LUNCH in the Loire. Four words as evocative as they come. Across the hilltop village the noon bell peals from the Benedictine church. The local rose is crisp and smells of petals. The accompanying nibbles are herby and intense. The water is local, richly mineral. We are alone in a still calm dining room, eavesdropping on the preparations in the kitchen behind us.
Thierry And Geraldine FernandesWe’ve been to visit the Maison de Pays in Ambierle to check out the local produce, then, on a friend’s recommendation, have dropped in to meet Géraldine and Thierry Fernandes, who run the Restaurant Le Prieure. This young couple have striven hard to win and keep a Michelin star in a village that, though stunningly beautiful, is well off any major tourist route.
This Loire is different. Not the broad valley dubbed the “orchard of France” with fairytale castles, famous wines and the broad Mother River moving inexorably towards its Atlantic estuary. This is the unsung departement to the south east in the Rhone-Alpes region. Lyon is an hour and half away to the south east by winding, slow roads. Go north and you are soon in Burgundy with its own potent allure.
The area around Ambierle is a wine-growing area, too, but the Cote Roannaise is hardly the Cote d’Or. Even its speciality, fruity reds from the gamay grape, have an immensely higher profile in nearby Beaujolais. Still the local gamays slither down a treat, accompanying the resident Charolais beef.
The low key nature of the Roannaise area, around the workaday Loire river port of Roanne, is its appeal. The real off the beaten track France can sound a cliche but it’s all here. Rolling, forested, walking country, vineyards, fine food and a rich architectural history sell it for me.
Take Ambierle. It’s classified as a “village de caractère”. With its bulky Gothic church, topped by a colourful Burgundian-style tiled roof, it looks good from afar and close to. We had the church to ourselves and admired its stained glass and spectacular Dutch altarpiece, but what made us hold our breath was the engraved roll call of dead in the Great War. Fathers, brothers, wiped out. How hard it must have been to continue to cultivate the rich land after the war with so few left to work on it.
To the hum of bees we walked across the Monts de las Madeleine vineyards to neighbouring St Haon Le Chatel, more rustic than Ambierle, very medieval in feel with its fortifications. Coffee and croissants in the square was a quintessentially French treat.
Afterwards we tasted wine at Domaine de Fontenay with its panorama of the Roannaise vineyards. Here Englishman Simon Hawkins has spent 20 years restoring the estate and pursuing his dream of producing wines of irreproachable purity, based on natural sugar levels.
Simon also offers simple B&B accommodation (recommended by the Alastair Sawday guide). Not far to stagger after an over-enthusiastic tasting. We, alas, had to spit out. We were driving on to our prearranged lodging off the road into Roanne.
The hugely hospitable, stylish Chateau de Champlong in Villerest is part of Night In A Loire Chateaux (www.nuitauchateaudanslaloire.com), an association of independent chateaux, some like Champlong very much hotel/restaurants, while others are private homes offering lodgings.
A typical, more homely example is the 16th century Chateau de Tigny, beautifully restored by a semi-retired Wiltshire builder. The specialist interest here is a 12 acre carp lake, but the house with twin towers, moat and rare pigeonaire entrance is a perfect hideaway even if fishing isn’t your bag. Its two suites to rent are delightful and affordable.
It’s very handy for the nearby town of Charlieu, which is packed with historical interest from the remains of its ninth century Benedictine abbey to stone and half-timbered mansions from across the centuries. The Relais de L’Abbaye (on the outskirtsand not close to the Abbey) offers excellent traditional food. I recommend the starter of frog’s legs and snails in a vol au vent, the Charolais beef and the Vieilles Vignes red from Robert Serol.
The 18th century Charlieu Hospital building houses both the Silk Museum, celebrating this weaving town’s continuing association with haute couture and a Hospital Museum, whose preserved ward strikingly reveals the enlightened medical care once provided by the nuns.
But my favourite spot here is the Convent of the Cordeliers with its cruck barnlike 14th century single nave church, still in the throes of restoration, and cloister whose carved capitals feature the Vices and Virtues. The porcupine represents justice, the dog fidelity, the owl wisdom and the snake hypocrisy. Various plant motifs are quite exquisite, too.
Of course, all roads in the Roannaise eventually lead to Roanne itself. Its international fame is down to two brothers, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, who last century transformed the family’s humble hotel/restaurant by the station into the three Michelin-starred foodie mecca it remains today.
For 30 years I have been cooking the Troisgros’ nouvelle cuisine classic, salmon in sorrel sauce, created off the cuff when there was a glut of sorrel left over from soup-making. I’m told the dish still makes the menu today but in a more refined form as Pierre’s son Michel reinvents the cuisine with more Japanese influences. Mains are between 80 and 100 euros!
We dined in the Maison Troisgros’ more casual Cafe Epicerie Le Central and were more than delighted with our traditional 23 euro three course prix fixe menu with wine (Robert Serol again).
The Cafe Epicerie manages to look ultra smart while retaining a traditional cafe/deli ambience. The final dining room of our trip to the region was quite different. High in the rugged, forested mountains of the Pilat “parc naturel regional” two hours south we stayed over at another member of “Une Nuit” group, Chateau Bobigneux.
It’s a remote, turreted manor house, whose sheer sandstone solidity impresses. Full of the kind of antique furniture that just won’t budge, it is in truth more characterful than luxurious but it proves a perfect refuge after a stormswept car journey via St Etienne.
The neighbouring farming couple who bought Bobigneux and turned it into an auberge offer outstanding rustic food, much of it using their family produce and the wine list is impressive, too (St Joseph and Condrieu and other mighty Rhone wine appellations are just down the road). It’s the kind of Chateau that would be dismissed in that poncier, more famous Loire. Their loss.
Don't miss Neil Sowerb's foodie adventures in Lyon: open here
Ecoles des 3 PontsGetting there:
bmi Regional offers up to five flights per week (Monday – Friday) from Manchester Airport to Lyon. Fares start from just £59 one way, including taxes and charges (promotional fare for bookings up until July 31, 2012, travel period from October 1 2012 until March 31, 2013). bmi Regional operates over 300 flights a week throughout the UK and Europe and was recently voted the UK’s most punctual airline for the seventh year in a row. For more information, visit www.flybmi.com. Book now using your smartphone: http://mobile.flybmi.com
Roanne is a 90 minute drive north east of Lyon. Chateau de Bobigneux is a similar distance to the south east but with more autoroute driving, saving time.
Chateaux de Champlong, 100 Chemin de la Chapelle, 42300 Villerest www.chateau-de-champlong.com.
Chateau de Bobigneux , 42220 Saint Sauveur en Rue www.chateau-bobigneux.com.
Chateau de Tigny Pouilly-Sous-Charlieu, 42720 www.chateaudetigny.co.uk.
For full details of ‘A Night In A Loire Chateaux’ visit www.nuitauchateaudanslaloire.com. Rates are very reasonable.
Epicerie Central, 58 cours de la République 42300 Roanne (closed Sunday and Monday) +(33) 04 77 67 72 72 www.troisgros.fr/english/central_cafe.php.
Relais de l’Abbaye, Charlieu Relais de l’Abbaye, 415 route du Beaujolais 42190 Charlieu (+33 (0)4 77 60 00 88 www.relais-abbaye.fr).
Restaurant Le Prieuré, Rue Mairie 42820 Ambierle (04 77 65 63 24, www.restaurant-le-prieure-ambierle.com)
Wine tasting there:
Domaine du Fontenay, 42 155 Villemontais Tel. +33(0)4 77 63 12 22 or +33 (0)6 81 033 033 www.domainedufontenay.com.
Domain Robert Serol, Les Estinaudes, 42730 Renaison Tel. +33 (0)4 77 64 44 04 www.domaine-serol.com.
Learn to cook in Roanne:
Be taught by a former chef at Le Prieure and Cafe Central and get lessons in French (all levels of ability) at the residential cookery school, L’Ecole des Trois Ponts, 645 rue Marechale Foch, Riorges Tel +33(0)4 77 71 53 00 www.3ponts.edu.
Tourist information for the region:
Parking options at Manchester Airport:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks – low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day.
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