It's been le day strange. There was that trek across the mountains through the broad-leafed valleys, tight lanes and abandoned villages that loom eerily out of greenery, our charming companions, two immaculately turned out donkeys, pausing to chew grass and refusing to cross the smallest puddle. So swaggering, obstinate and slow were they that I felt like picking up the one called Zorro and slinging it over my sagging shoulders.
Then I realised. What's the rush? This is paradise. A donkey trek through paradise, in fact. Unchanged probably since Robert Louis Stevenson stoated through here a couple of centuries ago and felt compelled to write about it in his not-very-seminal Travels With A (Bloody) Donkey.
And now this. A cosy little auberge at the end of the trail. Cross that little courtyard, swing open the panelled doors and my God it's - un moment totalemente surreal. Oui, that actually is Edith Piaf coming from a scratchy vinyl record, on an actual 1970s veneered music centre at the Auberge Chez Leon. A dog with a glass eye – no, seriously, I think it has – peeks over the table-top, causing not a single person to flinch.
Welcome to la France. It's different. Not simply because there isn't a Tesco or a Currys or even a Nisa corner store for miles and miles, but also because it's impossible to miss the raw Frenchness oozing from every pore.
Until now I had always been ambivalent about France, viewing it as somewhere to flash through on the way to Italy. Yet I'd forgotten how disarmingly idiosyncratic the French can be. Look at this. In front of me is a French waitress going politely but definitely radio rental. All because I have refused le pumpkin soup.
Frankly, I can't see what the fuss is about. Pumpkin soup? We've eaten enough of it during the past three days in the best-kept secret that is south central France. Swept from the airport to the Cote Rotie – the roasted coast – one moment we're driving through Vienne, pointing out La Pyramide, the famous Michelin-starred restaurant. The next we're on swooping rollercoaster drives through incredible Ardeche scenery, plunging into amazing rocky valleys.
Our 'andsome driver Laurent, a youthful French Des O'Connor, hurtles us round hidden corners so we can lunch on tiny, gloriously sunny terraces hewn into rocky villages of what travel writers call unspeakable simplicity and beauty.
The Auberge De Thorrenc? It's along a gorge, under a castle, before a Harry Potteresque railway viaduct where we dine on duck with fresh fig and hand-turned potatoes cooked by Eric and served by Isabelle as a shaft of sun picks out our rocky outcrop and a lazy dog growls every time I move.
Then there is swimming a gazillion feet up in the mountains, in a movie-tone blue lake. A whole off-season kiss-me-quick-seaside-with-no-sea resort built up around it. In French. What possessed me to dive in? The clean, fresh water? That drink with the wormwood in it? Whatever. The water is black, cold, invigorating and very scary, especially as Calum from the French tourist board and I are the only ones in the vast Lac du Isserley. Two heads bobbing in big bleu emptiness. The others watch idly from the beach, wondering how much hassle it will be if le fat food critic drowns.
Food, food and more food. Lunch is in a 15th-century French farm, Auberge De La Besse. Chef and owner Gerard Mejean click-clacks out in his clogs and spotless ankle-length apron to shoo us away from photographing its cobbled splendour. His tractor is not looking its best today, apparently.
Inside, vaulted cellars of flagstones and inlaid blocks of some volcanic concoction beckon. A table is laid with Enid Blyton lashings of farmyard food. It's delicious, different and virtually every morsel, including the charcuterie, comes from this farm.
I do realise I come from a country where the seasons are generally meaningless in food terms but I get the concept. Here, right now, it means chestnuts with everything. Chestnut soup, chestnut tart, chestnut pastes, desserts, sweets, even something in untranslatable-to-me French which I assume can only be chestnut toothpaste.
Rilhac? Beautiful. A mini chateau high on the plateau, opening up to soft-lit lawns, fields falling gently to panoramic vistas of the valley far below. We sit there in the dusk with chef Ludovic and his glamorous wife, their lolling dog lying between them – a snapshot from French Vogue.
Later, Madamoiselle serves us in a classic dining room from a classic Michelin-starred menu that sparkles most brightly when a simple bowl of soup full of delicate cubes of just-picked and fabulously flavoured mushrooms arrives. The French know how to eat. And cook.
And this, as the locals never tire of telling us, has been a disastrous mushroom season due to unseasonably dry and hot weather. Perhaps that accounts for the tidal wave of chestnuts, only broken by the tidal wave of that other in-season item: pumpkin. Delicious, wonderful. Especially – ahem – in soup, as we know, having had le soup pumpkin almost every day. Frankly, le pumpkin has as much flavour as le bath towel. Best not to mention that here.
So tonight? In this crazy restaurant? Non to the pumpkin soup. Non. This I indicate by shaking my shoulders and pouting my bottom lip in what I hope is a winning Gallic shrug. Not my smartest move. Were le music to stop and Tin-Tin to burst in brandishing a chain-saw it would be less awkward.
Last night, at that little place, L'Auberge Chaneac, clinging to the side of mountains, we had the French version of haggis – cabbage and pork in a sheep's stomach. Interesting, garlicky, though I don't think the chieftain of the puddin' race need feel too much fear. That was my last drop of pumpkin soup. Ever.
Oh, hang on. We didn't have pumpkin soup in Dominique Riou's dad's flat at Le Cheylard either. M Riou – as we discovered over a surrealist breakfast in the higgledy-piggledy flat above a corner store – is one of France's top chocolatiers. As customers shouted "shop" up the stairs, he unleashed wave after wave of heart-stoppingly rich handmade chocolates.
We slugged vintage cherry wine beneath lace curtains while choc after choc depth-charged the soul, sent surges of sugar through the arteries and fried the brain. The one with the grilled, crushed and crunchy crepes did for me and as it slid down, I staggered away from the table for a long rest. It was only 11am.
For that reason alone, you have to love France. And I haven't even mentioned Desaignes. There, deep in a cellar, volunteers, including the superb Alain, gave us a wine-tasting masterclass in the style of le vicar of Dibley. It was great. And I left clutching this gem of knowledge. If, after removing the cork, the sommelier doesn't perfectly trim the foil at the top of the wine bottle, instantly leave the restaurant. Instantly. Understood?
Back to tonight. The soup has arrived. And uncomfortably, embarrassingly, I realise why the waitress was so unhappy. This is not a ladle from a pot of yellow gloop. This is a labour of love. Pastry domes rise above ceramic dishes to be scraped away to oohs and aaahs amid puffs of fragrant steam and green, golden and apparently delicious soup.
Or so they all claim. I don't ask for a taste, knowing that somewhere in that kitchen there is a sagging and forlorn pastry dome sitting all alone and quite possibly a chef stabbing a knife into a block and, hopefully, assuming I am English.
Fortunately, the second course is, if anything, even more spectacular. Shoulders of lamb encased in perfectly formed pastry sacks tied with pastry ropes. We fracture them and reveal straw inside, imbuing the meat with a delicious, sweet farmyard aura. The French, eh? OK, you had to be there. Actually, you probably have to go there.
Easyjet has return flights from London Gatwick to Lyon from around £90 return. Visit www.easyjet.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Visit www.charleston-leon.net and www.domaine-de-rilhac.com.
WHERE TO EAT
As well as charleston-leon.net and domaine-de-rilhac, Ron Mackenna dined at Auberge Thorrenc (www.auberge-thorrenc.com) and Auberge De La Besse (www.aubergedela besse.com/accueil.htm. For more information, visit www.franceguide.com.