How to drink in the delights of France (without leaving the country)

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

It is hard to decide which is more depressing, the extension of the lockdown or the public support for this latest instance of ministerial panic. The Royal Navy may still march to ‘Heart of Oak’. But among great swathes of the civilian population, there is precious little sign of stout-heartedness. As well as virus variants, there is another infection, from variants of Stockholm syndrome. Many Britons appear to be enjoying captivity: mask-wearing, restrictions, bossing people about. The trouble is that there is no vaccine to hold all that at bay. Boris promises relief after four weeks. He means it; he always does with his promises. But in BoJo speak, four weeks is a long time. Four days is a long time. We shall see.

Consolations must be found, and I found one in St James’s: a new restaurant, Maison François, run by François O’Neill. Although there are some Roman families who claim descent from the Etruscans, it seems unlikely that a rigorous genealogist would concur. The O’Neills are another matter. They are probably the oldest family in Europe. O’Neills were around at the time of St Patrick. In the 1640s, Royalist leaders attempted to create an alliance between some of the Irish Celtic chieftains and the Anglo-Norman nobility. One O’Neill did not think much of that. He protested that the Normans had been in Ireland for less than 500 years.

The O’Neills spent most of their long centuries in the native Irishman’s favourite pursuit: fighting. In pre-Norman times, there had been High Kings such as Brian Boru. Later, the English held sway in Dublin. But in their Ulster fastnesses, O’Neills rarely recognised any authority as superior to their own. If you want to understand their character, read the Irish passages in ‘Under Ben Bulben’: ‘a man is fighting mad’. They often were. The O’Neills always ranked high among the indomitable Irishry.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the English Crown moved to subdue Ireland and complete Strongbow’s work of conquest. O’Neills were prominent in the resistance. The exploits of Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, almost persuaded Elizabeth I to give up. Finally, facing defeat, he exiled himself to Spain: the Flight of the Earls. In 1642, Owen Roe O’Neill returned from Spain, where he had been trained in the arts of war. He died just before Cromwell arrived, so we shall never know whether he could have defeated the Ironsides. But he was a formidable commander; at the very least, Cromwell would have had a much tougher fight.

Although O’Neills continued to grace European armies, some mastered the arts of peace. A decent man, Terence O’Neill was prime minister of Northern Ireland. He was, unfortunately, too decent. If he had inherited some of his forebears’ ruffian qualities, he might have been able to deal with Ian Paisley. Premier O’Neill’s cousin, Hugh Rathcavan, is a delightful fellow. In his younger days, he was a social adornment in London. He also ran restaurants, including the Brasserie St Quentin. His son François has inherited Hugh’s gifts. We do not know when we will be able to visit France, but in Maison François, it feels as if you are there already.

The menu is full of delicious French staples. The wine list has been carefully constructed with well-known names plus discoveries, including champagnes from artisanal producers. A Jurançon Sec ’18 from Clos Lapeyre was an excellent aperitif: crisp, flinty and subtle. A Coudoulet de Beaucastel, also from 2018, was as good as it always is. François and his sommelier combine expertise with enthusiasm and take pleasure in sharing both with their customers. I doubt if there would be a single disappointment. There are, of course, no bargains. This is London, even if it also lives up to the proprietor’s name.

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