‘Bon voyage is always French’ was the motto of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, better known as the French Line. The line asserted confidently that you were actually ‘in France’ the moment that you crossed the gangways of any of their fabled liners, no matter where in the world you actually happened to be.
Competition for the creme de la creme of the North Atlantic trade was always fierce, even at the height of the Depression. Steamship lines inherited and showcased all the values- both real and imagined- of their respective mother countries. Every transatlantic liner was an ambassador of sorts for the nation whose flag she flew, and all were sailed with a sense of fierce, patriotic pride.
But none quite reached the level of elegance, service and panache that typified the French Line; even today, most knowledgeable travellers regard it as the height of ocean liner style and glamour. And a huge amount of that appeal came from the almost relentlessly French ambiance created aboard those fabled liners.
For instance, announcements on board were always first made in French, even though something like eighty per cent of the passengers on any given crossing would be American. Table wine on board was always free in all classes; the French believed that wine was an integral part of any meal. Even the bell boys had scarlet coloured jackets that matched the funnel colours to almost cosmetic perfection.
In first class especially, their ships were staffed- and ran- like the Paris Ritz, or the Negresco. But nowhere did the French sense of art de vivre resound so thoroughly as in the dining experience on board.
It is no exaggeration to say that the first class dining rooms were nothing less than sea going cathedrals, raised to the religion of haute cuisine. They were stunning, theatrical spaces at least two levels high; the idea that ‘low ceilings do not aid the appetite’ was a company mantra.
And the food was, naturally, prepared, served, and devoured with theatrical relish and attention to detail. For example, the ground breaking Ile De France of 1927 listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items on her first class dinner menu. Twenty two years later, when she emerged as a two stacker at the end of her post war rebuild, the Ile De France still offered French onion soup as an option on the breakfast menu, even in tourist class.
Of course, the Normandie raised things to another level again; that of the truly stratospheric.
Her wine cellar was loaded aboard a full nine months prior to her barnstorming maiden voyage in May of 1935, in order that it should settle properly. It was also placed in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, that the rolling would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an occupational hazard for the French Line on any trip, but the idea that the wine should be compromised was, naturally, unthinkable.
The Normandie routinely carried no less than ninety three different kinds of champagne. Her first class dining room was three decks high, more than a hundred yards long. and lined with floor to ceiling hammered glass, back lit by enormous, lalique light fountains that hugged the edges of the room. Above it all, a gigantic gold, gilt and coffered ceiling held a powerful, imperious sway.
With typical modesty, the French Line remarked that this astonishing chamber- still the most beautiful public room ever to go to sea on any ship- was ‘slightly longer’ than the famous Hall Of Mirrors in Versailles. It was more than big enough to contain all three of Christopher Columbus’ ships at the same time.
Approached via a pair of enormous, bronze doors, this was the first air conditioned room on any ship. Some one hundred and fifty tables allowed every first class passenger on board to dine at the same time. By now, that same menu listed some three hundred and twenty five different items on every crossing.
But the Normandie also had the more informal Cafe Grill right aft, a kind of supper club with live dancing .With steel and leather chairs and tables, and walls of varnished pig skin, it never really got into its swing until after midnight. You could dance until daybreak, and still savour a perfectly prepared chilli con carne at two o’clock in the morning. Many did just that.
Post war saw the eventual creation of the France, the last true year round transatlantic liner built for the northern route. The French Line described her as ‘the last refuge of the good life’ after her 1962 maiden voyage. In her, all the cherished traditions enshrined on the Normandie, the Ile De France and the Liberte lived again in one final, fantastic display of bravado.
Awed by the France, the American food critic, Craig Clairborne, described her first class dining room as ‘the finest French restaurant anywhere in the world’, and with very good reason. The old standards were adhered to with an almost religious zeal; to the end of her days, the France remained the greatest and best fed of all the Atlantic liners.
For example, Camembert was only offered on the menu on the fourth day of a westbound crossing to New York, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. It was available to order off menu at any time, of course. But tradition demanded that it only be openly advertised when at its absolute best.
The extent of this fierce dedication to the good life was pointed up in the early seventies. Cunard, wanting an impartial opinion on how the French ship compared to their brand new QE2, paid for Lord Litchfield to cross the Atlantic one way on each ship. On his return, this card carrying member of the British establishment shocked his Cunard hosts by telling them that the food and service on the France was superior in every respect to that of their new flagship.
With her withdrawal in 1974, one hundred and ten years of French Line excellence and urbanity was guillotined in a single stroke. Of course, the great France herself would be miraculously resurrected as the show stopping Norway, but the magic of the dining experience had gone. It was a different time, and a different world.
And, truth be told, there has never been anything like it since. Au Revior.