Dining in the Loire Valley
Finesse rather than fireworks marks the gastronomy of this gentle region, known for exceptional white wines, delicate fish, and France's most bountiful fruits and vegetables.
The serene Loire imposes its placid personality throughout this fertile valley. The weather, too, is calm and cool, ideal for creating the Loire's diverse and memorable wines, from the elegant and refined Savennières to the mildly sweet, pretty-in-pink rosés of the Anjou. No big, bold, heavily tannic wines here. The culinary repertoire evokes a sense of the good life, with a nod to the royal legacy of châteaux living over centuries past. Many dishes are presented simply, and they couldn't be better: a perfect pike perch, called sandre, from the river, bathed in a silky beurre blanc; coq au vin prepared with a fruity red Sancerre; a tender fillet of beef in a Chinon red-wine reduction. It is the wines that highlight the Loire's gastronomic scene, and these alone justify a trip here—although, of course, you could make time to visit a château or two while you're in the neighborhood.
Of Cabbages and Kings
The great kitchens of the royal households that set up throughout the Loire planned menus around the magnificent produce that thrives in this fecund region dubbed "the Garden of France." Local cooks still do. There are fat white asparagus in the spring; peas, red cherries, haricots verts, artichokes, and lettuces in the summer; followed by apples, pears, cabbages, and pumpkins in the fall.
White Wines (Reds, Too!)
The Loire region boasts not only dazzling châteaux, but also some of the best wines in France—this is an important region for white-wine lovers, thanks to great chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc grapes. Top white appellations to imbibe, starting at the eastern end of the Loire and moving west, include flinty Sancerres, slightly smoky Pouilly-Fumés, vigorous and complex Vouvrays, distinguished Savennières, sparkling Champagne-style Saumurs, and finally light, dry Muscadets, perfect with oysters on the half shell.
In the realm of reds, try the raspberry-scented reds of Touraine, the heartier Chinons and Bourgueils, and the elegant rosés of the Anjou. For tastings, just follow the "Dégustation" signs, though it's always a good idea to call ahead.
Check out Vinci Cave in Amboise (02–47–23–41–52 www.vinci-cave.fr); Charles Joguet in Chinon (02–47–58–55–53 www.charlesjoguet.com); Bouvet-Ladubay in Saumur (02–41–83–83–83 www.bouvet-ladubay.fr); and the Maison du Vin d'Angers (02–41–88–81–13 www.vinsdeloire.fr).
This luscious "upside-down" apple tart is sometimes claimed by Normandy, but originated, so legend has it, at the Hôtel Tatin in the Loire Valley town of Beuvron-Lamotte south of Orléans.
The best tarte Tatins are made with deeply caramelized apples cooked under a buttery short-crust pastry, then inverted and served while still warm.
Made with a shallot, wine vinegar, and fish-stock reduction, and swirled with lots of butter, this iconic white sauce originated in the western Loire about a century ago in the kitchen of an aristocrat whose chef devised this variation on the classic béarnaise. Beurre blanc is the perfect accompaniment to the Loire's delicate shad and pike.
With your glass of Pouilly-Fumé, there are few things better than one of the region's tangy, herby, and assertive goat cheeses.
Among the best, appellation controlled and farmhouse made: the squat, pyramid-shape Pouligny-Saint-Pierre; the creamy, cylindrical Sainte-Maure de Touraine; and the piquant Crottins de Chavignol from Sancerre.
Try a warmed and gooey Crottin atop a salad for a real treat.