The Loire Valley: Food and Wine of the Gods

Friday, 8 Aug 2008, 5:00:00 AM

Beverly Cohn

It has been said that “the worst meal you’ll ever have in France, will be the best meal you’ve ever tasted.”  The Loire Valley, comprised of six cities all designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, stands out as the personification of fine gastronomic dining experiences. 

Whether you are lunching in an elegant restaurant or a small café, you will be treated to an extraordinary taste experience.  You might actually moan with delight as the fork goes into your mouth, unleashing delicious flavors.  

Our taste experience began in Chartres, less then than two hours outside of Paris by train.  This quaint town, dotted with half-timbered houses, old stone bridges, and washhouses, offers a wide variety of unforgettable eating opportunities, the first of which began with a wine tasting in the cellars of the Hotel Le Grand Monarque.  Surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine, we sampled some of the excellent red, rose, and whites produced by seven Appellations from the hillside vineyards of Centre-Loire known as the “Heart of France.”  The grape varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Pinot Gris, and Chasselas.   

A sinful Pate de Chartres accompanied the wine, along with lively conversation with farmer Deputy Mayor Patrick Geroudet and Laurent Lhuillery, who is in charge of the spectacular events such as the magical Chartres en Lumieres (Lights of Chartres) where every evening from April to September more than 20 historic monuments and places are illuminated in brilliant, shimmering colored lights and moving images complemented by heavenly music.  

For all you wine lovers, in case you’ve ever wondered about the use of screw caps vs. the traditional cork, Australia is the first country to use screw caps and they are now very popular in northern Europe, principally on the smaller bottles of wine.  The U.S. is not quite ready to accept these caps, probably because of their association with cheap wine.  However, according to a study conducted by the Wine Institute of Dijon, there is no effect on the taste of young wines so caps may become more popular at some point. 

The eating orgy continued with a succulent lunch at Le Bistrot de la Cathedrale that consisted of an artistically presented Tournedo Rossino (steak) decadently topped with fois gras, accompanied by tater tots and grilled tomatoes with fresh herbs, followed by a Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert.  The meat and produce used throughout the region is fresh from local farms with each region having its own specialty.

It’s probably a good idea to exercise in between devouring this magnificent food, so book a walking tour to include one of the most famous sites in Chartres: the majestic Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, built in the Middle Ages. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage list as the most complete and well-preserved example of gothic cathedrals.  Of special note are the 172 stained glass windows, making up the finest collection in Europe in terms of their age and beauty.  The most ancient stained glass windows, dating back to the twelfth century, are famous for the radiant blue color known as the blue of “Notre-Dame-de-la-Belle-Verriereare.” 

Next stop try Orleans, the site of Joan of Arc’s famous battle in 1420. The city is also known for its production of vinegar, but a more delicious choice would be to go over to Chocolaterie Royal, a family-owned business since 1760, making it the oldest chocolate shop in France.  Third generation owner Charles Chavanette is one of only six chocolate makers in France who makes the chocolate from scratch, beginning with roasting his own beans which he searches out from countries around the world.  He was emphatic “I will not buy from any country that exploits children.”  

According to Chavanette, chocolate existed as far back as 2000 B.C. and was used for medicinal purposes.  He works with organic sugar and personally prefers dark chocolate.   His creations elevate chocolate to an art form and include a life-size sculpture of a little boy holding a basketball that took nine days to complete, and a collection of Venetian masks sculpted from white chocolate.  At the end of this delicious demonstration, we received a kiss on both cheeks and samples of his sumptuous chocolate. 

If eating all this wonderful food has motivated you to learn how to cook some of these meals for yourself, before you leave Orleans, head over to Le Panier Se Cree for a cooking lesson during which master chef Stephan Bernard will guide your through the process in his state-of-the-art kitchen.  We prepared puffed pastry wrapped asparagus cooked in a curry sauce, stuffed chicken legs with Orleans vinegar and a simply divine chocolate puffed tart.  No amount of butter or sugar was spared.  Following the preparation of dinner, you and your guests are served in a most delightful dining room with compliments to all the chefs.

The Loire is said to be the last wild river in Europe and its picturesque canals and bridges serve as a backdrop to the various festivals held along its shores throughout the year.  Combining that with fabulous wines and heavenly food, the Loire Valley is a magical destination for any gourmand in pursuit of pure eating pleasures. 

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