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Gourmet Golf

France's Loire Valley Serves up a Heady Diet of First-Class Cuisine and Bargain Golf
William Echikson
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

Baron Marcel Bich, the inventor of the BIC pen and disposable razor, was 68 years old and an avid sportsman. He had sponsored two challenges to win sailing's ultimate award, the America's Cup, and he loved tennis. But when the baron's heart began to fail, a Japanese business partner suggested he switch to golf. The baron took his advice, and was soon impassioned about the game.

His problem was that no golf course of merit existed near his massive hunting estate in the Loire Valley, about an hour and a half southwest of Paris by car. What's a determined billionaire to do? Nothing less than build his own golf resort, and not just any 18 holes. "He wanted a championship course, something that would show the French what golf was meant to be," recalls Jim Shirley, the landscape engineer whom Bich hired along with Houston golf architect Robert von Hagge to realize his dream.

In 1987, Les Bordes Golf Club, the embodiment of that dream, opened. A by-product of the dream's realization is what is arguably the greatest combined culinary/sporting experience on the globe. Scratch golfers and duffers alike can step off the fairways and enjoy the fruits of the Loire Valley's gardens, vineyards and forests at an array of first-rate restaurants.

Golf at Les Bordes inspires superlatives and generous comparisons. The wooded vistas, lush manicured fairways and slick greens suggest Augusta National. Giant fairway traps recall Doral's Blue Monster. Sharp tree-lined doglegs and spectacular water shots smack of TPC at Sawgrass. Les Bordes ties for No. 1 in Europe in the Peugeot Golf Guide, with a rating of 19 out of 20, equaled only by such better-known names as Spain's Valderrama, Scotland's Muirfield and Old Course, and Ireland's Ballybunion. Golf Travel's Guide to the World's Greatest Golf Destinations begins its review, "Of the many golf courses we have played, Les Bordes is perhaps the most memorable."

Amazingly, on a clear, crisp autumn day, my son and I had this most memorable course almost to ourselves. Greens fees? A reasonable $45 on weekdays. After our round, we enjoyed a beer and hot chocolate in the hunting lodge in front of a roaring fireplace under a great cathedral-beamed ceiling. That evening, the chef prepared a sumptuous feast, starting with foie gras followed by delicate venison fillets, which were hunted on the estate, and topped with quince and blackberry gelee. Dessert consisted of a generous cheese course followed by a heart-warming caramelized apple tarte tatin. Everything was washed down by a 1990 bottle of rich, plummy wine from the baron's own St.-Emilion Estate.

What a pity France remains much less known than Spain and Scotland as a European golfing destination. After a giant building boom during the last decade, the country boasts more than 600 courses. These aren't cheap cow pastures, either. Like Les Bordes, many are of championship quality set on an astounding diversity of terrain, from dune courses in the Basque country, to mountain vistas in the Alps, to the Mediterranean perfumes of the Côte d'Azur.

And yet, since the French still have not become golf fanatics, Americans conditioned on $150 resort greens fees will find that almost all of these courses are open to the public at reasonable, even robbery rates. Add legendary Gallic gastronomy, and both scratch players and duffers should be flocking with their clubs across the Atlantic.

When it comes to golfing and gorging, my first choice is the Loire Valley. This historic region is gentle and garden-like, full of rolling farmland and forests, choice vineyards and meandering rivers. Local cooking draws its strength from fresh local raw materials: from magnificent wild mushrooms, like cepes, girolles and chanterelles, to hearty venison and wild boar from the forests, to superb eels or pikes from the rivers. "This is a place to search out solitude, nature, tranquility -- the true values of nature," says Marie-Christine Clément, owner of the two-star Michelin Grand Hôtel du Lion d'Or in nearby Romorantin-Lanthenay. Visit in the spring and autumn to avoid the summer crowds while enjoying the freshest produce and the blooming landscape.

Ever since the Middle Ages, French kings and princes have built spectacular châteaux along the Loire and its tributaries. The region's golden age came under sixteenth-century King Francois I, who hired Renaissance craftsmen from Italy and hobnobbed with Leonardo da Vinci. Even after France's base of power shifted to Paris around 1600, aristocrats continued to erect luxurious palaces here. Today, France's new aristocracy -- its moneyed entrepreneurs such as the Biches -- continue to keep weekend residences in the valley. Happily for tourists, many of the old castles have been converted into luxurious hotels.

Although the French long have preferred endurance tests of soccer and cycling, British vacationers did bring a love for the links across the Channel at the end of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, the country's true historic courses are located in the favorite English haunts -- northern Channel resorts such as Le Touquet and on the Atlantic Coast around Biarritz. Then, in the 1980s, a building boom swept the entire country: from only 170 courses in 1987, more than 500 existed by 1992. "Everyone thought that golf was going to become the country's next passion, so they piled in," recalls Les Bordes' director Brian Sparks. Within a 30-minute drive of Les Bordes, more than a half dozen acceptable courses ring the forests and fields. In Cheverny, one pleasant set of 18 holes is built on the grounds of a perfectly preserved eighteenth-century château, where the count still lives on the upper floor and opens his living room to tourists in order to make ends meet.

There's only one problem -- a lack of golfers. The number of licenses issued by the French Golf Federation soared from 96,000 in 1986 to 300,000 last year, but that's not enough to support all the country's new courses. Many operations have gone bankrupt, which is one reason for the cut-rate greens fees. "We built everywhere, and no one paid attention to marketing, so soon there were courses 100 miles from the nearest town or four or five in the same small region," says Gilbert Constant, editor in chief of the Paris-based Golf Magazine. "Worse, almost all the courses were luxury products. That didn't correspond to our golfers, who were almost all beginners."

Les Bordes suffers from these pleasant problems of underplay and underexposure. No commercial gimmicks mar the complex; no giant resort hotel, no villas, no townhouses and no condos line the fairways, just a smattering of cottages built in the lean, low, regional vernacular. Originally just 20 rooms, they were recently expanded to a still-modest 40, located off of the 18th green. "They were built more to entertain the baron's friends than anything else," says Sparks. Baroness Bich herself designed the spacious and simple rooms, along with the clubhouse, which resembles a personal hunting lodge. Originally, the club had just two members, Baron Bich and his Japanese partner, Yoshiaki Sakurai. Even today, almost seven years after the baron's death, it still only has 30 members.

When architect von Hagge first viewed the property, he advised Bich against the project, arguing that the land was too marshy. But the persistent baron ordered the architect to do whatever was needed to drain land. Von Hagge proceeded to transform the drainage challenge into an advantage by creating lakes, ponds and streams. Twelve of the 18 holes, and all except one of the par 3s, bring water into play. Bich's favorite, the 507-yard sixth, calls for a short iron drive to stay short of a lake, followed by an exciting shot over water to the landing area. "The baron thought it represented a perfect reflection of the local landscape," says Sparks. The magnificent 558-yard 14th hole starts with a 200-yard drive over a pond before finishing on a dime-sized island green. Von Hagge also moved tons of earth to give the course his signature sculpted mounts and sharp, strenuous doglegs.

Not surprisingly, the 7,007-yard, par-72 course has won a reputation as a giant killer, particularly among the golf debutants who make up the French customers. Its record score is 71 by the best French professional, Jean Van de Velde -- a player whom Bich sponsored at the beginning of his career. "Some clients in the early days told Mr. Bich that the course was too difficult and too expensive," admits Sparks. In response, the baron commissioned nine more holes, then nine more, until arriving at today's 36 easy, but pleasant, extra holes -- no water, no traps, easy landing areas. Greens fees run for a mere $15 per round. "It's perfect for wives who have just begun to play," Sparks says.

Relax, though: the main course's killer reputation seems overdone. Five tee areas cater to different skill levels. My 7-year-old son played from the red tees, which only total 5,016 yards. He may have been the youngest player ever to do so, according to Sparks, but he enjoyed himself and got the ball over all but one of the water traps. I played about seven shots over my normal handicap, feeling exhilarated, not abused. "This is not a killer course," says landscape engineer Shirley. "It's just one that punishes you for mistakes." Since Bich's passing in 1994, the hazards have been softened a bit. The rough, once so wild that it was dubbed "hair," has been trimmed.

At the same time, the complex itself has been taken over by Bich's Japanese partner, Sakurai, who also owns the Old Course Hotel Golf Resort and Spa in St. Andrews and has pledged to respect Bich's wishes. Sakurai refuses any large real estate development and has not touched any of Bich's original mementos, which include a nineteenth-century Rodin statue that overlooks the immense putting green. Bich believed its pose mimicked a forehead in frustration of missing a putt. Also left intact is the cross on the sixth hole, dated 1874, that marks the spot where a former landowner's son died in a riding accident.

These special touches create quite a treat. Instead of being bombarded with the razzmatazz of most modern golf resort courses, here the player sets out on a genuine nature walk. Ducks and herons are in constant flight from one lake to another. Herds of deer make their way undisturbed across fairways. The only sound through the forests of oak, fir and birch is the cackle of pheasants. Twice a year, hunters are set loose to clear the forests and protect the course from being torn up by a surfeit of animals.

The downside, if you choose to see it that way, of this antiresort atmosphere is that nongolfers have little to do. No swimming pool. No tennis court. Just golf, or perhaps a walk in the exquisite forest. But this isn't a real problem, since plenty of interesting, short day trips are available in the surrounding area. Château de Chambord, only 15 minutes away, was Francois I's most extraordinary creation, an awe-inspiring collection of immense turrets and towers. Like Les Bordes, it initially was a hunting estate, and horseback riding is available. The Château de Chenonceau, just a bit farther away, is much more graceful, spanning the Cher River. And don't forget Cheverny, one of the few châteaux with their original furniture; the rest were emptied during the French Revolution. For true château lovers, other musts include Blois, Azay-le-Rideau, Amboise and Valancey.

The choice of eating spots is just as varied. More than a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants ring Les Bordes. The top-rated place is Lion d'Or in Romorantin-Lanthenay, about a half hour away. Many golfers choose to stay here, says owner Marie-Christine Clément. Her Grand Hôtel du Lion d'Or is housed in a sixteenth-century hunting lodge. It's been a hotel/restaurant since 1774. Under Clément's parents, the Lion d'Or became a center of gastronomy. But until her talented chef husband Didier took over the kitchen in 1980, the cooking was traditional -- full of heavy cream and wads of butter.

The menu has since been lightened, offering refined interpretations of local game specialties and innovative marriages from land and sea. I ate foie gras sprinkled with gingerbread and a cod wrapped in bacon. Both preparations were symphonies of textures and perfumes, hot and cold, sweet and salty. A bracing bottle of local Sauvignon Blanc from nearby Cheverny represented a wonderful accompaniment to the exciting meal. The drawback to Lion d'Or is its location in the center of a nondescript town and unconvincing decor. Ugly 1980s-vintage rugs and a jarring mixture of mirrors and marble walls mar the main dining rooms. A similar mix of bad taste ruins the otherwise comfortable bedrooms.

Much more appealing to the eyes is the Domaines des Hauts-De-Loire. Formerly a prince's hunting lodge, it's located in the middle of a splendid wooded park and redecorated with taste and style. You feel as if you're entering a true aristocratic home. This is a family operation, run hands-on by Marie-No"lle and Pierre-Alain Bonnigal.

The main dining room is elegant and understated below cozy wooden beams and a roaring fireplace, and chef Rémy Giraud merits his two Michelin stars. His menus change with the season. My autumn feast started with a salad sprinkled with local eel -- lightly breaded with a taste like lobster sans sliminess -- followed by soft scallops, their creamy texture complemented with crisp local mushrooms and crackling pieces of fried ham. "My philosophy is to make people feel like they are eating at home with many of the flavors and products of the region, while reworking, revising, lightening the preparations," says Giraud. His obligatory venison filets were highlighted with blueberries. Desserts were a perfectly executed Grand Marnier soufflé and a thick, mouthwatering chocolate fudge cake.

Spectacular, surprising wines capped the meal. The Loire is one of France's largest winegrowing areas, but its reputation among oenophiles has long been spotty. The local reds, often featuring Gamay grapes, can be weak and almost tasteless, and the whites can lack bite. But the Domaine des Hauts-De-Loire featured excellent choices, a sharp Sauvignon Blanc from Jacky Blot in nearby Montlouis and a surprising, full-bodied red made from Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Malbec grapes from Dominique Barbou in Oisly. The Bonnigals are delighted to give out the addresses of their producers, and we visited Oisly the next day, filling up a case of Barbou's special cuvee Angeline before heading home to Belgium. It cost only $7 a bottle -- but in quality it equaled wines two to three times the price. It is imported into the United States under the brand Domaine des Corbilliéres.

It's these surprising moderately priced jewels as much as the conventional starred formal dining rooms that sets the Loire apart from other French regions. Some of the best cooking here is what Americans would call comfort food, and a good example is Les Bordes's own restaurant. This is not a gastronomic hideaway, just a homey, heartwarming place aimed at satisfying the stomach. "I practice a classical cuisine, not fancy, just tasty," says chef Didier Girolet, who previously worked in the Hotel Meurice in Paris. Breakfasts consist of homemade breads, croissants, yogurt and fresh juices. Lunches are a buffet with platters of pâtés, vegetables, cold chicken and salmon, and fresh fruits. Each evening, there's a hearty three- or four-course prix fixe menu, accompanied by a limited choice of five or six reasonably priced wines, plus the excellent Baron de Bich St.-Emilion.

As we finished our last round and our last meal, I wondered how long Les Bordes would remain such an unspoiled jewel. It is a fragile masterpiece, one that still could be ruined. Sakurai is now nearing 80 years old, and his successor might not be so respectful of its unique heritage. France still could be overwhelmed by golf mania. Les Bordes alum Van de Velde finished second in the 1999 British Open -- admittedly after a spectacular final-round collapse. But he is now zeroing in on the top 50 in the world. "A real French star, like Seve Ballesteros [is for] Spain, could trigger a true golf boom," predicts Shirley. And there's talk, much deserved, of having Les Bordes host a major international championship. Until now, the club hasn't pushed hard for one, fearing that it lacked the necessary rooms and resources. But the Ryder Cup put Spain's Valderrama on the golfing map and a world championship might do a similar trick for Les Bordes. So don't hesitate. Make the next trip a surprising one to France's Loire Valley -- and golf and gorge before it is too late.

 

William Echikson is a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator, a sister publication of Cigar Aficionado.

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