Monday, 26 September 2011
Hotel Diderot, Chinon
My love for the Loire Valley knows no bounds. I first visited aged 14 on an exchange trip; our local town was twinned with Luynes, near Tours. A few years later I spent a year in Tours as an English language assistante in a secondary school. During that year I prepared my degree dissertation on the region's wines which gave me the excuse to visit producers in nearby Vouvray and Chinon. Not only is the Loire Valley exceptionally beautiful, but the delicious local cuisine adds to its addictive quality. It also has a soothing douceur that can calm even the most stressed Londoner. Consequently, I have to get a fix of the place on a regular basis.
Recently, our family holidays have combined a week in St Cyprien in Roussillon on the Mediterranean coast with a week in the Loire Valley near Le Puy Notre Dame. This year we had different itinerary: our usual week in St Cyprien was to be preceded by a stay in Cap Ferret near Arcachon. My Loire fix was going to be restricted to an overnight stay to break the outward journey. Luckily I'd heard of somewhere that might fit the bill and give us a short, but satisfying taste of the region: the Hotel Diderot in Chinon. As so many of the reviews were positive and the website conjured up an idyllic image, I had a nagging feeling I'd be disappointed.
Late in the afternoon and tired after a long day's drive, we arrived at the Hotel Diderot in the centre of historic Chinon. As we turned into the hotel, the owners came out to greet us warmly and direct us to the parking area. We checked in, freshened up and went downstairs for a refreshing glass of Chinon Rosé on the terrace, before deciding where to go for dinner (their recommendation, Côté Jardin in Rue du Commerce, was fine for an early supper with our five-year-old).
The Diderot is owned by siblings Françoise, Martine and Laurent Dutheil who run the place impeccably. I was worried that such a pretty, traditional looking French hotel might, like many others, look the part, but actually be quite uncomfortable and noisy. Too often I've had my sleep interrupted by teenagers on mopeds screeching around old French towns. The Diderot, in spite of the handsome antiques and the odd creaky floorboard, places the emphasis firmly on comfort. Our large family room (chambre de maître) was generously furnished and even had a selection of board games in case of bad weather, but the discretely double-glazed windows were a really caring detail. Living in a draughty old Victorian house, we find this kind of investment impressive. We had a very good night's sleep and I can imagine being there in mid-winter and feeling just as comfortable. It was also a treat being able to look down into neighbouring gardens and across the rooftops to get a different aspect of the town.
The next morning we experienced what the Diderot is most noted for: breakfast that includes an array of jams home-made by Laurent Dutheil. We were seated near their 'jam cupboard' or armoire à confitures and were served local apple juice, coffee, hot chocolate with delicious freshly-baked croissants and baguettes and, of course, jam.
We were there at the end of August, so their distinctively soft-set jams (even softer than Bonne Maman) included some recently prepared apricot with two kinds of cherry and a particularly lovely blend of red summer fruits: the evocatively named fruits de solstice de l'été. A plum jam made with three varieties of plum (greengage, mirabelle and damson) also stood out. The Loire region is often referred to as le jardin de la France – something that's truly evident here at the Diderot, with this celebration of local produce. Even a glance around the hotel garden confirms this passion: the plants are all labelled.
While we were checking out the staff inquired how we'd heard of the hotel. Laurent was delighted to hear that, as well as having been aware of the hotel for some years, I'd read about them in an edition of Waitrose Food Illustrated and had tried one of the recipes included in the piece (their book Jam in the Cupboard/L'Armoire à Confitures is available to buy at the hotel). He gave our daughter a jar of strawberry jam (one of her favourites) and asked us to bring some of our home-made jam in exchange if we return. We certainly will, although, in the meantime, I'll keep working on my jam-making skills, although our local produce here in London isn't quite as inspirational.
Note: it's worth booking well in advance as the hotel often accommodates large parties of cyclists touring the region.
4 rue Buffon
Tel +33 (0)2 47 93 18 87