Conquering the Loire Valley, One Bite at a Time
You have probably heard the myth that French women never get fat. However, after spending the last 3 weeks in the Loire Valley and sinking my teeth into this paradox, I can tell you that it’s a big fat lie. Although the tightness of the waistband on my jeans and inner-thigh chafing protested against the unabashedly rich diet that I’d continuously indulged in during my stay, I did not have any regrets.
Here is my ultimate food dream: an endless medley of cheese and crusty bread, broken up by sluices of vibrant vinos from vineyards barely 100km out from the house in picturesque Preuilly Sur-Claise. Week 1 was a crash course into the lifestyle of the countryside goer, albeit in the height of the summer season—rolling on lush lawns, roaming sprawling flea markets during the weekends in search of rarities, and the endless aperitifs.
It was 6pm on a Sunday, and the sun posed audaciously at an 80-degree angle on earth, shadow dancing between Corsican pine trees in the garden as we settled into lawn chairs arranged in a communal circle and held onto delicate flutes of sparkling Vouvray brut.
The adults were deep in conversation enthralled by family plots and stolen memories of childhood lost in time. Like the family cat, Scout, I curled up under the shade beneath the tree and spooned a vivacious homemade white asparagus verrine animated with dill and a healthy splash of extra-virgin olive oil.
A general air of contentment lingered in the air, along with smoke signals from the nearby barbecue waiting to adopt two mighty slabs of Côte de boeuf. We devoured them greedily, along with red feasts of coeur de boeuf tomatoes, nature’s indicator of summer’s warm embrace on its fruits of labour. Wine wasn’t so much of an indulgence, but a mandatory participant of this fiesta—the sport of being called to the family’s cellar to summon a forgotten 1992 corton grand cru or pommerol—is a treat on its own. Once the plates were swept off the counter, we sliced into goat’s cheese of all shapes and forms with fervour and placed them on torn up pieces of baguette. I looked at the clock, and at 10pm, the summer sun was still riding high. It was going to be an extended season of gluttony and fornication as I sank my teeth into a lemon meringue tart.
After week 1, I had a fear of stepping on the scale. My seemingly intimate relationship with Saint Maure de Touraine, Valencay and Pouligny (poignant goats’ cheese with remarkably soft centres) grew from strength to strength. Sure, I had a few gazpacho and salad meals; but the presence (or nagging fridge) of Touraine’s famous rillettes and liquid dreams of cancoillotte will always be my undoing. A tiny piece of bread and cheese during tea or a sneaky little meaty morsel after house visits in the late evenings, all added up.
Week 2 was when integration truly commenced and the realities of a structured French meal started to sink in. Amidst my fears that I would get tired of bread, I somehow didn’t. Instead, I revelled in the morning rituals of toasted bread, salted butter, homemade raspberry conserve, fresh tomatoes, oltermani and comte cheese, eaten in any variation you could imagine. I liked my baguette toasted till near cremation, with its crispy crevices heavily sunken with salty butter and then topped with shavings of cheese bundled with the heads of sliced tomatoes. There are a lot of stereotypes about French people; they eat croissants and pain au chocolate on a daily basis. But that’s an option and an unnecessary luxury especially when there’s cheese lingering at the back of your mind. Twice a week, I enforced long runs through the French countryside; one to preserve my sanity, two, to make room for more cheese in fellowship with wine and bread.
By the time week 3 had arrived, I was beginning to mourn the impending absence of breakfast rituals in Singapore. I had experienced the slew of family meal specials, recipes that had been guarded for ages. There would be tomatoes farcies stuffed with beef, pork and milk-soaked bread, roast chicken dinners complete with freshly baked Cherry Clafouti, garlic soup, laborious spreads of melt-in-your-mouth Osso Bucco tossed through linguine strands.
The assimilation reaches its culmination with a parting meal of Moroccan couscous with merguez sausage, lamb tagine and slow-cooked chicken. As a contrast to the rich proteins, fluffy couscous is terrific in its simplicity. In between initial servings, we glugged spicy Chinons and fruit-forward Saumur rouge that we had painstakingly sourced from various vineyards during our Loire Valley wine trail. For sheer indulgence, there was a homemade Crème Renversée (or flan), an egg-yellow and wobbly dessert swimming in amber caramel, carried over to the table on a crystal tray. I’m not a fan of the sweet, but I dove in ravenously, as if to show gratitude to the French holy trinity of egg, sugar and milk.
What I’ve come to realise is that my concept of rural French dining is far from true and even when the rich food classes are concerned, the term ‘terroir’ comes heavily into play. In the heart of the Loire Valley, goat’s cheese, rillette and bread are pretty much indispensable, much to my waistline’s despair. After all, we are all just prisoners here, of our own device. As I sat at the table at every meal, an exercise in moderation was perhaps the toughest challenge I could face. Greed and the need to understand the energy of the countryside consumed me. Those skinny jeans can wait, because I call dibs on the Andouillette.