Recent changes in the Vauxhall shops’ weltanschauung could have broader implications for hu
But for the moment, the (relatively) new Vauxhall cafe and the re-branded Chateaubriant charcuterie are threatening to transform lives of their patrons into that of engorged lotus eaters. The Speculator’s culinary correspondents Edward Van Halen and Dave Veart sample the delights.
There was a fair degree of anticipation regarding the opening of Vauxhall Café towards the end of last year. The café is located in what was for many years love-it-or-loathe-it Incognito Café, in the Vauxhall shops in Cheltenham (that’s just over the road from Pyrenees (or Chateaubriant as it is now called) for those who, like my youngest son, navigate their way through life using their favourite food outlets as waypoints).
The café is owned by the charming Robbie, an experienced, friendly and relaxed host.
The premises have undergone a simple but effective decorative upgrade from their previous incarnation. Gone are the 1990s pastel walls, replaced by cool white. (Actually, on closer inspection, I think Robbie retained the original walls and painted them white (although it’s probably called Moroccan Alabaster). The layout has been simplified and touches of cool kitsch are provided by some well-chosen pieces of furniture of the kind Auntie Flo would have been given as a wedding present.
Now, to the sharp end:
Coffee: consistently excellent, whether made by The Robster himself or one of his staff. As good as anywhere else in Devo and better than most.
Food: In the first few months of operation food was limited to a very tasty and fresh selection of filled rolls, pastries and baked goods, pending refitting of the kitchen. This has now happened and the food cooked to order is imaginative and delicious. Try the bubble and squeak. Just like Auntie Flo used to make, when she wasn’t sitting on her cool kitsch sofa munching lamingtons. (Or rather, just like Auntie Flo would have made, had she had the imagination and daring to use such exotic ingredients as…um…garlic.)
Staff: Without exception friendly, attentive and relaxed. A mixture of experienced hands and local young rookies.
Bottom line: This is an excellent addition to Devonport’s café scene and has quickly built up a loyal clientele. A real benefit to local residents (shaving untold metres off their coffee trips), and a great stopping off point on the way to the beach.
I know that some have wrestled with their consciences over being disloyal to Chateaubriant by switching their coffee-buying to Vauxhall. Chateaubriant is certainly a gem worth supporting but, hey, how hard is it to find other reasons to throw money at those charming Frenchmen?
Madame had never had New Zealanders staying before but someone had told her that they ate meat for breakfast. She racked her brains but the only meaty thing she could think of that could possibly be eaten at that time of day was pâté. The place was the village of Rabastens in Southern France and we had arrived just after Christmas of 1979 to stay with a friend and her family. Madame went on to introduce us to things like Cassoulet and haricots verts tasting like a vegetable cooked by angels but the unlikely lure of that first pâté breakfast has stayed with me.
Which leads in a rather roundabout way to Chateaubriant, our little slice of France at the Vauxhall Shops. Chateaubriant, ne Pyrénées, has had a makeover as well as a new name. It has been a gradual process of change from good old Kiwi butchery to purveyor of ‘Specialités Francaises.’ Graham was the last old time butcher and made a damn good sausage and a fine mutton ham but eating and shopping patterns changed and Devonport is littered with ex-butcheries, testimony to a time when we lived in the land of meat and still walked to the local shops. This one is unusual in that it still sells food.
When Pyrénées opened they retained the old butcher shop layout, a long internal counter and outside display window where earlier carnivorous Archimboldos had created meaty pictures with chops and schnitzel. This never quite worked with Pyrénées , there was never enough meat to fill the window and the outside seating led to customers sipping lattes next to the filets mignon. The inside space was chaotic, I remember one Saturday morning with an irate gent complaining loudly that people were jumping the queue. What queue?
This has now changed. The old butcher’s window has gone and the perfectly presented cuts of meat are discretely displayed in a separate inside chiller. The counter is now at the rear of the shop with the coffee dispensing area off to one side and while some of the clutter remains it seems to work better during the Saturday morning brunch scrum with shop and pavement filled with locals starting their day with coffee and a little something.
As Saturday morning at our place starts with a dog walk and seeing as how Border Collies have a sitting still period of about 30 seconds it makes for a calmer start to the day to buy my breakfast from them and take it home; a warm to hot baguette and the deliciously unctuous smoked liver pâté. Sometimes in a completely self invented version of those far off Rabastens breakfasts I also buy a slice of runny, rich unpasteurised Brie to go with it. Beats the weekday muesli.
There other more traditional breakfast things on offer. The new layout with the counter and coffee at the back of the shop means that the customer is drawn in past all the other goodies on display. My claim that, ‘I was only popping in for a loaf of bread’ no longer works and I seem to emerge with a lot more. The Croque Monsieur, made with a croissant rather than the more plebeian slices of bread often lures me away from attempts to relive my earlier experiences of Madame’s French/Kiwi culinary entente.
Waiting for coffee, (the service is no faster despite the new interior), allows for a more in depth exploration of what else is on offer. There are the free range chickens and plastic wrapped meat cuts and saucisse in the chiller. Bread with toppings, I hesitate to use the word ‘pizza’ (pissaladière perhaps?) and rich and luxurious containers of confit de canard. There are the heat-and-eat meals in the freezer, meatballs in interesting looking sauces, smoked trout dishes, lasagne, and braises of lamb, enough for supper for two at about the cost of one main at a medium restaurant, best value in the shop and from the few I have sampled, delicious.
I have never had anything from Chateaubriant (or its predecessor) that wasn’t delicious (or close to it) and this side of things hasn’t changed. The bread is authentic, perfect when warm, stale by mid afternoon and occasionally I have pushed my dinner guests’ culinary comfort zone by offering French cheeses from the shop which as one diner opined, ‘smelled as if they were found under a shearing shed’. It is expensive, I shop here as a treat, for more than the occasional breakfast it is an alternative to going out to a restaurant. Or with the new very clever offer of bespoke ‘sandwiches’ from the ingredients in the shop, use it as a start to an upmarket picnic at Cheltenham or (if you prefer less sand with your meal) the grassy cliffs of Fort Takapuna.
The new look Chateaubriant has managed to retain all the parts of the shop we liked, the bread and coffee and tasty French treats and the rusty-school-French exchanges with the charming staff. It is now just easier to use and perhaps a little less French; the old casual French hours have been abandoned and it is now ‘ouvert 7 jours’.
And finally, a secret passion which I can warmly recommend although I would prefer you didn’t tell my doctor…Graisse de Canard, the little pottles of golden duck fat, found in the left hand corner as you enter the shop, next to the window, perfect for the perfect roast potato. Just smuggle some home, pop some pealed Agrias in a pot of boiling water for about 3 minutes, drain, shake around in a roasting dish with a good dollop of duck fat until the surface of the potato is a little broken up and doused in the fat. Roast until the outside of the potato is crisp and golden and the inside is soft and fluffy. Bon appétit.