France Food and Wine Journal

France Food and Wine Journal

My friends, family and associates in the wine and food business have been urging me to publish my journal of my March 2008 trip to France and Belgium (after I made the mistake of telling them I recorded nearly everything I ate and drank over the two week period), so here it is. I've cut this down by about half, but all the food and wine remains. It reads like a diary rather than an article, because that is what it is. I hope my readers enjoy reading about the lunches, dinners and wines I enjoyed. (Make no mistake about it, there was a bill for all this, two bills if you count the putting on of weight.)

Friday, February 29 – At Charles de Gaulle airport, I swept through immigration, got my bag in a few moments, and simply walked past customs. I rented an Audi and very quickly set off for Reims, a 90 minute drive. After showering, I ordered a Sole Meuniere at a local restaurant for lunch. The waiter took the fish off the bone for me right at the table. I then set off on foot to find the Mumm Champagne company for a tour, but could not find it (I later realized their map was for cars rather than pedestrians, all quite confusing). The remainder of the day was a struggle to stay awake until a reasonably late hour; after all, I had missed a full night of sleep and had jet lag also. I did this by taking several walks as well as dining out at the hotel restaurant (Chicken Supreme with a glass of ordinary Haut-Medoc Bordeaux). I managed to make it until about 9pm, then slept 11 hours.

Saturday, March 1 – In the morning I walked over to the Cathedral of Reims, then visited the nearby Palace of Tau, where many of the kings of France were traditionally crowned. I then walked about half an hour to the G.H. Martel Champagne house, where I was told they had no tours until 4pm, so I made a reservation and then toured the nearby Basilica of St. Remi. I walked back to the hotel area where I ate at an Alsatian Brasserie, having smoked meats, sausages and sauerkraut. After some TV watching I then walked back to Martel for a tour, in French, which involved tasting (and swallowing) four different champagnes. After more TV, I went out at about 8pm to dine in another Brasserie. This one featured what they call “Flammekueches,” a term of Alsatian origin for something that looks but does not feel like a pizza, i.e., a very light bread with toppings, in my case smoked salmon, scallops, shrimp and spinach. I enjoyed this with a half bottle of Alsatian Pinot Noir, and was successful in striking up conversations in French with the young couples on either side of me. Anyone who has tried this kind of thing can attest that this is not an easy thing to do, and so I was proud of myself.

Sunday, March 2 – I went to the Museum of Fine Arts intending to see the art, but they were having a chamber music concert which I attended and by the time it was over they were closing the museum for lunch. I got a Turkish sandwich and ate it in my room, then for the 2pm tour finally found Mumm. Their tour (this time in English) was bigger and better than Martel's but only one of the three Champagnes I sampled was really to my taste as compared to the four I had sampled at Martel. In both tours, I went far underground into the subterranean world under Reims, all carved out of chalk. I later ate dinner at another Brasserie (this seems to be all they have in this neighborhood) where I had half a bottle of Bourgogne Aligoté wine with Osso Bucco and tagliatele. Aligoté is the “other” white wine of Burgundy, known as the wine you use to make a Kir.

Monday, March 3 –Headed out from Reims at about 10:30 and got to Spa in Belgium at about 3pm, having had an Italian lunch (vitello milanese) in Bastogne on the way. I am North American representative for Dialogue Language Schools, headquartered in Spa. My colleague Jean-Luc and I talked business for several hours, he took me on a tour of Spa to show me how the town had changed in ten years (they now have some real tourist-oriented health and wellness facilities) then I had dinner with the three students then present, a South African, a Dutchman and an American woman I had previously talked to and sent to Dialogue, then up to write this, and so to bed.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008 – After breakfast, Jean-Luc and the assistant Gerdemie had a long strategic conference with me about the Dialogue business, then Jean-Luc and Claudine took me into Spa for lunch at a restaurant, with Champagne, a Margaux, foie gras, scallops, all very civilized. Later I helped move several cases of wine to the Dialogue cellar, which I was later told holds 3000 bottles. At dinner with the others we opened the Jacquesson Champagne I had brought in Reims and also had an Alsatian Pinot Noir, a better quality than the one I had had several days earlier at a restaurant in Reims.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008 – After breakfast, I left Spa at about 9:30 and got to the hotel in Bourges at about 5:00pm. The hotel in Bourges is an old Château on a lake, quite beautiful, the type of place I'd want to go to again. The receptionist recommended a traditional restaurant, but when I got there I discovered it was closed Wednesdays, so I went into town and found a Pakistani place where I had chicken biryani. I also ordered a half bottle of Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, a wine I'd read about but could not find in the US. It means literally “made from every which grape” and is usually a cheap mixture of Pinot Noir of low quality with Gamay. I didn't finish the bottle; this is a rough worker-wine, with some appeal, but I was worried about digestion issues. This was the third “hard to find in the US education wine” I have tried, including the Bourgogne Aligoté and the two Alsatian Pinot Noirs. It's nice to be able to access the half bottles.

Thursday, March 6, 2008 – I drove to the village of Sancerre which was beautiful and since perched high on a hill also very cold. Pre-tourist season, most of Sancerre was closed up. I then went to Pouilly-sur-Loire where I visited a small winery (Domaine Paul Corneau) and bought a bottle of 2006 Pouilly Fumé, which I think is the one bottle I will bring home. Of course I passed many vineyards and winemakers, but I didn't want to go in to too many tastings because you really have to buy a bottle. I then covered a lot of country to the west, couldn't find a restaurant for lunch and so ate bread and the local Crottin goat cheese, and finally arrived tired at my hotel in Tours.

At the hotel restaurant for dinner I had two wines: first a Touraine rosé I ordered by the glass and then a Chinon red which I ordered by the bottle, taking the remains back to the room with me. Neither was very good. The food was another story. I ordered a vegetable potage and then an andouiette, which is sausage made from innards, a delicacy I first discovered in Paris many years ago. It was in a rich Vouvray sauce and came with haricots verts. Excellent. Nothing like innards, I say.

I have already begun to notice in restaurants that they keep playing English-language pop music. This proves my point that even the French don't like their forgettable pop music. I had a good wine conversation with the waitress, though speaking in French is made more difficult when English-language songs are going off in the background. In an attempt to salvage the half bottle of the Chinon I took back to the room, I am going to let it aerate overnight and pump it out with the Vacu-Vin I took with me in the morning.

Friday, March 07, 2008 – I got to the wine village of Vouvray, which isn't far from Tours, about 10:30am. I had a lovely walk around hilly Vouvray, bought the French version of “Wine for Dummies” (good vocabulary for me), tasted and bought a sweet Vouvray wine (Domaine Guertin Brunet 2003), then ate a full lunch at about 12:30: duck paté with fig paste, braised lamb shank with white beans, a cheese plate, followed by an apple crepe with a pot of tea. Once again, I noted that French restaurants often have English or American music on the sound system, in this case the Animals doing “House of the Rising Sun;” needless to say the song took me back to my first hearing of it in 1964.

Content with a morning that included a great deal of walking, I went down the road to the medieval city of Amboise, visited the Château du Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last few years (1516-1519) and where he died (he was invited by the French crown), and then toured the large Château Royal d'Amboise, a huge castle. Now having toured several museums and Chateaux, I've had about enough of these and still think if you've seen one you've seen them all. Medieval Amboise is all tourist shops and half-timbered houses.

In both Vouvray and Amboise I spent a lot of time and attention on the buildings, which often are made of the local Tuffeau rock, which is so soft it crumbles in your hand. All the wine cellars are dug out of Tuffeau. There are many buildings that simply come out of the rock, many of which I photographed. Walls made of this rock are often reinforced by steel bars. Of course I learned about Tuffeau in wine school, but it was dramatic to see it for real, especially the way the buildings are built into the hills. You can get the wine sent to you in bottles in the states, but to see the real land you've got to go there. I got a true experience.

For dinner, again at the hotel, I had a potato potage then veal in a cream sauce with a scalloped potato gratin on the side. The Chinon red wine was not as good with the meal as it had been after aerating in my room some hours before; I left half a glass. I have the feeling that I have eaten too much.

Saturday, March 08, 2008 – I checked out of the hotel in Tours and had a lovely drive to Chinon, through forested land that had wild-boar crossing warnings. Stopped at a winery before Chinon, tasted and bought a white Chenin Blanc, very fresh and mineral-rich. This was not yet in the Chinon Appellation but rather Touraine Azay Le Rideau. This winery (Château de l'Aulée) is centered around a small Château with fields of Chenin Blanc radiating around, all of which I photographed. The wine is an oak-aged 2005 Vieilles Vignes.

In Chinon I toured the Chinon fortress, famous for the residence of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Joan of Arc also stayed in the castle some centuries later, and I saw her rooms. The fortress is not in good repair and has many portions closed off and under restoration, but it is a real stone castle, not some fancy Château.

Having earned my lunch by going up and down many stone steps, I dined in Chinon at the Restaurant At'Able (that's a pun on the French phrase “à table”) where I had my best meal yet, with Chinon red wine of course. My first course was a foie gras with mango julienne in a balsamic vinegar reduction, followed by tuna made two ways: pan-fried with caramelized beet and also pieces of rare tuna in a pastry crust served with frisee, spinach and ratatouille. As always, American music was playing, this time the tasteful song styling of Diana Krall. I finished the meal with goat cheeses from Touraine and Valencay and a cow's milk cheese also.

Leaving Chinon for Bourgeuil I stopped in a small cellar, the Domaine des Béguineries, had a good conversation with the winemaker M. Pelletier, and I bought two excellent bottles of red Chinon (2005 Réserve de Satis and 2004 Vieilles Vignes, each from a different vineyard). I then went to nearby Bourgeuil, the other major Touraine Cabernet Franc appellation, where I bought two bottles of red Bourgeuil in a shop (Domaine des Forges Vieilles Vignes 2002 and Manoir de Brûlon 2004).

I moved on to my hotel in suburban Angers where I had dinner at the hotel. There were a lot of people there including a few families with kids, all French. This was not the gastronomic tour de force of this afternoon, yet it was awfully good. I started with the bitter aperitif Suze which people had been telling me I might like because I like bitter tastes – the waiter gave me the Suze glass as a gift for my sister Susie – and then had the hors d'oeuvres buffet: huge chunks of French bacon, mache greens, terrine de boeuf, white asparagus, poached eggs, salade médina (made with couscous), which was lightly vinegared and nicely spiced. The wine was a half bottle – love those half bottles – of Château le Noé Muscadet Sévre-et-Maine sur Lie, a wine from the pays Nantais near the Atlantic mouth of the Loire that is meant to go with seafood. Of course I had fish – filet of bar (European bass) with rice, no vegetables.

Sunday, March 09, 2008 – Woke up at 8am. Rainy day. It also being Sunday, I decided to simply kill the time in the hotel and not drive in the rain unnecessarily. Fortunately there are three restaurants just steps away from the hotel.

For lunch I ate at the nearby Restaurant L'Hoirie, a fine meal which cost me nearly the equivalent of $100, but why else am I in France? The place, airy and lovely, was filled with couples and whole families in for Sunday lunch. The menu is neo-traditional. On being seated I was presented with a plate of three amuse geules consisting of a salmon rillete, some baked parmesan, and a lentil dish. I ordered a half bottle of white Chenin Blanc wine from Savenièrres, the area I would have visited today but for the rain: a golden Château de Chamboureau with notes of apricot, pineapple, grapefruit, caramel and a slightly bitter minerality As an appetizer I had scallops and langoustines with wilted greens, then as a main course lamb chops with fragrant herbed mashed potatoes, slices of bacon, greens and a baked brie-like cheese over toast.

The wine was potent (at 14% alcohol). I wisely canceled the cheese plate I had ordered. After I asked for the check and indicated no dessert, they nevertheless presented me with a crème de menthe and a platter of many different cookies and madeleines, none of which I ate (but it was certainly stylish). I am used to wine, but felt this one afterward and had to lie down, until I got up to make these notes at 3:15pm.

After writing a bit and watching some forgettable TV, I went out on foot about 8pm to a chain restaurant called Grill Courtpaille, a family restaurant that specializes in grilled meats. I had a green salad, pork ribs and a baked potato with sour cream and béarnaise sauce. The pork quality was excellent, nicely spiced as well, and the yellow potato was tasty also. I had a 25cl pichet of Côte de Ventoux, a pale purple wine that wasn't bad, not too tannic, a little stemmy, fruity and quite drinkable. That's a third of a bottle and I'm glad I didn't have more after this afternoon's potent Savenièrre. Missing the Savenièrre countryside was, of course, a shame.

Monday, March 9, 2008 – After waiting out a terrible thunder storm, I finally got everything packed into the car and then had a surprisingly easy trip to Brittany, with better weather and even some sunshine on the way. I had a nice lunch in Rennes on the way, sauerkraut with some lovely smoked meats. The restaurant is called Le Relais du Bois du Soeuvres and is actually in the town of Vern sur Seiche.

Almost immediately after my arrival my host Bernard and I began to work on the Dialogue English-language web pages together, though Veronique made me an herbal tea. I played electric guitar with the son of the family, Theo, 13, then went to bed relatively early after dinner (salmon quiche with a Givry wine they provided which I think was a little off – somewhat sour). I had to set my alarm for 6:30 to get an early start for Mont-Saint-Michel to catch the appropriate tide.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 – Bernard took me to Mont-Saint-Michel and environs, which took all morning and half the afternoon. Overcast but no real problem rain. At the Café Licorne (unicorn) in Saint Malo, I had a traditional Breton Galette, a buckwheat pancake with scallops, bacon, leeks and a cream sauce, with a traditional Breton artisanal cider (5% alcohol).

We had dinner out with friends (Jean-Paul and Marie) who run a catering service and restaurant. A great convivial evening, starting with a Loire sparkling wine (excellent, and a new experience for me), followed by a Nantes Muscadet, a Buzet (red Bordeaux-like wine from the southwest) and finally my sweet Vouvray dessert wine. For food, we started with their home-made smoked salmon and charcuterie – sausage, and country paté – followed by a veal stew, very tender, and an apple tart for dessert. I drank and ate a bit much, but it was fun, and the kind of a real privilege most tourists never enjoy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 – Woke up needing much restoration, but the sun was out, so after breakfast I walked around the property taking photographs. We had a fabulous lunch (unfortunately unrecorded) at Jean-Paul and Marie's restaurant (with an excellent Alsatian Gewurztraminer). Jean-Paul gave me a complete tour of the kitchen. Jean-Paul and Marie came over to the house later for dinner – very convivial and a great opportunity for me to speak French. We made a small dent into the wine I had brought (first the white Château de l'Aulée Touraine Azay Le Rideau Vieilles Vignes 2005 and then the red Domaine des Forges Bourgeuil Vieilles Vignes 2002), but I will leave Bernard and Veronique with several bottles.

Thursday, March 13, 2008 – This morning spent an hour with one of the outside teachers Dialogue has trained for the Brittany center. We had an excellent conversation, partially with Bernard in attendance. I had lunch at the house with Bernard and Veronique. It was elaborate and I am stuffed. We started with unpeeled shrimp, with bread and mayonnaise, and local craft cider to drink. We then had a course of scallops gratin in cream sauce in the shell, followed by cheese, then salad, then a baked apple – all very local in theme (as Brittany, like Normandy, is known for its apples). For dinner Veronique made lamb stew and we had the 2006 Domaine Paul Corneau Pouilly Fumé I had previously purchased.

Friday, March 14, 2008 – Up at seven and after breakfast and packing, left Kerfiac at 10:15. Drove to Charles de Gaulle Airport (road food on the way), returned the car, and checked into the airport hotel. They had no restaurant. I used up the canned paté, biscottes and cheese I had. My first night with no wine. A pity. They flight home left me tired but happy, adjusting once again to the English language and to driving my Chevy instead of an Audi. Fortunately I have the satellite radio in the Malibu and it plays, to my delight, American music (it's the world's best). Now back to the exercise bike.

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When it comes to food and wine, France says it all.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Reims France

A brasserie in Reims.

Reims France

The Cathedral in Reims.

Reims France

In Reims, a city known for its Champagne, I chuckled at this particular poster offering to teach “Wall Street English.”

Bourges France

My hotel in Bourges was a small Château.

The lovely river Arnon at Charnost.

The lovely river Arnon at Charnost.

Sauvignon Blanc vines in Sancerre.

Sauvignon Blanc vines in Sancerre.

Panorama of the Loire at Sancerre.

Panorama of the Loire at Sancerre.

Vouvray France

House built right into yellow Tuffeau chalk at Vouvray.

The Cisse river at Vouvray.

The Cisse river at Vouvray.

Vouvray France

The village of Vouvray is not shy about its distinctive wines.

Chateau Royal Amboise France.

Château Royal at Amboise.

Chateau Royal Amboise France.

View of the Loire from Château Royale at Amboise.

Vineyard Chinon France

Panorama of vines as seen from Chinon Fortress.

The River Vienne Chinon France.

The River Vienne at Chinon.

Chinon Winemaker France

Winemaker M. Pelletier at Chinon shows off his Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc.

Mont St. Michel.

Mont St. Michel.

Farmhouse in Brittany

The farmhouse in Kerfiac in Brittany.

Dinner in Brittany

Hosts Bernard and Veronique ready to serve me dinner on my final night in Brittany.

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