Although I have been back in Paris for a few days, the days in the Loire Valley and the Anjou region remain highlights. I tend to experience culture through food, so experiencing a local specialty -- a food specialty -- is the ultimate cultural immersion experience.
After the very special tour of the historically fascinating site (a visit to the cellars is a must) of Bouvet Ladubay, and by its charming head of public relations, Jean-Maurice, it was time for lunch. Bouvet-Ladubay (whose exquisite sparkling wines have been winning awards for decades) is, technically, in St. Florent. Lunch would be in Saumur, just a few hundred meters away. Driving into Saumur was like driving onto a movie set, or back in time into a charmingly surreal idyllic stereotype of a French village.
After hearing that I was going to be treated to a local specialty -fouées - and at a restaurant integrated into a troglodyte cave, I had been preparing for this day for weeks. "Fouées," I would learn, figure in the oeuvre of Rabelais, and his epic fictional work Gargantua (with its legendary character Pantagruel (associated with gluttony), includes a "war" involving fouées. Fouées has been called, in a Wall Street Journal article, French soul food. This is all to say that fouée is steeped deeply in the French cultural psyche.
Fouée is an ancient bread, per the WSJ article above, baked at extremely high temperature in a wood-fired brick oven, which come out puffy, filled with steam. Split open the top carefully for the steam to release, and fill it up with the tradtional fillings.
We get to a fouée restaurant on the sidewalk of the picturebook setting, one that the generous Jean-Maurice had recommended and called ahead to make sure we would get seated, as we were past the usual lunch time. (The one in the cave was a little too touristed that day, i.e., busloads of visitors had stopped there for lunch intellgence sources told us). I learn, on seeing the menu, that there is another specialty here: galipettes. My tour guide for the day passes on them. I never pass on a local specialty, especially this one, which involves large rustic mushrooms, grilled at high heat in the wood-fired oven with fillings of (i) olive oil and garlic; and (ii) cream/goat cheese. I don't get what's not to love about these.
As I am the only one having this entrée, I am holding up everyone from the main event: the fouées. Sorry guys. They graciously say I should take my time. I speed up.
Next comes the tray of the fillings to fill up the piping hot breads.
The first basket arrives.
Time to starting cutting them open and filling them up. They remind me of a high-end but rustic pita bread. But that is not quite right to desribe the flavor. I end up liking the combination of goat cheese and lardons.
I only make it through three (3) fouées.
I thought we were done. But no. There is a dessert version. The dessert version is a tiny bowl of hot melted dark chocolate and hot salted caramel served alongisde the hot out of the oven breads. I figure I will have just a bite. Just to see how this tastes and whether this works as a dessert.
Well, it works. One little bowl of melted hot dark chocolate later, and me using the last of the bread to wipe the little bowl of chocolate clean, I pronounce this one my favorite. I swore not to eat dinner.
We bid our farewells. I stumble out into the bright cheery sunlight into the movie set that is this charming main street of Saumur. My tour guides insist I see the Château of Saumur. It is right here. It would be a shame to miss it. Agree.
A meeting we have scheduled for later that day, on Austin-Angers business mattters, gets pushed back. More time for the leisurely, winding backroads scenic route from Saumur to Angers. I learn this is the Grande Levée, and this is the "rue" or road of the levy. It winds along the Loire River, along charming cobblestone streets, farmhouses, vacation houses, second homes made out of regal chateau-esque stone structures, with wild gardens and manicured gardens -- all with the Loire River as their backyard view.
This is bicycle country. The Loire valley was made for cycling it seems, and the tourism infrastructure has made it very simple for you, as sites such as this show: well-marked trails, storybook landscapes, charming river-side cafes in small villages, and trains outfitted with special cars just for the bikes. You can hop on the train with your bike, and descend again at some other spot to continue the journey down winding paths alongside the Loire, winding your way through vineyard after chateau after vineyard. Even by car though, all of this was stunning in driving back to Angers.
I had the best intentions to fit in a short little "balade" on a bike through this food/wine/landscape paradise, but it was not to be. It definitely will be on another trip, very soon.
And once you've had about as much charm and relaxation riding through the terroir that has produced the wine you have been (or should be) drinking at night while you are in the Loire Valley, there is always the hustle and bustle of Paris just a 2-hour train ride away. Or not.