“At my dinner parties, I like to serve cheese after the main course because you still have red wine in the glass, and it goes very well with the cheese. And that is what they do in France, and I think they set a good example.” – Mary Berry, British food writer and judge on The Great British Bake Off
While traveling about the Loire Valley, I was struck by the sight of homes carved into the exposed rock along the hillsides. Cave homes (as well as their dwellers) are referred to as “troglodytes“.
During the Middle Ages, most of the churches and chateaux in the Loire Valley were built using locally quarried limestone and upon completion of construction, many people moved into the old mines. Even though they were historically associated with poverty, for hundreds of years people built, worked and lived in these man-made caves. The French government estimates that there were as many as 45,000 cave dwellings in the Loire Valley and that until the 19th Century, half of the population of the Saumur region lived in troglodytes.
Interestingly enough, not all of them have been abandoned. It is not legal in France to excavate for a new cave dwelling, but the conversion of old ones is allowed. With new heating & ventilation technology, and heightened environmental awareness, there has been a “troglodyte renaissance” and they have become increasingly popular abodes.
Our Amboise hotel, “Le Choiseul” (described in Ambling About Amboise), is adjacent to and, in some locations, built above a series of such caves. The hotel buildings date from the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries and are made up of a harmonious grouping of three residences: the House of the Hermit, the House of the Duke and the House of the Apothecary.
The House of the Hermit owes its name to Francis de Paule, a Calabrian hermit who came to Amboise by order of Pope Sixtus IV to respond to the wishes of King Louis XI who was gravely ill and imploring the blessings of the holy man. The current residence is built on the very foundations of his former convent.
The House of the Duke is so named because it was granted to Stephen Francis, Duke of Choiseul, by King Louis XV. The duke became minister of finance and with the help of his armies, became a rich and important man of the day.
The House of the Apothecary was owned by Sir Jean Gastignon, chemist to kings Charles VII and François I, who prepared creams and ointments for the ladies of the court. Much of the property, including the cellars, dug into the hillside and the fabulous “Granaries of Caesar” had been granted to him in exchange for his services.
One chilly morning, as guests of the hotel, we were able to book a private tour of Les Greniers de César (although the conqueror of Gaul probably had nothing to do with them).
The remarkable complex of caves is composed of four levels (we were only allowed to visit Level II) and a stone staircase that had openings serving each level.
Level II is the main level and contains three rooms with impressive dimensions – one of them measuring 90m long! There were holes visible on the side walls that were cut to support ancient beams. I could visualize a great wooden floor spanning the walls.
At the bottom of the central room, four large silos with double walls made of stones and bricks were devised by a disciple of Leonardo da Vinci. The double walls protected grains, chiefly wheat, from humidity by leaving an airspace that allowed natural ventilation. Until the Revolution, a tithe (or tax) was collected by the king and the church and was kept in these silos. (To learn more, click HERE)
During the Renaissance, the kings of France were no strangers to Amboise so naturally lavish feasts were prepared for the Court.
I must say that we were treated almost as well. Le Choiseul has a magnificent restaurant – Le 36. We felt like kings and queens when we dined there one evening.
Our experience at “Le 36” was more enjoyable than some Michelin restaurants I have visited because of the wonderful staff and service. It may have been a bit more formal and correct than La Fourchette but it was still friendly and welcoming. Le 36 is a traditional and comfortable hotel restaurant that serves high-quality French food with a minimum of fuss.
We enjoyed a glass of wine in the bar before going into the dining room and once seated ordered the four-course option. Each course just got better and better.
The Sommelier was particularly knowledgeable and helpful, even supplying me with details of the wine producers we sampled.
The wine we chose for our first courses was a 2015 Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec Le Haut-Lieu. Since its founding in 1928, Vouvray’s Domaine Huet has been the standard-bearer for great, age-worthy Chenin Blancs. The 2015 Le Haut-Lieu had a stunning nose of lemon and honey and with great acidity on the palate and more citrus and honey. This wine paired beautifully with our choices.
Always an excellent starter (particularly in France) is Terrine of Foie Gras. This one was duck from Landes, with toasted brioche, white Port, dates and quince jelly.
Another starter that was memorable was a Crispy Dublin Bay prawn with pickled vegetables and a Thai sauce.
For our entrees, we wanted a rich red and were rewarded with the 2011 Clos Cristal Les Murs. This Cabernet Franc is the most famous cuvée from Clos Cristal – “Les Murs (The Walls).” The maturity of the grapes is advanced by three to four weeks by allowing the vines to grow through and run up the sides of concrete walls which were built by Antoine Cristal around 1900.
These special walls were cast with holes all along at mid height so that the roots would stay cool on the North side and the foliage and grapes would enjoy the sun and the positive thermal inertia of the other side of the wall. The wine opened with almost floral scents of blueberries and blackberries. The taste is very rich and fruity but still fresh, authentic, and very good indeed.
It is hard to beat Limousin beef and this version was right up there with the best. Beef Tenderloin “Limousin” with Chinon wine sauce, skewered foie gras and fall vegetables.
Turbot is especially popular in France and Le 36 offered a delicious version. Pan-fried turbot fillet, fricassee of artichoke, “caviar of herring” sauce, and black truffles. (For another dish with turbot, click HERE)
Before our dessert, we shared the excellent Cheeseboard (I finally got my cheese course! See my comment here). The cheese trolley was piled with fresh and matured cheeses by Rudolphe Le Meunier (Champion du Monde 2007 des fromages affineurs). The cheeses came with slices of good walnut bread and some assorted sweet and sour jams which made them taste even better.
For desserts, we were offered choices from a rather large assortment of wonderfulness! We sampled several but one stood out for both its beauty and its amazing flavor(s).
Mikado of meringues, Joconde biscuit with apples and sorbet. Light and satisfying.
We enjoyed a memorable dinner with great food, great wines, and perfect company.