Thursday, 30 July 2009

The joys of self-catering in France 2: Loire

I have such a soft-spot for the Loire Valley. I first went there as an exchange student in my early teens and a few years later spent a year in Tours while doing my French degree. This year, for the second year running we stayed just south of Doué la Fontaine, near Le Puy Nôtre Dame (about half an hour from Saumur). The Layon river is only a few miles away, meandering in a loosely north-westerly direction towards Angers. The wine routes are well worth following to explore these pretty valleys and historic towns. We were actually staying in the Saumur AOC, with a number of local producers offering great value wines: dry whites, reds, off-dry and sweet whites and sparkling. A mixed case or two from a producer such as Château Beauregard in Le Puy Nôtre Dame would see you nicely through your stay (although expect to give your French a bit of a workout here with the chatty proprietor, Alain Gourdon). This estate is on the edge of the town and, as the name suggests, the view is beautiful. The Cave de Saumur in St Cyr-en-Bourg also offers an excellent range at good prices and has tours around their extensive cellars. Their range also includes some supple tasty Saumur-Champigny (and wine boxes - easily slotted into the car and useful for everyday drinking). This is on a another scenic wine route that takes you much closer to the Loire river. For some age-worthy wines from our daughter's birth year 2006, we also visited Château de Villeneuve (Souzay-Champigny; pictured above) for finely structured, concentrated Saumur-Champigny and Saumur Blanc and, in Chinon, Bernard Baudry (Cravant-les-Coteaux) for some of their elegant, expressive wines (with beguiling salty minerality).

We kept our food shopping quite simple and local, using small shops as well as the comprehensively stocked Super U on the outskirts of Doué la Fontaine and the town's Monday market. A little further away on the western side of Saumur there is an enormous Leclerc that also has a useful child-friendly restaurant. Our supermarket purchases included Loué free-range chicken, onglet steak, veal chops and, for easy lunches, cheeses and tubs of rillettes. We also stock up on Bonne Maman jams (the complex tasting Myrtilles Sauvages being our favourite). Decent boulangeries are close by in Le Puy Notre Dame and Les Verchers sur Layon. The best one we came across, though, was in Chinon, offering bread in all styles, pastries and exquisite tarts which we enjoyed for lunch, sitting alongside the Vienne river. We had three savoury tarts: smoked salmon and chives, goat's cheese and one in a quiche lorraine style using rillons (flavoursome chunky lardons – a Touraine speciality), all with light, puff pastry cases. Completely luxurious (if a little messy!).

Just a final note about wines from the Anjou and Touraine stretch of the Loire and their food-friendliness. Both red and dry white wines have restrained fruit and notably fresh acidity allowing them to partner a wide range of food without ever dominating; the grapes Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc have naturally low pH levels. Oak rarely features in these wines (only in some reds) which really boosts their versatility (and drinkability). They are a particularly good foil to fatty foods, such as local charcuterie. I love the firm tannic structure of young, juicy Cabernet Franc with grilled steak or lamb. After several years' ageing, the complex aromas and silkiness of a maturing Chinon or Bourgueil would be perfect with game or roast beef and delicious with duck. Complex, mineral dry whites such as Vouvray, Savennières, Saumur or Anjou Blanc (eg from Pierre-Bise in Beaulieu sur Layon) are superb with simply cooked fish. We had a particularly memorably meal of baked trout with a bottle of Château Villeneuve's Les Cormiers 2006. As for the heavenly late-picked sweet wines that can age almost eternally, I'd be tempted to sip them before or after a meal – either as an aperitif or instead of pudding. That's if I can be persuaded to open a bottle, although life's too short to keep putting off drinking special bottles. Where's that corkscrew...?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The joys of self-catering in France 1: Roussillon

For the past couple of years our family holidays have combined the hot, sunny Mediterranean coast with the lush and watery expanses of the Loire Valley. Quite frankly, this is the best of both worlds. Self-catering might sound a bit dreary (and hard work) but, for food obsessives like me, it's the perfect choice of holiday as it allows you to be in control of precisely what you eat (and drink) and when. It also gives you the excuse to a lot of food shopping - bliss! Furthermore, with a toddler in tow, once she has gone to bed, we can have a relaxing evening on our own terms, in our own space - something that's much more difficult in a hotel.

Both these locations have so much to offer foodies. St Cyprien is in Roussillon (Catalan France), where the local specialities encompass local fish and seafood (notably anchovies and sardines), mountain honey and cheese (from the nearby Pyrenees), *abundant fruit and vegetables (peaches, apricots, cherries - the local town of Ceret is the 'cherry capital' of France and has an annual cherry festival). What's more, this corner of France is currently one of the most exciting wine regions in Europe. You might have heard of the fortified sweet wines of Banyuls and Rivesaltes and the deep reds of Collioure, but this hot, dry region produces reds, whites and rosés from a broad palette of grape varieties. For easy drinking we buy from our most local producer, Domaine de l'Esparrou near Canet who produces prize-winning rich, spicy Côtes du Roussillon and Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalans reds and rosés and a delicious fragrant Muscat Sec (all of which we are continuing to enjoy back in London from the wine boxes 'fontaines à vin' we brought home with us). For more serious drinking, favourites include Gauby (Calce) and Le Clos des Paulilles (Port Vendres). Gauby is possibly the region's most exciting producer - extraordinary, intense, complex reds and whites (Côtes du Roussillon Villages and Vin de Pays des Coteaux Catalans). Clos des Paulilles makes powerful red and white Collioure and fortifieds labelled as Banyuls. They also have an charming outdoor restaurant where you can be soothed by the gentle lapping of the waves while you eat: they are right on the coast. Since we visited in 2008, they have converted some outbuildings into rather stylish looking accommodation. Delightful place.
* Farm shops are handy for local seasonal produce and are often well sign-posted. We use the one in nearby Taxo (which also has an impressive wine selection) and St Cyprien has a comprehensive market on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The house we use in St Cyprien has an outdoor kitchen with a large built-in barbecue. This is the perfect environment for my some of my favourite Mediterrean dishes, grilled fish and seafood, perhaps with a drizzle of olive oil and some lemon juice (and glass after glass of local wine). In this instance, sardines - always unbelievably good value, bread, salad, chilled rosé and great company. If we fancy something after all that, we might nibble some Pyrenean sheep's cheese (Ossau Iraty or Brébis) with some cherries. Heaven!