Ever since visiting Paris and Dijon as a teenager, traveler Scott has had his heart set on going back to France to experience more of its diversity. Returning to France became a reality when he won our 50th-anniversary contest with his Italy travel story. A foodie who loves to cook, Scott found the perfect fit with our Food & Wine: France through Bordeaux & the Loire Valley tour—and we couldn’t wait to hear about his culinary adventure. Here, he shares his favorite aspects of French food and culture, plus a handful of his stunning snapshots from the trip.
Food & Wine Tours are all about getting to know a new culture through its cuisine. What were some of the top dishes you tried during your trip?
As a traveler passionate about food, I did a little research ahead of time about the local cuisine of the specific areas we would be visiting. I discovered that I really like duck! On different occasions I enjoyed grilled duck breast (reminiscent of a medium rare steak), duck confit, and duck pâté. I even had a delicious dish called Pommes Sarladaise, potatoes fried in duck fat with garlic. Yum!
My favorite dining experiences occurred in Perigueux at two gastronomic restaurants. The first dinner, at Restaurant Nicolas L, was an included meal, and became an exciting lesson in haute cuisine. The restaurant was recognized as a 2016 Michelin BIB Gourmand, and it was obvious that Chef Nicolas was a culinary artist. My starter was steak tartare with purple mustard “ice cream,” vitelotte (blue-violet potato) crisps, a caperberry and breadsticks. My main course was fresh-caught pollock with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, hazelnuts, steamed leeks, and pork lardons in a delicious light sauce. For dessert, I enjoyed pastilla (a paper-thin pastry) with local raspberries and strawberries, piquillo pepper and mango sorbet, and white chocolate with matcha green tea. Ooh là là!
The following evening, seven of my fellow travelers and I went to Le Clos Saint-Front for a 6-course menu of the day prepared by Michelin-honored chef and restaurant owner, Patrick Feuga. Patrick was a humorous, friendly, enthusiastic man who took time to talk to all of the diners and even serve some of the courses he artfully crafted. It included a raspberry and beetroot purée with banyuls vinegar, a white carrot soup with shaved summer truffles, pork cheek with apples in a red wine honey sauce, a four-part cheese course, and an apricot almond cake with hazelnut ice cream for dessert. To top it off, we enjoyed our meal in a beautiful, cozy, open-air courtyard adorned with modern art sculptures. I would consider this a “splurge dinner,” but it was money well spent and added tremendously to both the French cuisine experience and the friendship shared by members of our group.
Were you surprised by any of the French food or wine that you tried?
Before this trip, I had never eaten raw oysters. During our Arcachon Bay cruise, we stopped at a tiny oyster-tasting bar called Chez Yannick in the chic seaside village of Canon. I wasn’t sure I would like oysters because many people say they cannot get past the texture, but I will try almost anything at least once. Well, suffice it to say that Yannick has made an oyster-lover out of me! The texture actually added to the tasting, and the combination of salty brine and lemon juice on the oysters, paired with a light chilled white wine, heightened the culinary experience. Of course, the spectacular views of the bay and the company of my fellow travelers certainly didn’t hurt!
Ah, the wine! During our voyage through France, we had four wine tastings and of course, many of us enjoyed wine with lunch and dinner on most days. I have always been partial to red wine, and I especially liked the red we tasted at Château Larrivet Haut-Brion in Bordeaux. The most surprising wine I enjoyed was a 2014 Pierre Chanau Côtes du Ventoux, which was less than 3€ for a bottle! Despite the low price tag, it was a tasty red wine, perfect for our picnic in the park.
You went to big cities and small towns on this trip. Did you have a favorite location (or two)?
How to choose one or two favorites in a country of amazing contrasts and beauty? When I think of France, I envision quaint medieval villages with narrow cobblestone streets, small squares for markets and social gatherings, and beautiful rustic architecture of stone or wattle and daub construction. Two small towns that we visited during our tour fit this description perfectly. Saint-Émilion, pictured above with its steep and narrow streets, afforded magnificent views of the surrounding vineyards and countryside of the Bordeaux region. In Saint-Émilion, we had the opportunity to try the original macarons, crafted from a recipe dating back to 1620! Sarlat, also known as Sarlat-la-Canéda, is an extremely well-preserved, beautiful medieval town in the Dordogne region with a vibrant market and delicious food. After peeking into a tiny courtyard off of one of the small, winding pedestrian streets, I discovered a wonderful outdoor restaurant and joined two of my fellow travelers for an amazing lunch of local specialties. From Sarlat, we embarked on an unplanned driving tour of the medieval castles of the Dordogne Valley. Magnifique!
You got to take a cooking lesson in the Loire Valley! What was it like to share that experience with your group?
Although I really like to cook, I have never been to a cooking class, so this was a first for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience because it was a different way to bond with my fellow travelers. As a small, friendly and humorous group, we had become pretty close from the very beginning of the trip, so the cooking class felt like a family preparing a big dinner. There was a lot of laughter, sharing of techniques, and camaraderie as our instructor led us through the preparation of three courses. We each assembled our own starter, which was a puff pastry filled with goat cheese, tomato and honey. Everyone shared different responsibilities in the preparation of the main course, an amazing version of Chicken Fricassée with plenty of chopped fresh vegetables and a splash of whiskey. A few of our more seasoned bakers worked together to create the dessert, individual chocolate lava cakes with a sweet biscuit bottom layer. Of course the pièce de résistance was when we all sat down at a long family-style table and enjoyed the fruits of our labors.
Your story from Italy highlighted how important it is to connect with locals while traveling. What was one moment from this tour when you felt a strong connection to the local culture?
The highlight of the trip for most of my fellow travelers and me occurred during an off-script stop in the medieval town of Loches. Our phenomenal Tour Director, Adoram, had suggested that we have a picnic in a small park with views of the Château de Loches across the Indre River, a tributary of the Loire. Adoram and our driver went shopping for us ahead of time while we enjoyed free time in Cognac. When we settled down for our picnic, there was a small group of teenagers sitting in the grass near us.
While we were eating, one of my fellow travelers suggested that we invite them to join us. They happily agreed, as one of them said he had not eaten since breakfast! Two of the teenagers spoke English very well, and a few of us, myself included, spoke rudimentary French, so we were all able to communicate fairly easily. As tourists, we marveled at the quaint beauty of their town. As teenagers, they lamented the fact that there was nothing exciting for them to do in their quaint little town. Such a powerful lesson in perspective! As we prepared to board our coach and return to our hotel, the teens thanked us repeatedly for the food (we also gave them the leftovers), and we all posed for this group selfie!
As an art teacher, what aspects of this trip will you share with your students?
When I travel, I like to take several different types of photographs. Often, I am simply documenting my experience with a location or a meal as the subject, and I do take the occasional selfie as a fun way to show where I have been. The most exciting type of photography for me is an artfully composed shot of a travel destination, person, or unexpected moment. These are the photographs I share with my students as a way of stimulating discussions about how to set up a work of art.
I also had the opportunity to visit the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Both museums contain masterworks of modern art, and I look forward to sharing images of paintings and sculptures by artists featured in both museums with my students. The penultimate art experience during this trip was walking into the oval-shaped galleries specifically designed for Monet’s giant canvases of his “Water Lilies.” I would like for my students to somehow appreciate the feeling of viewing these works in person, noticing the seemingly random energetic brushstrokes and the texture of the paint on the canvas. No Internet image can replace seeing a work of art in person.
The food, the art, the scenery, the wine—there’s certainly a lot to love about France. Have you ever connected with a new culture through its cuisine? Tell us your story in the comments below, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.