Thursday, December 15, 2005

from the vallée de la loire: castles and breads, sweet things and passion

If you want to see the details of just one chateau, I’m all for pointing you to Chenonceau. Inside and out, it’s absolutely stellar. Not to worry, Ocean does not like detail, especially of sights seen and unseen. So none will be provided.

But my traveling companion, Ed, and I drove there with gusto and zip. You could say that it was a chirpy moment.

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chenonceau over the river cher

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with a black swan, portending of things to come

Our next stop was to be at a local winter market, but now things proved more complicated. We were told it would be an afternoon market. It had taken place that morning. The only greens we saw were those being swept from the streets – traces of what once was and is no more.

And there was the matter of the castle (in this town of no market). How much would you spend to go inside the ramparts of a medieval castle? You should not make this decision at the top of the castle hill. You should make it prior to the climb. Turns out cheapness prevailed. And so we hiked down, me at a sprint to keep warm, Ed at a hobble to protect his ankle. Apparently cobbled streets hurt.

Then came the food debate. Ed wanted bread. It had been four hours since he had his fix of baguette. We pause at a café. No breads there. But am I the type to say non to a wonderful peach and chocolate concoction, wrapped in a flakey pastry, along with chantilly cream, along with a steaming cup of milky coffee? No. I eat and drink. Ed sits and twiddles his thumbs. Monsieur from the café is agitated. One eats and drinks, the other does not, how could that be?

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a cake of peaches and chocolate

We return to the inn. Ed nurses his ankle, his silent lust for French bread and, as he readily admits – a sensory overload from all that is around him.

The passion according to Olivier

My senses, however, are still up and craving for more and so I set out to do one of my favorites: visit a regional wine maker and chat about the fate of this year’s crop. I am in awe of these people who work so hard and take chances and if the weather turns on them or a new bug appears, they lose their fortune and start all over, or commit suicide.

Madame at the inn calls madame of the Domaine of Olivier Deletang. Over the river and through the woods and past one village and another and I should be there.

I get lost three times. I pass villages, rivers, forests, vineyards. The roads are narrow, the explanations are in rapid-fire French, my maps – forget it; since when do maps show actual roads?

I arrive hours later. Dusk is setting in, the dog is barking, smoke rises above the field where a sole man is clipping the vines and burning the trimmings.

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a winter rose at the edge of a row, distant smoke

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chenin blanc grapes

How do I describe the extraordinary privilege of getting close to someone’s passion?

Inside, madame sets out 9 bottles. It’s always the same routine. She opens the lightest, youngest wine first, pours some, gives it to me and talks about its flavors, its composition, its strengths and weaknesses before moving on to the next uncorking. By the time she opens the full bodied Montlouis “Chateau Boulay,” I am ready for it. The wine explodes in my mouth; I’m dazzled, ready to dance with joy, laughing, crying, kissing, all of it (at least I feel that this would not be inappropriate). It is that good.

My purchases are minimal. I buy six bottles – a combination of light and profound – all that will fit into one carrying case. And I know I will never drink the finest of the fine. They have a shelf life of some thirty years at least, but this is not why I put them aside after these visits. I have never been able to find the right moment to open treasures acquired directly from the hands that have made them. When the right moment comes, I will be drunk with all that I have saved for it.

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to take home

As I get ready to leave, I ask about the next generation. The vineyards have been passed down now since her husband’s great-grandfather began growing grapes here.

I have three daughters, she tells me (at least, this is my belief as she speaks no English). The oldest is in England, the middle hates wine and the youngest prefers the reds of Burgundy. I have hopes that the oldest will return soon.

Oh, daughters!

A return to Michel’s domain

The chef at the inn calls me over so that I can see what is on his TV screen. A French version of the food channel. It’s an American chef, he says with excitement. You remember his name? How can I confess that even us foodie types do not have the names of the culinary allstars firmly implanted in our brains?

Charlie Trotter? – I offer, knowing fully well that this guy is not our man Charlie. I’ve never eaten at Trotter’s but I’ve met him on his return visits to Madison. At least I don’t come across as a culinary moron.

I decide to stay at the inn for dinner. It’s too late to go searching for restaurants in the city (some thirty kilometers away). And I like chef Michel’s attitude. Ed says I like the looks of chef Michel’s little derriere, but he’s wrong. It’s the attitude and the food that keep me here.

I wont go through the details of the meal. I’ll bypass the introductory chef’s surprises, the pear sorbet, the final plate of cookies. But here, take a look at the wonderful grilled oysters and the tenderloin with an assortment of wild mushrooms. And if you’re still not enthralled, move down to the cheeses. Rap my piggy knuckles, I had four pieces this time. She insisted! And because I am a supreme oinker, I asked for the plate of assorted desserts. Yes, all seven of them, topped with the signature dome of sugar threads. And don’t think I’m not excited about breakfast, a mere hour away, because I am already mulling over the possibilities.

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grilled oysters with tomato, braised belgian endive, in a cream sauce

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tenderloin with wild mushrooms and a potato cake

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4 cheeses 2 wines

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7 desserts 3 sauces covered by 1 dome, for one person