Living in Paris for the last couple of years has certainly not left me wanting for much, in terms of food. Almost every week I am lucky to discover something new, whether its an amazing bistro, a special goat cheese that has only now come into season, a little-known wine from a little-known region, or even a simple twist on an original classic, like crème brulee a la rhubarbe.
But there is something that I have missed, although I didnt even know that it was missing from my life until it was served to me at lunch yesterday. I'm not talking so much about a specific food, as I'm talking about a dining experience.
People come to France with preconceived notions about the food; they expect everything to come in a sauce, in small portions, with lavishly garnished plates, decorated with small dots of some sort of bizarre reduction. And in fact, food in Paris is the opposite- most Parisians tend to eat in bistros, and bistros are refreshingly rustic, and homey, and down to earth. But I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I was still waiting for a lavishly decorated plate, with a crazy sauce and a brightly colored swirl of an unidentifiable mousse of some sort.
And yesterday, I got it.
Having decided to go explore a small portion of the undeniably magical Loire region, the first stop was determined to be the spectacularly romantic Chateau de Chenonceau. This castle is one of the most magical places I have ever been. It has been constructed over the Cher river, meaning it stretches across the Cher, from one bank to another, with arched columns that dip into the riverbed. Surrounded by gardens and a labyrinth, no matter where you are in this castle, you constantly catch reflections of the water projected onto the walls, or are presented with the most breathtaking views of the middle of the river.
We arrived around lunchtime, and of course decided that we needed to gather our energy before we visited the castle, so we decided to try out the lavish restaurant that the castle has to offer. We hadn't even sat down yet and I was already happy; dining in a castle on a beautiful autumn day, with trees that look like they are bursting into red and yellow flames, is not something that you get on a typical day in Paris.
The setting of this restaurant is heaven, and the service is old school French. A different waiter for every course, warmed bread rolls in the middle of the table, a vegetable cake and home-made pickled vegetables are all stark contrasts to the usual snarky Parisian waiter and the little bowl of peanuts you get with your aperitif. They even had the little machine that vaccuums up the crumbs between your third course and dessert. Because who wants to have crumbs sticking to their elbows as they glance across the river at a castle bathing in the afternoon autumn sunlight, while sipping on a glass of wine produced two kilometers away and sinking their fork into a warm fondant topped with a strawberry-mint coulis that erupts with molten chocolate? Not me.
The menu regional was a two hour, four course meal that makes your eyes roll back into your head with every bite and necessitates a discreet unbuttoning of your pants to make room for your ever expanding belly.
The entrees we chose were very typical of this region; pork rilletes and salmon rilletes, mixed with both smoked and un-smoked salmon, topped with avocado, cream and chives.
For the main course, I chose the Filet de Sandre à la crème d'ortie, a local river fish topped with a creamy nettle sauce. Yes, nettle. And yes, it was heavenly. Its hard to describe the flavor of nettle, but suffice it to say that any herb in a creamy white wine sauce over a delicately flakey fish caught ten meters away is delicious.
After the main course came the chevre chaud, but of course the cheese served with this cleansing green salad was a local goat cheese produced around the corner. Of course.
And finally, dessert. Although I would not say that chocolate fondant or tarte fine aux pommes are desserts that originate from the Loire, it's safe to say that the apples most certainly did, as did the strawberries and mint that the coulis was made out of, and the white (yes, white!) raspberries that they were topped with.
But what was so old world about this incredible lunch was the presentation. Small portions, beautifully decorated plates, with several small side dishes served in miniscule glasses or mini-cocottes: a pumpkin veloute served with a mini spoon in a mini glass was a seasonal delight, reminding us that it is autumn. (In case the trees exploding with the most vibrant reds and yellows and greens and browns and oranges had somehow let us forget). Then there was a mini ratatouille, and I emphasize mini, because usually I dont like ratatouille, but for some reason cutting the vegetables into miniscule cubes the size of a pea and serving it in a mini bowl as big as a quail egg somehow took this innocent classic side dish above and beyond.
And last but not least, the wine was so perfect that we were inspired to go visit the chateau that produced it, a family business a mere two kilometers away from the chateau, and bought a case to take home. (After, of course, sampling their other wines too).
On the way home, stuffed and happy with our palettes completely over-saturated and the top of my pants unbuttoned , we stopped at a tiny goat farm with a little grandma making only about three types of fresh goat cheese, using the same recipe that her mother in law taught her. Selle-sur-cher and wine in tow, we started to make our way home.
Nowadays we fuss so much about eating local, about eating organic, about eating sustainable. But it goes to show that once you leave the big metropoles, the rest of the world is still eating that way. They aren't concerned with 'being green' or their carbon footprint because they simply don't have one and they probably never will. Things haven't changed in these regions for hundreds of years, at least in terms of food production, and I pray to god that they never will.
P.S. There is an amazing collection of Renaissance cookwear in the basement of the castle; complete with stoves, cauldrons, cutting boards and cake moulds. Its a lesson in food history and, for me, was the cherry on the cake.
Here are the addresses if you are interested in going:
1. Chateau de Chenonceau and L'Orangerie restauraunt in the chateau (http://www.chenonceau.com/media/fr/restau_menus.php)
2. Les caves du Pere Auguste for some excellent local Touraine wine (try to Gamey and the Cot) http://www.cavesdupereauguste.com/