James Martin has been a Francophile since he was seven. On his first holiday to the country, he developed a taste for dishes most children would squeal at. “It was stuff I’d never seen before – woodcock stew with the head and beak, and the guy next to you would cut the head in half and pick out the brain,” he recalls. “You had to eat it. There was nothing else. I thought it was fantastic.”
Martin is from farming stock in North Yorkshire, but his dad had a side business importing wine and took his son with him on summer sojourns to Saint-Émilion, a historic village near Bordeaux. While Martin senior was sampling its famous vineyards, young James entertained himself by helping out in the kitchens of the châteaux.
By the age of 13, he was peeling carrots in Saint-Émilion’s two-star Michelin restaurant. “The furthest anyone else from my school went for work experience was Leeds, and I stuck up my hand and said I wanted to go to France. So that’s where I had my first chef’s jacket and knives, and that’s where I really fell in love with food and knew I wanted to do this for a living.” Did he speak much French? “Un petit peu. I learnt to understand it and dodge flying ladles and pans. The chef was quite abrupt!”
More than 30 years later, he returns to Saint-Émilion for his new daytime cookery show, James Martin’s French Adventure, but this time he arrives in style: at the wheel of his old hero and mentor Keith Floyd’s Citroën 2CV. “His daughter called me up and asked if I’d like to buy his car and within 72 hours it was in my garage – all battered and smelling like Oddbins. My mechanic did the brakes and the engine and put a new exhaust on it, and then it drove faultlessly all over France.”
As well as Saint-Émilion, Martin cooks and eats his way round Périgord, Burgundy, Alsace, Pay Basque and Brittany. “I go back as often as I can, but I’ve never seen France like I’ve seen it on this road trip. Hopefully that comes across on camera because the places we went to are just incredible, like the red salt flats of the Camargue. Then you travel five miles and you’ve got cowboys who herd wild white horses and black bulls for bull running. Who would have thought you’d get cowboys in France?”
Perhaps it was being at the helm of Keith Floyd’s car all summer, but Martin also discovered a taste for France’s fine wines. “When you’re younger, you don’t really appreciate it. When I went back to Saint-Émilion this time, they gave me a bottle of Château Pavie and I thought, ‘Actually, this is quite nice. I’ll have another glass, please!’ But you still won’t find me going on about how it smells of redcurrants and sweaty socks. I either like it or I don’t.”
Martin's 3 French favourites...
SAINT-ÉMILION, NEAR BORDEAUX
“It’s a beautiful medieval village with cobbled streets and a big square perched above some of the most famous vineyards in the world. We cooked in the grounds of Cheval Blanc, which to my mind is the greatest vineyard of all. Saint-Émilion’s full-bodied red wines are served with rump steak or duck, and it’s also famous for its hand-made almond macaroons.”
“This is a magical place – you have the lake, the mountains, a stunning two-star Michelin restaurant and an amazing market, where all the ingredients are local and seasonal. Wine-wise you’re looking at rosé and nice whites.”
“Lyon is the food capital of the world. Bouchons are little brasseries that once served the workers of the silk mills and still dish up traditional Lyonnaise cuisine: beef tongue, pork offal sausage, chicken liver. Then you’ve got some of the greatest restaurants in the world, like Paul Bocuse’s three-star Michelin restaurant. Visit his indoor market and you’ll see food like you’ve never seen before, from the best chickens and foie gras to the finest chocolate. It’s unbelievable.”
James Martin's French Adventure begins on Monday 30 January on ITV at 3pm