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