Sun. Dec 10th, 2023
    The Enduring Legacy of Relais Routiers: Preserving Traditional French Cuisine on a Budget

    Amidst the rising costs of dining out in France, traditional restaurants have become increasingly unaffordable for many people. However, there is one exception to this trend – the network of Relais Routiers, which have managed to maintain affordable prices while upholding a century-old French culinary tradition. These friendly, no-nonsense eateries have become a lifeline for budget-conscious diners in search of authentic French cooking.

    La Marmite, located just 65km west of Paris near the A13 motorway, may not look like much from the outside. However, the several dozen lorries in its carpark are a testament to the value it offers. At La Marmite, a pression (on-tap lager beer) costs only 2.70€, and the servers address customers with familial “tu,” creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

    The story of Relais Routiers dates back to 1934 when François de Saulieu, an aristocrat and journalist, embarked on a journey with a trucker to Marseille. Struck by the hardships faced by lorry drivers, Saulieu decided to create a newspaper to support them. To provide outlets for selling this paper, he approached restaurants and cafes, urging them to cater to the needs of drivers. This culminated in the establishment of a five-point charter that defined the standards for becoming an official Relais Routier. Today, that charter still stands, ensuring that these establishments offer a friendly welcome, serve food prepared on-site in generous portions, provide a complete meal for under €15, offer shower facilities for drivers, and maintain large carparks.

    While the heyday of Relais Routiers was in the early 1960s when there were 4,500 establishments, the expansion of motorways led many of them to shutter their doors. However, some, like La Marmite, have persevered. These establishments often remain within families, with La Marmite being co-owned by Céline Bovin, her sister, brother-in-law, and their parents. Such family involvement ensures a personal touch and a continuation of the welcoming atmosphere that characterizes Relais Routiers.

    Visiting a Relais Routier is an opportunity to experience traditional French cuisine at an affordable price. Meals typically begin with a buffet of fresh, seasonal crudités and a selection of pâtés. The main courses vary daily, offering classic dishes like veal scallops stuffed with pork, veal, and aromatic ingredients, or simpler fare such as sirloin steak with creamed potatoes. Simmered dishes like boeuf bourguignon and blanquette de veau also feature prominently, showcasing the rich flavors of French country cuisine. For the more adventurous, specialties like tête de veau, a calf’s head dish, may intrigue the palate. Finally, a cheese platter and a homemade dessert, such as crème brulée or chocolate mousse, provide a satisfying end to the meal.

    While many restaurants see their prices soar, Relais Routiers have managed to keep their prices in check. To cater to their target customers, who often rely on meal allowances provided by transport companies, they steer clear of excessive price increases. By doing some butchering in-house and seeking cost-effective ingredients, the Routiers strike a balance between maintaining quality and affordability.

    As dining out becomes more expensive, Relais Routiers offer a refreshing alternative. These establishments not only preserve France’s culinary heritage but also ensure that anyone can enjoy a traditional French meal without breaking the bank.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    1. What is a Relais Routier?
    A Relais Routier is a type of old-fashioned French eatery found mainly alongside major roads, open to both lorry drivers and the general public. They are known for their affordable prices and traditional, no-nonsense French cuisine.

    2. How do Relais Routiers keep prices low?
    Relais Routiers keep prices low by adhering to the five-point charter created by François de Saulieu, which includes serving food prepared on-site, providing complete meals for under €15, and maintaining large carparks. Additionally, these establishments often do some butchering in-house and source cost-effective ingredients.

    3. What kind of food can one expect at a Relais Routier?
    Relais Routiers offer a variety of classic French dishes, including simmered dishes like boeuf bourguignon and blanquette de veau. Other common options include veal scallops, sirloin steak, and a range of regional delicacies. Each establishment may have its specialties, so the menu can vary.

    4. Are Relais Routiers family-run businesses?
    Yes, many Relais Routiers are family affairs, with multiple generations involved in the operation. The personal touch provided by these family-run establishments contributes to their warm and welcoming atmosphere.