With a great choice of wine, freshwater fish and other locla delicacies, Tours is the place to stock up on food in the Loire Valley, as Victoria Trott finds out
Rising in the Ardèche and entering the sea at St-Nazaire in Loire-Atlantique, the Loire is France’s longest river at 1012 km (629 miles). In the middle, covering four départements in the Centre, is the Val de Loire or Loire Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its châteaux and wines. Thanks to its abundance of orchard fruits and early season vegetables, the area is known as “the garden of France” — which makes it an ideal place for a self-catering break.
I decide to base myself in Tours, the largest city in the Centre and the capital of the Indre-et-Loire département. Eager to find out about the local produce, I make my first port of call Le Martin Bleu, a restaurant in the newer, south part of town.
Chef Florent Martin tells me: “In Tours, it’s not really about regional dishes; it’s more about the local produce. I’m not constrained by particular recipes; I create dishes using the local products, of which there are many. People here like their food so you’ll find a good variety of products in the shops and of good quality.”
He continues: “I’m known for my fish dishes, especially freshwater fish from the Loire: mainly mullet, perch, pike, carp and eel. I get deliveries a couple of times a week from one of the two remaining fishermen working in Tours. Using local products and artisans is important to me.”
I head up unremarkable Avenue de Grammont and turn right towards the station, which dates from 1898 and was designed by Victor Laloux, who was also responsible for the Gare d’Orsay (now Musée d’Orsay) in Paris. Opposite, on the west side of the square is Briocherie Lelong. Opened in 1907, this is said to be France’s only specialist brioche shop and its shelves are stacked with plain, sweet and savoury sorts.
On the other side of Boulevard Heurteloup, the main thoroughfare which separates the new town from the old, is the Centre de Congrès Vinci: a glass and steel conference centre designed by Jean Nouvel. North of here is the oldest part of Tours where you’ll find the Cathédral St-Gatien, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, whose garden is an idyllic place for a picnic, and the remains of the château, which now hosts temporary art exhibitions.
I turn left off Rue de la Barre into Rue Colbert, the old road into town, whose townhouses are now inhabited by restaurants, cafés and food shops. Of note are Les Comptoirs de l’Affiné, a contemporary wine bar and deli, and Hansel and Gretel, an old-fashioned sweet shop and tea room – look out for the nougat and pavés de Tours (praline chocolates).
Crossing Rue Nationale, the home of high-street shopping and down which the city’s new trams run, I come to L’Expérience Macaron whose minimalist boutique is lined with rows of sweet and savoury macarons: I can recommend the Roquefort with walnuts and the Blackcurrant Geranium. The creator, Patrick Migeon, who trained with Lenôtre in Paris, also makes exquisite cakes.
This western part of town is where the best food shopping is to be found. But first I want to learn about the local wine. Crossing Place Plumereau, with its half-timbered houses and café-idling students, I head to La Maison des Vins de Loire in Rue du Grand Marché.
Manager Marie-Colombe Haudebert-Beaufrez tells me: “The Loire Valley is France’s third largest wine production area and the country’s leading producer of white wines and AOC sparkling wines. There are 87 appellations and we stock about 50 in the shop.”
She continues: “In the vineyards immediately to the east of Tours white wines are produced, notably Vouvray and Touraine, and to the west are the reds: Chinon and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil. We have several of the latter here that would be a good accompaniment to your fish dish.”
Continuing into Place du Grand Marché, it comes as no surprise that, along with Paris-Rungis, and Dijon (so far), Tours was recently made a Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie. This project, linked to French food being named part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, aims to celebrate, promote and develop France’s cities renowned for their individual gastronomic richness.
At No. 59 is Pâtisserie Dause Léger, whose artistic chocolate creations have won awards at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris and whose exotic cakes like la tartelette évasion (a tart made with red fruits and lime) attract a regular stream of faithful customers. At No. 52 Coffea is the place to buy freshly ground coffee while La Balade Gourmande at No.26 is giant hamper of regional specialities from goats’ cheese crackers to vinegar aged in oak barrels and from venison terrine to a strawberry liqueur.
Les Halles de Tours in Place Gaston Pailhou might be housed in an uninviting austere 1970s building but inside you’ll find 38 stalls selling the finest foods from the region. Three fishmongers sell fish from the Loire and beyond. Hardouin specialises in rillettes (potted meat) and andouillettes (chitterling sausages) while Volaille Gibiers Ledoux stocks prized Racan chicken. Goats’ cheese is the main production in the area and Les Fromages du Moulin, owned by Meilleur Ouvrier de France Rodolphe Le Meunier, is the place to go for the likes of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. Four fruit shops sell the local fruits; Too Fruits is organic. An open-air market takes place outside on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.
Picking up some bread from Hardouin Boulanger to accompany my cheese, I walk five minutes north to the banks of France’s longest river for a waterside picnic. I’m just sorry that I’m not here in summer to enjoy the guinguette – an open-air dance hall on the river bank next to the 15-arch 18th-century Pont Wilson, the city’s oldest bridge.
LES BONNES ADRESSES
13 Place Général Leclerc
Tel: 02 47 05 57 77
39 Place du Grand Marché
Tel: 02 47 76 02 63
Also in Les Halles
52 Place du Grand Marché
Tel: 02 47 38 65 61
La Balade Gourmande
26 Place du Grand Marché
Tel: 02 47 75 11 65
Les Comptoirs de l’Affiné
73 Rue Colbert
Tel: 02 46 10 22 96
59 Place du Grand Marché
Tel: 02 47 37 85 99
7 Rue du Commerce
Tel: 02 47 27 02 02
Hansel and Gretel
107 Rue Colbert
Tel: 02 47 05 58 65
La Maison des Vins de Loire
25 Rue du Grand Marché
Tel: 02 47 60 55 21