citroen 2CV. As he explains, the car was famously built to be the type that could carry a farmer and his eggs across a ploughed field without damaging les oeufs. To be honest, the old rustbucket, with Stein at the helm, looks like it couldn’t get across a car park without shaking your eyeballs from their sockets.
The countryside is heavenly, though. And Stein is in his element, whether stopping for a simple and fabulous three course set meal in a country restaurant, or enjoying wine tasting and a barbecue at a local chateau. Although this is unlike any barbecue you’ve ever seen. The food is served on a white tablecloth, and doesn’t consist of a sausage so charred you could draw with it, and a warm can of Australian lager. Instead, it’s fine wine and an extraordinary filet of beef with shallot butter seared into it. It is served, in typical French style, so rare as to still be mooing.
It’s easy to lose track of just how long Stein has been in Bordeaux. He’s either there for a ruddy long weekend, or he’s packing in about six meals-a-day. He visits a city restaurant where he is served a huge piece of fish accompanied by not a single garnish, a seafood joint where he has fabulous mussels, and (in contrast to all the other establishments) a hugely pretentious nouvelle-type place full of foamed this and carpaccio of that.
Sadly, my programme cut out after about 40 minutes, so I’ve no idea what the end of the show actually contained. It may have featured a contrite and overfed Stein signing up to Weight Watchers. But my guess is it was simply more of the same: An engaging and wildly enthusiastic host, visiting some beautiful locations for some outstanding-looking food. Like the dishes themselves, this is good, unpretentious, nourishing fare, and enough to make you want to book a flight on the spot.
Related: Discover France with Saga
Rick Stein’s Long Weekends, Friday 22nd April, 9pm, BBC Two