Food and Wine of the Western Loire
The Loire Valley is one of France’s most exciting culinary regions. The sea, rivers, forests, and farms offer a bounty of fresh ingredients that make the Loire a wonderland of fine and varied cuisine. Likewise, few regions in the world can match the variety and quality of Loire Valley’s white, red, rose, sweet, dry and sparkling wines. Below is a sampling of the rich variety of food found in the Western Loire and the wines that best accompany them.
Sea Food and Fish.
Loire cuisine features marvelous seafood: oysters, mussels, shrimps, prawns, anchovies and sardines. Oysters on the half-shell are one of the Loire’s most enjoyable culinary experiences. Vendée-Atlantic Oysters. (distinctively colored Vendée Atlantic oysters found in the port at Bec), are especially valued. Muscadets are also the classic wine for pairing with oysters, owing to their crisp, tart and minerally character.
Mussels à la marinière and mussel soup with saffron are also among the region’s superb seafood dishes. Mussels are traditionally raised on posts in the Bay of Aguillon and are cultivated with much the same care as the oyster. Anchovies and sardines from Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie and La Turballe are also widely available. From June to September baby sardines called Petits are caught and sold in Nantes. You can eat them raw or with butter and bread. Muscadets and Sauvingnieres pair beautifully with mussels, anchovies and other seafood dishes.
Freshwater fish such as salmon and lamprey, which spawn in the Loire are among the glories of the Valley’s cuisine. Matelote d’anguilles, a stew made of eels and red wine, a regional specialty, is ideally paired with a light red from Chinon, Bourgueil or Samur. Roast salmon or turbot served with a beurre blanc can also be heavenly. The Loire’s other noteworthy fish include sandre, or zander, often described as pikeperch, pike, bream, and shad. All these fish can taste heavenly, if prepared simply and paired with a ripe and flavorful Chenin Blanc. Simple grilled fish, pan-seared halibut, and above all freshwater whitebait, can also be paired nicely with Muscadet.
Beurre blanc is the Nantai’s most famous cultinary contribution. It is made with butter, shallots, and a reduction of dry white wine, and vinegar It is highly versatile accompanying fish, but also cooked or grilled vegetables like asparagus. Muscadet may have been the wine used in the original beurre blanc.
Pork and Charcuterie.
Pork is one of the most important components of Loire gastronomy. It is prepared in a variety of ways, most notably stewed in traditional dishes like the 17th century noisettes de porc aux pruneaux de Tours which combines pork, prunes, cream and Vouvray. Another pork dish is charbonnée, a pig stew with onions cooked in a Chinon or other red wine. Pig cookery also includes fressure (pork hash), grilled Vendée ham, lard Nantais (pork cutlets), saucisses au Muscadet and Gouge, a dense, blood-thickened sausage filled with onions
The Loire Valley is widely recognized for its charcuterie which is a catch-all description for processed meat products, mainly based on pork. It includes patés, terrines, rillettes, rillauds, rillons, all kinds of preserved sausages (saucisson sec) and air-dried ham. Rillauds, rillettes and rillons were introduced in Anjou centuries ago and are traditionally made by cooking cubed pork meat in its own fat in large uncovered cast iron kettles with salt for varying lengths up to 6 hours. Vouvray is always added to a batch which is cooked until golden grown. A good selection of charcuterie with some cornichons and/or beets and a crusty baguette makes a fine meal. Rillets added to quiches or spread on toasted bread (Balzac called rillets “brown pig jam”) are a special delight. Gamay or other light reds are perfect wines for charcuterie.
Chicken, Duck, Rabbit, Frogs’ Legs.
Stews of hare or fowl prepared with white wine are popular in the Naatais. So are Frogs’ legs Provencal, sautéed with garlic and parsley. Challan ducks, also known as Nantais ducks are prized for their flavor. Canard au Muscadet, Roast duck with pan juices deglazed with Muscadet, is a superb dish which can be paired nicely with Muscadet, itself, or other high acid whites like Sauvignon Blanc. In Challans or in Loué, free-range, grain-fed chickens make for remarkably tender and delicious meat and are generally roasted or prepared as fricassee de poulet and served with light reds or even semi dry chenin. These wines are also delicious with rabbit (lievre a la royale), hare stew, turkey and game birds. And for local fois gras, fresh tasting wines with good acidity work well, but old vintages of moelleux are divine.
Wild Game and Roast Meat.
The Loire Valley and the Sologne, in particular, are rich with wild game and many restaurants in the Sologne specialize in venison, young boar, hare, and quail, both wild and farm raised. The wines of Chinon, Bourgueil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Saumur Champigny flatter grilled or roasted meat such as grilled steak with shallots, roast leg of lamb, and cul de veau (rump of veal). The richer wines are especially well suited to the big roasts and the lighter ones, slightly chilled, are ideal wines for the lighter meats.
The Nantes Valley’s early vegetables, in particular mâche, offer quality epicurean fare. Anjou grows exceptional vegetables: tomatoes, white radishes, herbs, and gray shallots for beurre blanc. Small radishes with butter often open a Nantais meal. Thick sliced potatoes and tomatoes dressed with walnut oil vinaigrette, Noirmoutier potatoes or white beans called mogettes cooked in crocks and doused with butter can be meals in themselves. So can wild mushrooms such girolles (chanterelles) and horns of plenty which pair perfectly with earthy reds.
Mushrooms. (Champignon de Paris)
Most of the mushrooms cultivated in France—75% of them---come from the Saumur region. They’re often called champignon de Paris since they were originally grown in the dark quarries around Paris. However, beginning in the early 1900s the Loire Valley became the most important center of mushroom production which is carried out in countless dark, damp caves “Troglodyte Gardens” in the Saumur region.
Strawberries, raspberries, fraises de bois, white peaches, apricots and many varieties of apples all contribute to selected desserts. In Saumur, strawberries are served with sweet sparkling wine. Apples are used for fruit tarts such as the celebrated tarte Tatin (upside-down apple tart) which is best paired with semi-dry Vouvray. Pears are stewed in wine or sautéed; crêpes are stuffed with pear, apple compote or apricot and flambéed with rum or laced with Cointreau. Cointreau was reputedly invented in the 19th century in a small confectioner’s shop in Angers.