Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
This month I am turning this column over to my friend and Culinary Institute instructor John Dale Kennedy, who recently travelled to France on a food and wine trip. John is also Bailli (President) of the Springfield, Ill. Chapter of Chaine des Rotisseurs – an international gastronomic society founded in France.
Thirteen travelers from Illinois. One 18th century chateau near Saumur, rented for two weeks May 24-June 7 (chateaudelacoutanciere.com). Fois gras. Mushroom caves. Fresh croissants daily, baguettes everywhere. Rillettes. Chevre. Fougasse. Cointreau. Duck Confit. And, after popping over 153 corks (someone counted?), what could possibly be the outcome: new reverence for the fruits of the French cuisine and of course, the grape!
While the Seine in Paris was rising to historical levels, the Loire River, which is the last undammed river in France, was cutting its way west to the Atlantic in seemingly record speed, overflowing the banks and dragging boats, docks and trees along with it. Servicing our chateau near Saumur, multiple bridges were happily in full function allowing our eager, happy travelers to be as wayward as they wished: hopping from one bank to the other, spiriting from one vineyard to another, and from one town market to another (the local Super Marché). Rain was present in some measure just about every day. Occasional hints of blue sky and even a sun ray appeared to remind us that the growing season is long in France with twilight lasting well past 10 p.m.
French royalty began constructing lavish and monumental chateaux beginning as early as the 11th Century in the Loire Valley, excavating massive building blocks of tufa, the prolifically available limestone, leaving miles and miles of caves into the sides of low lying hills as well as straight down. These morphed for habitation, storing wine and growing mushrooms. Our introduction to these multipurpose caves near Saumur started with a tour of such a place: Le Saut aux Loups (troglo-sautauxloups.com), where wolves used to hang out. We bundled up for a cool hour inspection of underground agriculture where Paris, Pied-Blue, pink, oyster and shiitake mushrooms were in full fungi-bloom. With lunch in the same excavated hillside, we tasted multiple combinations of stuffed mushrooms called galipettes, translated as somersaults, topped with fresh goat cheese from Sainte-Maure, smoked salmon, snails or garlic butter on tomato, all baked in a limestone oven, carved into the superstructure.
Our wine choices for lunch were, naturally, from local vineyards featuring cabernet franc of Saumur-Champigny and the rosés of Anjou and Touraine, all local and mostly inexpensive. The region is known especially for its high quality sparklers, truly of Champagne quality, created via the méthode traditionnelle.
Two of Saumur’s most famous sparkling labels, Gratien & Meyer and Bouvet-Ladubay, both have extensive cellars with instructive tours telling the fascinating history of the underground labyrinths. Our tasting at the dramatic G&M headquarters overlooking the flowing (and flooding) Loire River, covered the waterfront; or should I say wine-front? Most of their sparklers are vintage, now tasting 2013 and 2014. Notable non-vintage (NV) was the Flamme d’Or Brut, 70 percent chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir from wood barrels, and the rosé, 100 percent pinot noir, also from wood. These, among others, are considered Crémant de Loire, with grapes from the Loire Valley as opposed to the 2014 Brut Blanc Millésimé whose grapes must be from Saumur only. We tasted 13 of their sparklers; such a nice variety we had to take a few back to the chateau to find something to pair with them … it turned out they all worked with just about anything we had in the fridge!
Scores of local food markets dotted the region; one could visit one every day of the week within 30 minutes. Vegetables and fruits of the region were in full ripeness and of course the local meats were plentiful: duck & foi gras; roasted rabbit, hare and chicken; sausages of all sorts and of course cheeses, locally made. And while there was plenty of wild boar in the nearby woods, I’m told, it was a rare commodity to find unless you know someone who has it frozen in their personal larder.
Every village has its own boulangerie and/or patisserie where one can gather the necessary breads and pastries for the day. We had one in the village of Brain-sur-Allonnes, just a half mile stroll down the path. It was a challenge not to stop at every one we saw as we motored through the byways and villages.
One of the true pleasures of visiting France, or any foreign country for that matter, is to stroll leisurely through the aisles of the local supermarket. There are several large chains in France and the one close to us was called Hyper U; sort of a French version of a super Walmart. Of course the foods come from all over Europe and the fresh food section was full of spring’s bounty, from north Africa, the Mediterranean and locally. My favorite was the cookie aisle. Oh gosh, so many to choose from. Knowing there were ample wines back at the chateau, I was sure to accommodate multiple pairing possibilities; we always had several varieties on hand.
And naturally, as one would expect, the cheese section appeared boundless; seamlessly merging into a wall of prepared meats of every kind: a pocket food dictionary is a must companion here. Naturally the wine section was a first contact destination upon entering. Affordable selections (€6-10) were plentiful from the local vineyards of Saumur, Bourgueil, Allonnes, Chinon and many more. The rosés were stunning; so many rich hues of the pink-coral-red palette turned the store wall into an impressionist rendering. And don’t get me started about the plentiful boxed wines. The good news is that there are scores in the markets and just about every winery we visited put some of their best sellers in boxes, mostly 1.5 liters. Perhaps someday we’ll see more of them available to us here is the U.S. The box bladder system ensures that air doesn’t get into the wine as you press the built-in spigot. What a perfect way to dispense one glass at a time, and they fit so neatly in the fridge.
Lastly, one of the best sites I found for learning about the Loire Valley before going is my-loire-valley.com, which has translation buttons in 10 languages, and is designed for the tourism market. When you go, I recommend that you coordinate your visit to be in Tours on the last weekend in May, when hundreds of wines are showcased by the vintners themselves, in tasting booths set up in a festive atmosphere on the plazas and surrounding streets of downtown Tours. For €5, you get admission, a souvenir glass and a road map to the scores of quaffing stands. Wine may be purchased to take with or enjoy there as you lunch or snack in the food court; vitiloire.tours.fr. A selection of wines from the Loire Valley are available at The Corkscrew; food items from Google.
And as always, Vive la France!