The French often refer to the Loire Valley as “the garden of France,” in recognition of the superb produce grown there. Almost everything thrives in the valley’s rich soil and gentle climate. In and around the town of Saumur, however, is France’s most important mushroom-producing region, with dozens of farms in natural limestone caves.
Freshwater fish have been an essential part of the Loire Valley diet since pre-Roman times, and there are still several small commercial fisheries working the river. The catch includes anguille (eel), brème (bream) and sandre (pikeperch). The latter two fish have subtle flavors, which is why they’re often served with a beurre blanc sauce, made with butter, shallots and vinegar. In season, the vast forests of the Loire, where hunting was once a favored sport of the French nobility, yield a variety of game, including duck, quail, pheasant, pigeon, rabbit, wild boar and venison.
As for cheese, the Loire is best known for its many varieties of delicate but tangy goat’s milk cheeses, including Chabichou du Poitou, Crottin de Chavignol, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Saint-Maure de Touraine, Selles-sur-Cher and Valençay.
Some of the most emblematic French dishes come from the Loire Valley, including rillettes and rillons, potted meats that are a specialty of Tours and La Touraine. Pithiviers, a classic French pastry pie that takes its name from the town where it was invented, is decorated with spiral cuts in the crust and can be either sweet or savory. One of France’s favorite desserts, tarte Tatin, an upside-down tart of caramelized apples, was invented by Stéphanie Tatin at La Maison Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron. Somehow, it never tastes as good elsewhere as it does in the Loire, served with a spoonful of thick crème fraîche.
Saffron has been farmed in the Loire Valley for centuries. The precious spice comes from a purple crocus and is harvested by hand in autumn by removing the pistils of the flowers, which are then dried. The pistils of at least 75,000 flowers are needed to produce just one pound of saffron.
Tomato lovers will want to visit the National Tomato Conservatory, which was created in 1998 and grows more than 700 varieties of tomatoes in season. The garden was the idea of Louis Albert de Broglie, owner of the Château de la Bourdaisière, who wanted to showcase the remarkable variety of the fruit. The conservatory’s tomato bar serves delicious soups, salads and sandwiches made with the tomatoes grown here.
Here is a selection of Loire Valley restaurants, including three new places we found on our most recent trip, as well as some longstanding favorites.
Overlooking the Loire River from an attractive contemporary dining room with a décor of blond wood, plus an open kitchen, this Michelin-starred restaurant is perhaps the most exciting in the Loire today, owing to the wonderfully original cooking of Frenchman Anthony Maubert and his Japanese wife, Fumiko. Our tasting menu was flawless, including a superlative dish of foie gras with mushrooms; whiting with vegetable tempura, flowers and herbs; and goat cheese with tofu. Service is formal but pleasant and precise. There is an outstanding selection of wines by the glass. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
189 Quai Ulysse Besnard, Blois. Tel. (33) 2-54-78-09-01
Some of our favorite meals in France have been the result of word-of-mouth recommendations. This delightful restaurant was suggested to us by a mechanic in the gas station where we’d just filled up our car. On arrival, our waitress, a Texan who’d married a Frenchman, was especially charming. Our lunch here was both delicious and a very good value for the money. We started with a duck terrine, followed by roasted pork loin and seasonal vegetables, a cheese course from a well-stocked trolley and a delicious rhubarb dessert. The intelligently inventive cooking made this an address where we’d eat often if we were lucky enough to live locally. Closed Monday.
La Botte d’Asperges
52, Rue Pierre-Henri Mauger, Contres. Tel. (33) 2-54-79-50-49
Chef Christophe Hay, who worked with the late Paul Bocuse, has two deserved Michelin stars for his local and seasonal contemporary cooking at this restaurant in a little village outside Blois. The stylish dining room has picture windows, an adjacent glass-walled wine cellar and an open kitchen. Hay is an exceptionally gifted vegetable chef and also has a talent for cooking freshwater fish from the Loire River. We chose the six-course tasting menu with a different wine for each course. Highlights included grilled river eel with baby peas and pickled lemon; pikeperch with purple celery, dandelion greens and lichen; and an exceptionally flavorful poached guinea hen breast with white turnips and arugula. Though the sommelier was charmless, the wine pairings from small local producers were outstanding. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
La Maison d’à Côté
17/25 Rue de Chambord, Montlivault. Tel. (33) 2-54-20-62-30
Chef Pascal Bouvier serves delicious market-driven cooking at this friendly and attractive restaurant. The local ingredients on his menus include asparagus from nearby Richelieu, pikeperch from the Loire, and succulent Roi Rose de Touraine pork. Closed Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evening.
Au Coin des Halles
9 Rue Gambetta, Langeais. Tel. (33) 2-47-96-37-25
Chef Christophe Duguin’s restaurant is named for the red hats once worn by the coach drivers of the Royal Mail. This is a perfect spot for lunch after a morning of exploring the charming town of Chinon. Expect dishes like a terrine of Loire fish with lemon mousse, and pork fillet in a honey sauce. Closed Monday, Tuesday and Sunday evening.
Au Chapeau Rouge
49 Place du Général de Gaulle, Chinon. Tel. (33) 2-47-98-08-08
This long-running restaurant in Angers, set within a 16th-century house, now has a talented new chef in Thony Pohu, who trained at the Mandarin Oriental in London and the Andrew Harper-recommended Hôtel de Pavie (formerly the Hostellerie de Plaisance) in Saint-Émilion. Vegetable dishes are his specialty. There is also an outstanding selection of local wines by the glass. Closed Saturday and Sunday.
Autour d’un Cep
9 Rue Baudrière, Angers. Tel. (33) 2-41-42-61-00
This small, simple restaurant is a good choice for lunch in Saumur, maybe after visiting one of the local mushroom caves or the vineyards that produce Saumur Champigny wine. Escargots are, of course, a specialty, and the restaurant also serves a succulent fricassee of rabbit with grapes and roasted baby carrots. Closed Sunday and Monday.
30 Rue du Maréchal Leclerc, Saumur. Tel. (33) 2-41-51-20-88
In Montbazon, Michelin-starred chef Gaëtan Evrard is a rising star thanks to his imaginative locally inspired cooking. Expect dishes like leeks with vinaigrette and truffles, and scallops with beurre blanc sauce and local saffron. Closed Wednesday evening.
1 Place des Marronniers, Montbazon. Tel. (33) 2-47-26-00-67
This Michelin-starred restaurant in Angers showcases the creative, market-driven cooking of chef Gaëtan Morvan. Dishes like roasted asparagus with herb cream and bottarga, and chicken cooked with bergamot and lime garnished with lentils and chorizo eloquently express his talent. Dinner only. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Lait Thym Sel
65 rue Beaurepaire, Angers. Tel. (33) 2-41-72-08-64
In the heart of Tours between the cathedral and the riverfront, chef Benoît Pasquier’s cozy tile-floored restaurant in a former bakery is an excellent choice for a casual but memorable meal. The seasonal menu runs to dishes like terrine of duck foie gras with dried pears, quail and shrimp with girolles, and raspberry gratin with a sabayon seasoned with Vouvray wine. Closed Saturday and Sunday.
7 Place des Petites Boucheries, Tours. Tel. (33) 2-47-61-93-82