The Loire is renowned for the softness of its climate and the richness of its soil, qualities that help produce some of the best fruit and vegetables you’ll find anywhere. From Anjou’s orchards come greengages, named Reine Claude after François I’s queen, and the succulent Anjou pear, Doyenné du Comice. Market stalls overflow with seasonal fruits, particularly local tiny sweet strawberries. Tours is famous for its French beans and Saumur for its potatoes and shallots. Asparagus, particularly the fleshy white variety, appears in soufflés, omelettes and other egg dishes as well as on its own, accompanied by vinaigrette made (if you’re lucky) with local walnut oil. Finally, from Berry, comes the humble lentil, whose green variety often accompanies salmon or trout.
Given the number of rivers that flow through the region, it’s hardly surprising that fish features on most restaurant menus, though this doesn’t guarantee that it’s from the Loire itself. Favourites are sandre (pikeperch, a fish native to Central Europe), usually served in the classic Loire beurre blanc sauce; stuffed bream; matelote (a kind of stew) of local eels softened in red wine and little smelt-like fishes served deep-fried (la friture).
The favoured meat of the Loire is game, and pheasant, guinea fowl, pigeon, duck, quails, young rabbit, venison and even wild boar are all hunted in the Sologne. They are served in rich sauces made from the wild mushrooms of the region’s forests or the common champignon de Paris, cultivated on a huge scale in caves cut out of the limestone rock near Saumur. Both Tours and Le Mans specialize in rillettes, or potted pork (rillauds in Anjou); in Touraine charcuteries you’ll also find pâté au biquion, made from pork, veal and young goat’s meat.
Touraine makes something of a cult of its goat’s cheese, and a local chèvre fermier (farm-produced goat’s cheese) can be a revelation. Four named goats’ cheeses are found on most boards: Ste-Maure is a long cylinder with a piece of straw running through the middle; Pouligny-St-Pierre and Valençay are pyramid-shaped; and Selles-sur-Cher is flat and round.
Though not as famous as the produce of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the Loire valley has some of the finest wines in France. Sancerre, the easternmost Loire appellation, produces perhaps the best white wines in the region from the great Sauvignon grape, and the whites of Muscadet around Nantes are a great accompaniment to the local shellfish. Touraine’s finest reds – Chinon, Bourgeuil and St-Nicolas de Bourgeuil – get their ruby colour from the Cabernet Franc grape, while many of its attractive white wines are made from the Chenin Blanc including the highly fashionable Jasnières. At the other end of the spectrum is the honeyed complexity of Côteaux du Layon’s dessert wines – best with blue cheese or foie gras rather than pudding. Saumur and Vouvray both have sparkling varieties, a fraction of the price of champagne and easily equal to the taste. The orange-y liqueur Cointreau is made in a distillery close to Angers and appears in many cocktails and puddings in the region.