My love affair with French cuisine began before we arrived to live in the Loire Valley. After several holidays visiting other regions around France, I purchased lots of cookery books! And so one of the pleasures top of my list on arriving here was to start a food adventure. In fact, it turned out to be a food and wine adventure, after all they go hand in hand in French culture don’t they!
The cuisine varies throughout the Loire, being local provincial food in the countryside restaurants and then there are the gourmet restaurants, more in the cities, offering mouth watering and delicate meals. We take pleasure in visiting our local village restaurants in Le Puy and leisurely drives to other neighbouring villages for a midday lunch and a walk around afterwards, taking advantage of fixed price lunchtime menus for around 12,00 Euros, some including wine – oh yes and the basket of bread – always – it’s a sin not to provide it in France, unlike other countries where you have to ask and pay for it. But for lunch in France beware because it’s 12 until 2pm when ovens are shut down and doors are firmly shut until the evening service at 7pm.
We have never ditched provincial food in favour of gourmet – to be honest we love both for different reasons. We love the little restaurants, many family run, where the dishes are made from local ingredients with vegetables and herbs grown by themselves or from a ‘monsieur’ in the village, (often, in our village, from herbs grown in our herb-garden here at le Clos des Guyons), but occasionally we also enjoy a gourmet meal with all that labour intensive artistic skill, I am thinking now of our local One-star Michelin Restaurant ‘La Gambetta’ in Saumur, where one is seduced by the art, time and imagination put into the food, or the family owned ‘Auberge Reine de Sicile’, a little gem of gourmet standard, where the Chef, Cedric, produces traditional French cuisine and throws himself into providing memorable meals for his clients and a then a very pleasurable cheese cart is wheeled to your table. An interesting article we read recently says that the French Parliament have adopted a new law requiring restaurants to clearly label the dishes they prepare from scratch so that the client will know if the restaurant has relied on frozen or industrially prepared ingredients – certainly an interesting move.
And so last week we had a very traditional experience in one of our local restaurants called ‘La Grange a Dime’ where we decided to go for a night of birthday celebrations. This was one of those provincial eating experiences, hearty peasant food eaten in a wonderful candle lit old building.
The restaurant has a wood fired oven and offers a ‘fixed’ traditional menu 27,50 euros consisting of a glass of Coteaux du Layon for an aperitif and a large stuffed mushroom with cheese and herbs cooked in the wood fire. Then there are ‘Les Fouées’ or ‘Fouace from Anjou’ as they are called- as many as you can eat (hot pocket sized flatbreads also cooked in the wood fire oven) which you slice, fill with butter and traditional regional Porc Rillettes – these are very filling but absolutely delicious! Afterwards a deep brown dish of cassoulet arrives consisting of white haricots beans and duck accompanied by bowls of fresh crisp green lettuce with delicious red wine vinaigrette. If you have any room left by now ……. there is goats cheese and créme brulée and coffee. We chose the menu which included the aperitif, bottle of Saumur rouge (from Bruno Albert in our village of Le Puy Notre Dame) and then Jean-Pierre, the owner, gave us all a glass of sparkling wine with the dessert and coffee; There is also another menu, without wines, slightly cheaper at 19,50 euros.
Noteworthy is the building itself dating back to the XVth century and is in the heart of the enclosed ancient chateau town of Montreuil Bellay in rue du Chateau, about a five minute drive away from Le Clos des Guyons. (The building was a granary of the barony – or Lord of the Manor) where taxed goods were kept, because until the French Revolution in 1789 when it was then sold as a National Heritage, the common people had to offer ‘gifts’ to their so called master and this is where they were all deposited. The restaurant is on two different levels designed in the shape of an upside down boat scull and retains most if not all of its original features.
It’s a whole experience with friendly staff dressed in period costume for an evening of hearty peasant style food – there are no other choices on the menu. We found it great fun but with no varied menus available you certainly wouldn’t go every week of course!
The Loire region never let’s you forget the history of bygone days when food was basic and filling. Many of the chateaux, for example, had hearty meals in those medieval days consisting of soups, casseroles of game or fish, crusty breads and fruit tarts.
Just to give you an idea, I discovered a typical menu prepared centuries ago in the huge old kitchens at Chateau Montreuil Bellay (which is built on a spur of rock overlooking the River Thouet) a fabulous location.
… Brochet a la Rouland (Pike, caught in the river by the gamekeeper Monsieur Rouland)!
… Boiled eggs with Truffles served with buttered bread.
… Le Haricot (the humble bean an uncouth yokel of a plant au jardin) added to boiling water with two pig’s ears, pig’s trotter, pig’s tail, salt, onions, garlic, pepper, bay and pimento.
…Pheasant with Quince Compote and a stuffing made from pheasant liver, bacon and shallots.
All this reminds me of when we visited Lyon a couple of years ago, Lyon the gastronomic city of France I had been told, and what arrived for my Plat du Jour? …….. well it turned out to be battered beef testicles ….. exactly – and no I didn’t eat them!! (Brian did of course).
It’s Pentecost here today another May Bank Holiday – we know that restaurants will be full offering their special ‘Repas du Jour’ and I’m sure we will be joining in – why not!