Gloire de la Loire

Food - Bee Wilson joins Victoria Moore in a palate bonanza

In theory at least, the map of France can be drawn in its regional foods. To say "tomatoes, anchovies, black olives, aioli, green beans, figs" immediately conjures up Provence. Butter, cream, mussels, tripe, Camembert are the benchmark flavours of Normandy; quiche, smoked sausage, choucroute those of Alsace or Lorraine. But the area to which the following list belongs is harder to place: zander, lentils, mushrooms, partridge, goat's cheese, honey, apples, saffron, marzipan, and pralines. In fact, the answer is the Loire valley, the slap-bang-middle of France, a region "full of game", forests and "limpid rivers where fish abound", if the brochure is to be believed. The French tourist board would like the Loire's food and wine to be better known.

To this end, my co-columnist Victoria and I were invited to an evening of Loire comestibles at Berry Bros on St James's Street, London, attended by travel reps and journalists and a man from Good Cheese magazine. Not being accustomed to free dinners (Geoffrey Robinson's generosity only extends so far), I was excessively pleased. Sancerre had been set out on trays in the Berry cellars, delicately sipped by Victoria, as I ate as many complimentary nibbles as possible. Best of these was a majestic pastry coffin packed with savoury chopped duck with a centre of smooth foie gras. It looked like a vast pork pie, cut in segments rich with jelly and fat, but tasted far lighter. We were told it was originally invented for Mme de Maintenon, the moralising mistress of Louis XIV. There were also croutes covered with freshwater fish pates, in honour of the Loire's lakes and rivers: pike with chervil, sturgeon and crayfish.

The next course was a heavenly soup of Berry lentils made with ceps and a lot of cream. I was sitting next to the chef, Alain Nonnet, who had flown in from Issoudun. He told me, white hat quivering with pride, that for thirty years he had cooked this dish all over the world to showcase the fine green lentils of Berry (the region in France, not the wine merchant!), and that every nation so far had been bowled over. So were we. Victoria was feeling fragile from some over-conscientious drinks columnist work the night before, but still managed every mouthful, declaring her passion for green lentils as she ate.

Did you know that 80 per cent of Puy lentil production actually takes place in Berry, and is shipped back to Puy only to be put in little bags? Nor did I. Nor that there are over 1,000 lakes in Berry, as a kindly rep informed us. Nor had I ever tasted zander, one of the great freshwater fish of the Loire, which is said to taste like a cross between pike and perch. Our plates of zander swam in a mauve Chinon sauce, tempered with apple, and shored up with an island of pureed celeriac.

At this point, I felt the need to remove my straining jacket before the complimentary pudding. It was a marvellously catholic tarte tatin, bountiful with caramel sauce and a meringue-light saffron ice cream made with Gatinais saffron, a dish that reversed my previous reservations about the spice. Victoria looked overwhelmed. I was bewildered. Why were these strangers giving us all these delicious things, sloshing hundreds of pounds' worth of good wine in the half-drunk glasses of half-drunk hacks? As we slipped away, they smothered us with still more free stuff: a jar of blackberry jelly in a cellophaned basket, a tub of zander delice and a miniature box of pralines. How could this generosity be worth their while, these nice people from the French tourist board? It's not as if any food journalist would be so impressionable as to give gourmet Loire the write-up they want, just on account of a free tarte tatin and a few other little regional titbits.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy