Last-minute foodie holidays to finish off the summer in style.
Now the summer rush has died down, it’s the ideal time to head off on a last-minute break to somewhere nearby but exotic where you can soak up some sunshine and sample the local specialities. To save you the hassle of choosing, we’ve picked some great destinations for you.
Lyon is reputed to be the gastronomic capital of France, and it certainly is a treasure trove of food-related delights, as well as being packed full of fascinating history.
The medieval district, Le Vieux Lyon, is home to the city’s traditional restaurants, known as ‘bouchons’. Specialities include ‘cervelle de canut’, meaning ‘silk-weaver’s brains’, but fear not – this is actually a delicious cheese dish made with fromage blanc, chives, garlic, shallots and white wine. Offal does tend to feature on the menu, but you’ll be surprised how delicious it can be. If that really isn’t your thing, try quenelles – a cross between a dumpling and a soufflé, subtly flavoured with pike and served with a rich fish sauce. Some great bouchons are Le Bouchon de l’Opéra, Le Musée and Le Café des Fédérations.
Work off your meal with a sharp climb up to the magnificent 19th-century basilica of Fourvière or a stroll along the banks of one of the city’s two rivers. By the Rhône, near Guillotière metro station, you can sit out with a cocktail and nibbles on one of the barge bars or sink into a sun lounger with a nice cold ‘demi’ of beer.
It you haven’t over-indulged the previous evening, it’s worth getting up early to visit the farmers’ market on the banks of the River Saône (every morning except Monday, from 6am). In September you’ll find plums, tomatoes and gourds in abundance, as well as nuts, olives, charcuterie, cheeses and freshly baked bread.
Finally, don’t miss Les Halles. Tucked away in Lyon’s business district, this food hall, recently revamped with a modern glass frontage and named after Lyon’s most famous chef, Paul Bocuse, sells an astounding range of cheeses and boasts some of the city’s best oyster stalls.
Fly to: Lyon St Exupéry
Like Cornwall, Brittany obviously has fabulous seafood, including live crabs for sale in some corner shops, and a similarly stunning coastline, but it also has the advantage of slightly warmer weather and an exotic touch in the language and the food.
If, like me, you can never have enough seafood, I particularly recommend the Relais du Vieux Port in Le Conquet. The stylish restaurant has panoramic views of the harbour and you can watch the sun set over the water as you tuck into a magnificent platter of the freshest possible seafood.
Surprisingly, Breton people didn’t traditionally eat much seafood themselves, but apparently that’s because they prefer salt marsh lamb (agneau de pré-salé) – a speciality of Mont-St-Michel, also famous for its spectacular medieval monastery perched on a tiny island in the bay. Salt marsh lamb is reputed to have more tender meat and a richer flavour than normal lamb thanks to the sodium and iodine-rich plants the animals feed on, but whatever the science of the matter, it certainly is delicious.
For a budget meal that is, in my view, equally tasty, go for a buckwheat (sarrasin) crêpe from one of the many crêperies in the region. My favourite fillings are ham, cheese, egg and spinach, making it a really hearty meal. Don’t forget to wash it down with some delicious local cider. It tends to be quite sharp, really fruity and less alcoholic than some British ciders – meaning you can follow it up with a Calvados chaser to round off your meal!
Fly to: Brest, Dinard, Rennes or Nantes
Get the ferry to: St Malo, Cherbourg, Le Havre, Dieppe
Avoid the crowds of tourists in the famous Dordogne and head for its lesser-known neighbour, the Lot. The scenery is similar, with golden stone villages perched atop cave-riddled cliffs above the majestic Lot river, and the cuisine is similar too, with the same delicious foie gras and duck confit.
Cahors makes a great base thanks to its medieval centre, its farmers’ market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and, of course, its renowned malbec wines. The famous long-distance walking route to Santiago de Compostela criss-crosses through the Lot villages, so the département has plenty of good-value rural chambres d’hôtes to stay in too.
My favourite eatery in the whole world is the Auberge de la Grange du Cros in Saillac. What could be better than sitting in Thierry and Rebecca’s leafy and delightfully unkempt garden sipping an aperitif while dogs and children and chickens run around the neighbouring farm buildings? Thierry is a fantastic host and showman, presenting the dishes with great élan in both French and English, and his wife Rebecca is a superb cook. From the walnut trees to the stone barn-cum-dining room, it’s everything that rural French dining should be.
A visit to the Roquefort museum (exit 46 of the A75 motorway) in the adjacent départment of the Aveyron makes a great day out. You get to visit the cellars where the cheese is made, watch a sound and light show, and taste three different varieties of Roquefort. There’s also a restaurant serving a whole range of local specialities featuring the famous cheese.
On the way, you could stop off in the charming hamlet of Bach, where Jamie Oliver filmed the restaurant in Jamie Does the French Pyrenees. Nearer Roquefort, the impressive fortified town of Carcassonne is well worth a visit as is the craggy limestone scenery of the Causses.
Fly to: Toulouse
One of the great things about Cefalù is that it’s a beach resort where Italians go on holiday. There are some touristy restaurants that prioritise the turnover of diners rather than the quality of the food, but you can easily avoid these by hunting out Il Normanno. Hidden down one of the old town’s little side streets, it has attractive vaulted ceilings, an outdoor seating area and quite simply the best seafood salad I’ve ever tasted. We also had some delicious spaghetti alle vongole with wonderfully fresh clams, garlic and parsley – so simple, yet so hard to make this well.
It can still be pretty hot here in September and that’s the perfect excuse to pause in your shopping or sightseeing for a latte di mandorla (almond milk unlike anything you can buy in the UK) or an almond ice cream. If you get peckish while swimming or sunbathing, forget soggy chips and stodgy pasties – beach snacks in Cefalù are something else. You can sit barefoot in a shady beach shack, in nothing but a bikini and sarong, and sample delights such as rocket with parmesan and lemon juice, insalata caprese (tomatoes with mozzarella and basil) and deep-fried calamari.
However, it was Mimma and Giuseppe at Capriccio Siciliano who really made our holiday. The owners of this tapas-style bar offer the friendliest welcome imaginable and a generous all day happy hour of bruschetta with local cured meats and cheeses, which go equally well with Prosecco, Nero d’Avola, or a local beer (10 dishes and a drink for only 11 euros per person).
Earn yourself further indulgence with a brisk hike up to the top of the Rocca di Cefalù. It’s worth it for the ruined castle at the top and spectacular views over the town and the sea. If you get tired of relaxing and indulging, catch a train to Palermo and visit the buzzing Ballarò, Capo and Vuccheria food markets, open all day every day except Sundays and Wednesday afternoons.
Fly to: Palermo
If you arrive in Madrid by train, your foodie experience can begin as soon as you exit the platform. Atocha station has a beautiful leafy conservatory that’s home to a delightful terrapin pool and the classy Samarkanda restaurant. Depending on the time of day, you can enjoy a full gourmet meal with interesting takes on Spanish classics, a sophisticated cocktail or a copious Spanish breakfast, with coffee, fresh fruit, yoghurt and a choice of pastries, sandwiches, toast and ham, eggs, and tortillas.
If your budget’s more restricted, step outside and head for Calle del Prado, where you’ll find various fast-food tapas outlets. Don’t worry if your flimsy napkin flies out of your hands or off your lap – letting them drift around the floor seems to be standard, and the taste of the food (and the amazingly low prices) more than makes up for the scruffy decor.
For a more refined tapas experience, you must visit the Mercado San Miguel – a magnificent traditional glass-covered food market, selling the most exquisitely beautiful and tasty morsels of seafood, grilled vegetables and cured meats, as well as oysters, chocolates and accompanying drinks. The downside is that it gets pretty busy and there isn’t really anywhere to sit, so I’d recommend going early (it opens at 10am every day of the week), stocking up on food, and then heading down Calle Major to the Plaza de Oriente, where you can sit and savour your tapas while admiring the facade of the Palacio Real.
It’s also worth visiting El Museo del Jamon in Gran Vía, near the main square. It may now be an international chain, but the Madrid branch is reckoned to be the best. A stunning array of cured hams decks every wall and can be sampled on-site. While there is basic seating available, why not join the locals and eat standing up around the bar with a short, sharp coffee?
Fly to: Madrid