Wednesday, December 14, 2005

from la vallée de la loire: porky leaves paris

Yesterday exhausted me. By morning I was still digesting the day's events and gastronomic highpoints.

But it was time to move on. The day, Tuesday, had to begin properly with a café creme and croissant. After that, it was a mad dash for the taxi, booked to take us to the station, where we were to pick up the little mini-auto.

We are off – heading for the Loire valley, chateau country – an apt destination for people who are not especially into the magnificent opulence of the chateaux.

[I drive, Ed navigates. Soon, Ed tosses the map aside as I refuse to listen to any of his instructions. Just because you navigated a boat from Maine to Cuba does not mean you know beans about French roads! It is proving to be that kind of a driving partnership. A hundred kilometers out of Paris I think of the days ahead and reconsider. Ed picks up the map and we forge ahead.]

I roll out of the car when we reached Chambord, the granddaddy of them all, the place that is so elaborate that it kind of makes you splutter. In December, this most popular tourist destination is completely empty. I do not have to wait a second to take photos with nary a soul ruining a pristine people-less composition.

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The sky is so blue, so blue that it clears my senses and prepares me for the next pleasure. We head toward Amboise, home to another chateau. But that isn’t the purpose of the late afternoon stop over. This is:

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Note several things. To the Q of would madame like chantilly cream on the tarte tatin or our home made vanilla ice cream? – I answer: both.

My travel companion sighs and loses himself in a book, blocking further witness to my food follies.

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When were you last in France?
Oh, when I was maybe twelve…
Did you find it fascinating?
I pretty much avoided engagement. I kept my nose in a book the whole trip.
And this has changed now?

Meanwhile, my grin widens and my cheeks puff out. .

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At dusk, we drive along the Loire, pausing now and again to watch birds dip their feet in the winter water.

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It is evening. We arrive at a country inn with the ubiquitous name of Le Cheval Blanc. I have this very special French book that lists the country’s restaurant inns. They have very cheap, basic rooms appended to small eating establishments. These are not Michelin starred places by a long shot. But the chefs aspire to put them on the culinary map. They work their tails off to maybe someday make it in this crazy world of kitchen perfectionism.

Ed tells me: I cannot eat anymore tonight. The lunch of cheese and bread and tarte and chocolat chaud is still with me.

I glare at him and slam an imaginary door between us. I reassure madame at the inn that at least one will be downstairs for dinner.

The other one knows not to mess with me over food. We both make an appearance that evening.

In the meantime, we have a computer crisis. The chef-owner had written me back in the States that he thinks he has WiFi and that it may extend into other spaces of the inn. We have yet to detect any WiFi anywhere in this tiny town of not too many. My back up plan, dial-up, is also not working. It is dinner time. You, who feel the French are heartless and mercilessly wrapped in their world, I have said this before and I will say it again: I have come across the most caring, generous men and women here, on this side of the ocean, in this country of frites librés.

Monsieur le chef abandons his kitchen duties to putz and toy with my computer issue. Even Ed is transfixed by this. In the end, monsieur le chef takes us to his backrooms where la famille (granddaughters) is watching le telé. In the tiny office where he puts in orders for fresh langoustines and fraises de bois, he pushes aside his papers and allows us to set up shop with our machines.

Just let me know when you want to use my office. It is yours for the duration of your stay, he tells me.

At dinner, I reach a level of hero-worship heretofore unknown to any living soul. For this man of generous heart also has talent. Oh such talent! A quick run through the meal before I collapse. My dreams are already of the next day’s sights and pleasures. There are so many, so many to pick from. And they’ll begin at the table. Of course. It has to be so.

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To amuse the palate, monsieur le chef proposes: broiled moules, baked chevre, hot tomato cappuccino, broccoli flan

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My langoustines are the most tender I have ever had. Swimming here in a beurre blanc sauce, with slivers of veggies in a vinaigrette

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Lobster, grilled with gruyere cheese, in a creamy crustacean sauce

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Assorted cheeses to choose from: two. okay three, just for balance.

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To clean out that palate: exotic fruit sorbet with rum

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Custard with fraises de bois in a fraises coulis, dramatically domes by caramelized strands of sugar

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Wake up, open the window, look outside onto the courtyard…

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…and head down for breakfast.