Stamping ground of royalty, winemakers and giants, Centre-Val de Loire has a long list of tasty morsels to its name – from buttery tarte Tatin and fouées to mellow Vouvray. And you don’t have to be a king to enjoy them.
Oodles of majestic châteaux, tick. A rich history of murder and intrigue, tick. Astonishingly beautiful countryside, tick. More fine wines than you can shake a stick at and plenty of local specialities to indulge in, BIG TICK. Centre-Val de Loire is, without doubt, a right-royal crowd-pleaser, so let’s tuck in…
At the heart of the country, with Pays de la Loire to the west and Île-de-France to the north, Centre-Val de Loire comprises six départements: Eure-et-Loir, Loiret, Cher, Indre, Indre-et-Loire and Loir-et-Cher. Bisected by the great Loire River, its key cities include Orléans, the regional capital, Tours and Chartres. Lying south of Paris, it was a popular haunt of the kings of France during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and they certainly made their marks here.
The Valley of Kings
Dubbed the ‘Valley of the Kings’, the Loire Valley has breathtaking châteaux at every turn. But which should you visit? Statistics say that Chambord is the most popular, followed by Chaumont, Cheverny and Azay-le-Rideau.
Chambord, a mind-bogglingly huge Renaissance pile, is certainly the biggest. It was built in the 16th century as a hunting lodge for King Francis I. Chenonceau, arching masterfully over the River Cher, is perhaps the most beautiful. Henri II bought it for Diane de Poitiers, his mistress. Take your pick from the rest (Blois, Loches, Chinon, Amboise, Clos Lucé and Villandry), you won’t be disappointed.
They’ve all seen their fair share of royal power struggles, adultery, murder, intrigue – oh, and some pretty lavish banquets too.
Châteaux aside, the Loire Valley is stunning. But don’t just take our word for it. According to UNESCO, it is “an outstanding cultural landscape of great beauty, containing historic towns and villages, great architectural monuments and cultivated lands”, and a 300-kilometre stretch from Sully-sur-Loire to Chalonnes has been awarded World Heritage Status.
The river links Orléans, Blois, Amboise and Tours, its fertile valley home to not just grand old piles but a high concentration of great wines and vineyards; Sancerre, Vouvray, Touraine and Pouilly-Fumé all topping the wish lists of sommeliers around the world.
Food with a Side of History
This corner of France has some pretty outstanding chefs too, serving up their food with flair and, sometimes, a side order of history.
Michelin-starred chef Christophe Hay’s restaurant-hotel, La Maison d’à Côté, is right on the Château de Chambord’s doorstep – definitely one for the gastronome’s itinerary. Look out for the fresher-than-fresh vegetables grown in his Potager d’à Côté kitchen garden, which are used in his dishes.
Hunt out La Roche Le Roy while you’re here, too, with its talented young chef Maximilien Bridier. Based in a former 18th-century mansion in a pretty countryside setting just outside Tours, it serves traditional food with a modern flourish. Try the roasted fillet of John Dory meunière or stuffed quail with thyme. It’s all rather pricey, but why not treat yourself?
Thibaut Ruggeri runs the excellent restaurant at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon. Key to his menu is simple local produce, some of which is actually grown in the abbey grounds.
Coincidentally, François Rabelais, one of France’s most definitive writers, was born in Chinon in the late 15th century. His character, Gargantua, was a giant with an enormous appetite and a taste for the region’s fouaces or fouées , propelling these breaded fancies to super-stardom. Little pitta-like pockets, they make a delicious snack packed with creamy Sainte-Maure de Touraine goat’s cheese or tasty rillettes
Go on, try one! But where can you find Centre-Val de Loire’s other foodie giants? Orléans is a sizeable contender. Apart from being the region’s capital, Joan of Arc put the city on the map back in 1429 when she ended the English siege here. Burned at the stake two years later, ‘the Maid of Orléans’ will forever be associated with the city. As will mustard and wine vinegar.
During the Middle Ages, the River Loire was a major transport route, taking fine wines from the Loire Valley and Burgundy to the aristocrats of Paris. Any spoiled during the journey were unloaded at Orléans and used to make vinegar – much in demand for food preservation. Artisan vinaigrier and moutardier Martin Pouret began producing vinegars and mustards in 1797 and you can still visit the shop today and buy a bottle.
Some 30km south of Orléans, you’ll find LamotteBeuvron, the birthplace of France’s famous tarte Tatin, invented in the 1880s by Stéphanie Tatin at the town’s Hôtel Tatin.
Legend has it the upside-down apple tart came about in an attempt to salvage a traditional apple dessert – and the rest, as they say, is history. Macarons aux fruits d’Orléans, conceived in 2006, are a more recent addition to the city’s canon of sugary delights.
Choose from strawberry and Orléans vinegar, pear and ginger, and creamy hazelnut flavours to sustain you as you explore its pretty medieval streets. Here, you’ll find specialist food shops, shelves piled high with the little pine boxes that hold cotignac d’Orléans – a quince jelly once thought to relieve digestive disorders. It had the royal seal of approval, with the French kings coming here for their supply. The Orléans region produces a fine and light-bodied wine, which has held AOC status since 2006.
Its reds and rosés are made using Pinot Noir and Pinot Meurnier grape varieties, while the aromatic whites, which are best enjoyed young, get their character from Chardonnay. If you want to find out more, head to Ver di Vin, a wine restaurant based in a medieval cellar not far from the Cathédrale Sainte-Croix, where husband-and-wife team Sabine and Laurent Brochard will introduce you to the local vignoble highlights, accompanied by some hearty fare. Or try Chez Eugène – a small restaurant with bags of style in the rue Sainte-Anne in Orléans’s historic quarter.
Locals and tourists alike congregate at the Quai du Roi on a Saturday morning for Orléans’s big and bustling food market. Here you’ll find apples and pears from nearby orchards, earthy mushrooms, and wonderful cold meats and cheeses.
Come along on a Friday evening for some atmospheric night-time browsing and eat your fill at the surrounding cafés and food stalls.
Another gastronomic giant is the ancient cathedral town of Tours, the administrative centre of the Indre-et-Loire département and the largest town in the Centre-Val de Loire. Pick up its guide to eating in the city, Goût de Tours – it’ll come in handy when planning your gastronomic assault.
Bristling with Michelin-starred restaurants, bistros, brunch cafés and food workshops, Tours is a real celebration of French cuisine. For a bustling bistro-type atmosphere and great grub, try Au Lapin qui Fume (yes, that does translate as ‘the smoking rabbit’!) on rue Colbert; while Le Saint-Honoré is the place to head for fine dining fit for royalty – Queen Sonja of Norway is said to have eaten there.
While you’re here, look out for Tours’s rillettes, a scrummy terrine dating back to the 15th century. Try it with crisp French bread and cornichons – yum! Don’t confuse them with another picnic-lunch staple rillons de Tours , cubes of belly pork fried with herbs and spices.
Passions run high when it comes to making rillettes and there’s an annual competition run by the Touraine Brotherhood of Rillons and Rillettes to determine the best. Tours is also proud of its andouillette . Sample this cooked sausage (made with pork, intestines or chitterlings) simmered in Vouvray wine, the way the locals like it.
Both truffles and saffron have seen a resurgence in the Touraine region. The ‘black diamond’ of French cooking, the Touraine truffle has been farmed here since the 18th century and can be found at the many truffle markets in winter, especially in Marigny-Marmande south of the city.
For dessert there’s nougat de Tours, much like our own Bakewell tart packed with apricot jam, frangipane and dried fruit. As with rillettes, there’s an annual competition among local bakers to see who can produce the best. To finish, how about some pruneaux de Tours – prunes filled with apricot jam and crushed almonds – served as an after-dinner treat?
The region around Tours is also known for its wines. Its whites include the famous Touraine Sauvignon, plus fruity reds, from the Gamay grape; dry, fresh – sometimes spicy – rosés; and fine sparkling wines with delicate bouquets.
One of the jewels in Touraine’s crown is mellow Vouvray, made using the Chenin grape. For tastings and tours, head to Domaine Marc Brédif in the heart of the Touraine Valley.
Big-name reds include Chinon (used in the local coq au vin, made with Géline de Touraine, an old breed of black chicken), or Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. To sample Bourgueil, visit the Vignoble de la Chevalerie.
As well as wine, fruit liqueurs are big in this region. In Rivarennes, Indre-et-Loire, pears are dried or used to make the local eau de vie – drop into Poires Tapées for a sample. Another pear-based beverage is La Poire d’Olivet. Williams pears are used to make this famous brandy in Olivet, Loiret. The production process is perhaps one of the most bizarre you’ll come across. In the spring, producers enclose a budding fruit, still on the tree, inside the bottle and the whole pear is left inside to mature slowly.
Olivet is also known for Olivet Cendré cheese – made from the milk of cows that graze (unbottled!) on the banks of the Loire.
Centre-Val de Loire has more than its fair share of sweet treats. Head to the Maison des Forestines in Bourges, which has been making yummy chocolate praline-filled sweets (forestines) since 1878, and buy a bag to savour as you explore this medieval city with its Gothic cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Pithiviers in Loiret has given its name to the popular puff-pastry pie from the town, filled with sweet almond paste and fruit such as cherry or plum.
Over in Montargis, east of Orléans, Maison Mazet sells its special praslines: roasted, caramelised almonds so popular that Mazet is now sold in luxury food halls around the world.
You’ll walk in the footsteps of royalty and sample some sublime food and drink during your gourmet tour of Centre-Val de Loire. In this region of foodie delights, you definitely don’t need to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to enjoy food fit for a king.
GOAT’S CHEESE The good, the great and the remarkable
Centre-Val de Loire is famous for its goat’s cheese. Perhaps the best known is Sainte-Maure de Touraine, a log-shaped AOC cheese with a distinctive flavour (and a long piece of straw inside to help hold it together, in case you’re wondering what the foreign body is as you cut into it).
It takes its name from Sainte-Maure de Touraine near Chinon and is wonderful when paired with a full-bodied Chinon red, or dry white from Vouvray.
Selles-sur-Cher is an artisan goat’s cheese, aged to accentuate its subtle, nutty flavour; and you’ll probably recognise the distinctive pyramid shape of Valençay cheese with its blue/grey coating of mould and charcoal. Crottin de Chavignol goes great with crusty French bread and a Sauvignon or white Sancerre.
It’s a cylindrical cheese with a creamy, soft interior – the older it is, the richer and smoother it becomes.
The French take this cheese business very seriously: Les Passerelles is a museum entirely devoted to Sainte-Maure de Touraine. A visit to the Cabri au Lait Educational Goat farm (www.touraineloirevalley.co.uk) is a chance to meet the goats face to face. Owners Sébastien and Claire will happily welcome you to their petting zoo for cheese-making workshops, farm visits and tastings.