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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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