At Le Comptoir Saint Kerber, Pierre Pichot shucks plump oysters, squeezes them with lemon juice and offers them for tasting. He opens a bottle of chilled Jo Landron Domaine Le Fief du Breil, fills glasses and awaits comments on the pairing...
We are in the lively Les Halles (market) of Tours in the Loire Valley and are indulging in a tasting of three different succulent molluscs from Cancale washed down with the outstanding local muscadet for a mid-morning snack. Pichot is an oyster specialist whose family has been farming oysters in France’s oyster capital for 70 years and is just one of the regional food artisans we encounter on an eight-day culinary adventure, Yarra Valley @ Loire Valley hosted by Healesville-based chef Richard Hauptmann and partner Lisa O’Connor.
We learn that the high-tidal Couesnon estuary of Mont St Michel Bay in Brittany produces from 25,000 tons of oysters a year and is reputedly responsible for some 80 per cent of all oysters distributed around France. History records that Louis XIV used to have Cancale oysters sent to him at his palace in Versailles while Emperor Naopleon Bonaparte also relished them.
While it’s tempting to linger, we have to move on. Richard checks out other seafood stalls and buys langoustine, mussels, scallops and crevettes for a much anticipated ‘seafood extravaganza’ dinner that night. Each September, Richard and Lisa swap their Yarra Valley home for the intimate, private and historic domaine of La Briche (where Lisa used to live 20 years ago) in the Loire Valley, to host small groups of up to eight guests in what they plan will be an annual foray to France each autumn.
Having cooked for 25 years in the kitchens of some of Melbourne’s top restaurants including Mietta’s and Florentino’s, Richard has, in recent years, initiated all-day hands-on workshops in his Healesville kitchen called Porcine Pursuits – turning rare breed pigs into smallgoods such as bacon, prosciutto, pancetta, salami, sausages, rillettes and more.
Lisa is known for her near- addictive Jam Lady Jam and Handmade in Healesville produce that sell nationally and are served in the best restaurants, hotels and produce stores as far afield as Singapore and Dubai.
From Paris, it is a comfortable hour-long train ride to Tours where Richard and Lisa greet guests and drive them through the picturesque chateau-rich countryside to La Briche. According to Lisa, the domaine was established by self-made millionaire Jean-Francois Cail in the mid-19th century whose vision was to create the most modern farm in Europe. (His personal logo of a quail (caille in French) is incorporated in the elegant wrought-iron gates of the domaine’s own chateau.)
It seems indeed an appropriate spot for such a culinary adventure. Our corner of the property has its own chapel whose beautiful stained glass windows were designed by Jean-Luc Galand, who, according to Lisa, was the son-in-law of Charles Gounoud, the composer of the opera Faust. In the kitchen garden, sun-ripened tomatoes, golden corn and fat cabbages thrive; nearby gentle woodlands are under-carpeted with exquisite wild pink and white cyclamen.
Rustic accommodation with shared bathrooms is comfortable and conveniently close to the smartly fitted country kitchen. The spacious lounge-dining room is the beating heart of the complex where guests gather each morning for hearty breakfasts at a large communal table with church pews, and where a litany of exceptional meals follow convivial drinks and canapés each night in front of a huge open fireplace.
We are three couples of food-loving Australians and are keen to learn all things charcuterie, confit and patisserie. The week starts with one of Richard’s specialty nose-to-tail experiences where we help prepare pork cuts for hearty dishes such as cassoulet (casserole) and choucroûte (sauerkraut served with pork). Local saucisson (sausages) expert Anita Gousse brings her closely-guarded secret blend of herbs to make boudins blancs (white pork sausages) and we chop and dice pork for rillettes (meat pounded to a paste), fromage detête (pig’s head terrine) and pâté en croute (pate baked in pastry) for picnic lunches during the week.
One day we learn to make nearly every type of pastry in the book in preparation for classic desserts such as almond-filled pithivier puff pastry, upside-down apple tarte tatin and the local regional, gateau nougat de Tours (Tours nougat cake).
We butcher rabbits for lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes), help Richard make the perfect coq au vin (chicken casserole cooked in wine) and prepare plump local duck for confit de canard (duck confit).
But not all the fun is in the kitchen. One day we visit nearby Langeais market, where we buy fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade nougat and a selection of cheese before visiting fairytale Chateau Langeais in the middle of town complete with drawbridge where we wander its turrets and admire an impressive collection of tapestries.
The Loire is famous for its magnificent chateaux and a visit to Château de Villandry with its world-famous potager is a highlight. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens are planted in colourful checkerboard patterns – the imposing chateau making the perfect backdrop. Later, we meet wine-makers from the Cave des Producteurs de Vouvray and enjoy wines made from chenin blanc grapes, while picnicking on home-made gourmet fare.
Throughout the week, we enjoy excellent and plentiful local wines from nearby vineyards in Vouvray, Chenin and Bourgueil, have a barbeque in a 400-year-old cave at Domaine de la Chevalerie and join locals one night to dine on typical regional fare in Bouff ’tard bistro in the nearby village of Hommes.
Participants are kept as busy as they like but there is no pressure to cook – although the constant aromas emanating from the kitchen entices everyone around mealtimes to come see what’s being prepared.
Our farewell dinner is bittersweet: a swept-up candle-lit dinner in the chapel when Richard outdoes himself serving our hand-harvested snails with girolles for entrée, tender Charolais côte de boeuf with gratin potatoes for main course and a totally decadent tarte tatin with ice-cream for dessert.
Having learnt many classic cooking techniques, indulged in many wonderful French dishes and even met some of the locals, we do indeed feel quite part of this small intimate community.
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Gorgeous and unusual gifts at the Villandry Garden shop such as frozen pansy brooches, coloured straw hats and fun vegetable carry bags. If you are a couple starting out, order kitchen essentials (as Richard and Lisa use) from the 200-year-old Dehillerin store in Paris and have lifelong reminders.
Picking precious little wild cyclamen posies as you wander together deep in the woods. Ask Richard and he’ll pack a picnic for two with a bottle of wine to share in a field of full of sunflowers.
Cathay Pacific operates more than 70 flights a week from Australia to Hong Kong with 11 connecting flights a week and up to two daily flights in peak season to Paris. Tours is about one hour by train from Paris, phone 1300 387 245. Guests will be met in Tours and transferred to La Briche.
The next Yarra Valley @ Loire Valley culinary adventures are scheduled for 2015: September 11-18 and September 25-October 2; and 2016: September 9-16 and September 23-30. The all-inclusive cost is $4000 per person twin share, phone (03) 5962 2481.