A French Interlude: The Gentle Beauty of the Loire Valley

June 02, 2011
By Holly Jennings

Heading down and out of the narrow, winding streets of the medieval hill-top town of Sancerre, we realized we forgot to pick up some of the ham of Sancerre, a local specialty which is smoked over vine roots (sarments de vigne). We continued our descent, assuming we’d be able to find it in the surrounding area. Stopping not more than 10 miles away at a neighboring village, we asked a baker if she knew where else we might purchase it. It is available in Sancerre, she said, only Sancerre.

Monsieur Fortin’s Charcuterie Artisanale and Traiteur is strategically located on the Place Henri IV, in the heart of Henrichment, a town noted for its symmetrically planned central square. We stopped at the shop to buy some Pâté de Campagne, but soon spied saucisson sec, a dry-cured sausage with a signature dusting of edible white mold, hanging from the ceiling. When we requested one, Monsieur Fortin proudly explained that they are his spécialité de la maison (house made specialty). “Would you like a plus ou moins sec (more or less dry) saucisson?”, he asked. To help us “get” the difference, he took one of each type down from the ceiling so that we might press them and feel the relative softness and hardness of each. We opted for a softer, moins sec saucisson.

Fridays in Montrichard is market day. Situated in sight of the town’s towering tenth-century dungeon, once formidable, now in a state of picturesque decay, the busy farmer’s market sprawls over two or three blocks and overflows with foods of every sort, beautiful in their diversity of smells, forms, and colors: chickens with head and feet intact and their tags of origin; unfamiliar whole fish with bright eyes; a half-dozen or more different types of oysters; a mind-boggling number of cheeses for every taste and budget; white asparagus in three widths; fruit available in varying degrees of ripeness, selected for you by the vendor, depending on the day you plan to eat it; chickens and quail turning on spits, roasting, with potatoes cooking below in the juices and fat that drip on them; prepared sweet and savory tarts, pizzas, and quiche; fresh pastas, plain and flavored, in a multitude of shapes from the pasta man; olives, green, black, small, large, from the olive man, colorful and aromatic spices from the spice man.

The foods call out to you to taste them, learn their name, and, most of all, to prepare them—and to learn to use those parts of animals that are usually not included in American markets. Besides being a culinary call to service, the market is a food shopping lesson in action: You might overhear a customer request a bien-cuite baguette, one that has been baked longer and is extra crusty, and, if you are there at Easter time, like we were, or order a slice of Pâté de Pâques, an Easter specialty consisting of a hard-boiled egg surrounded by pâté and baked en croute. (We were drawn to the stand by the baker’s boisterous cries of “Pâté de Pâques! Pâté de Pâques!”)

These aesthetic moments, from a trip Mike and I took to France, this April, are what make me blissfully happy when there—the hands-on and open-air approach to food, the pride, regionalism, and craft.

Sure, there’s ugly stuff there, now, like everywhere else: unfortunate “box-store” developments on the periphery of cities, overly packaged foods in supermarkets, and Cosco-like food stores, but on the whole, France is La Belle France.

Where else in the world would you find a bus top, like the shown below, constructed in stone, reflecting the regional building vernacular?

This two-part posting introduces you to the fabulous buffet at the restaurant of the Hôtel de la Gare in Montrichard, a town in the Loire valley.

Following that, you will find a random selection of images food and other stuff that grabbed my attention while in France.

(You may ask what this posting has to do with the current DCCC pick, Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread. Not much, except there is a wonderful chapter devoted to gumbo, which is about as French as American cooking gets. So this story is meant to prime the pump, and get everyone ready to cook up some gumbo, and celebrate French culinary roots in America.)

Restaurant of the Hôtel de la Gare

On the

you will find the

which is located next to the gare (train station) in Montrichard, a town in the Loire Valley in France. (The station can be seen to the left of the hotel in the photo below.)

We went for lunch at the restaurant, a busy mealtime frequented by workers of all types, local business people and, I have a feeling, few tourists. At lunchtime, all are engaged in the business of eating generous portions of very good food, typically with wine (rosé being one of the popular choices of the region). The atmosphere is casual, friendly, and welcoming, reflecting the affable Racineau Family that runs the hotel and restaurant, with Bernard, the father, cooking, Mireille, the mother, managing the hotel and restaurant, and Sébastien, their son, serving. As the sign on the exterior of building states, “Here you will be satisfied.”

An unusual feature of the lunchtime menu offering is a beautiful buffet of charcuterie and salads of all types, shown below. One could make a meal just of the buffet, but we did not know this when we ordered a full entrée, which included a cheese course and dessert course (presented on a cart).

A “salad bar” is something I associate only with America; in France, it seemed an oddity. I asked Sébastien to tell me more about what may be the only buffet in France, and to get some help identifying the foods included on the spatially challenged buffet. (Sébastien asked me to arrive at the restaurant just before Noon, when the lunchtime crowds begin to arrive, which gave us time to identify most but not all of the foods. And, though my marginal French and Sébastien’s much better knowledge of English got us through most of the foods, some, due to my poor French, remain a mystery. If anyone with better French than mine can help out, please do.)

Random Images

Here is a random selection of images, among them: cups purchased at a vide-greniers, literally “empty the attic,” France’s answer to a garage sale; saucisson from Monsieur Fortin’s charcuterie shop; outbuildings, typefaces, and windows; two very of-the-mid-April-moment shots—impossibly bright lemon-yellow rapeseed in blossom, photographed by a new friend we made this trip, Bob Yothers; and opulent, purple wisteria; perfectly balanced and impossibly light, scalpel-looking cheese knives that make the process of eating cheese more mindful, sensual, and artful. (The cheese they advertise on their handles, Crottin de Chavignol, is a goat cheese from Chavignol, a village in the eastern Loire valley.)

0 Comments to “A French Interlude: The Gentle Beauty of the Loire Valley”

  1. Sandra says:

    Thanks for sharing these bits of France, Holly!

  2. You’re welcome, and thanks for taking a look at my French adventure. Hopefully, one day, I’ll have a chance to go back and research more bits (and bites).

  3. Louanne Headrick says:

    Fun stuff, especially listening to the buffet discription. The variety is amazing.

  4. cjennings smith says:

    Great little story and pictures, even makes me hungry for French food.

  5. Becket Franklin says:

    Wow! Love your pictures as much as your stories, Holly! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks Becket. I feel lucky to have been able to share some of the beauty of the Loire.


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