This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Over the past 30 years during which I initially
bought, sold and highly recommended the extremely food-friendly wines of the
Loire valley as a restaurateur and then subsequently enjoyed them as a
customer, I have only visited the region once. And that was a day trip to the
vineyards of Vouvray, a long-standing attraction for so many Parisians.
Two days spent further west, where the vineyards
around the towns of Saumur and Chinon make such distinctive reds and the
villages of Savennières, Layon and Bonnezeaux
produce great, appetising white wines, introduced me to three restaurants that
reflect very different aspects of French cooking: the new and exciting; the
definitely passé; and the charms of a wine bar/bistro that time, I hope, will
While each of these naturally highlights the fruits of
the local producers, Loire wines on restaurant wine lists outside the region
have invariably been chosen for a very specific reason. Either the restaurateur
particularly likes them; the chef feels they go well with the food; or the
sommelier feels particularly proud of them. They are never included simply to
impress potential customers who rarely give them the attention they deserve.
This is a shame because these wines invariably
represent some of the best value on any list. The reds, even with some bottle
age, are rarely expensive. They go well with a whole range of food, red and
white meat, fish and cheese (I now know that white Savennières goes well with
cheese, too); they are not generally very alcoholic; and, white or red, they
can stand a few minutes in an ice bucket which makes them even more refreshing.
This combination of freshness and acidity also makes them fun to drink with
more spicy food.
But flying the flag for these wines has been an uphill
struggle for restaurateurs. London’s most committed evangelist, Nigel Wilkinson
at RSJ, a stone’s throw from the National Theatre on the Southbank, admitted
that this mission has been ‘pleasure and pain in equal proportions.’
I thought of Wilkinson when we walked into Le Pot
de Lapin, close to the banks of the Loire in Saumur, as its proprietor,
Olivier Thibault, displays a similar joie de vivre about his role - although
here the proprietor wears chef’s whites. Thibault is also a firm believer in
multi-tasking. Behind a small bar he
prepared some spicy green olives for our aperitif with his left hand, poured
two glasses of wine with his right and, with his mobile wedged under one ear,
politely informed the caller that they were regrettably fully booked that
This seemed quite understandable as this place is fun.
The small wine bar offers an extensive range of local wines by the glass, none
more expensive than four euros. The compact restaurant next door is decorated
with wine memorabilia including, worryingly precariously, a host of metal wine
carriers hanging from nails on the ceiling just above the tables.
But all eyes are focused on the enormous blackboard
which lists an extensive range of simple but hearty dishes: tapas; two
excellent first courses in particular, a chicken terrine laced with thin slices
of chorizo and potted rabbit with a well-dressed salad; and a regional
speciality, fricassee of chicken Angevine, cooked with the white wine of nearby
Location, personality and great value for money
contribute to Le Pot de Lapin’s popularity, but all these attributes seemed to
be missing as we parked among the isolated vineyards of the Coteaux du Layon at
Domaine de la Bergerie. But behind the modern exterior of La Table de la Bergerie (which supplied the image above)
is not just some very fine cooking but also a story of love, courage and
The last two qualities were immediately obvious when the
chef/proprietor, David Guitton, put down his crutches by the kitchen door to
welcome us and then went back to the stoves. He proceeded to cook admirably
successfully all by himself for the next couple of hours, navigating his small
kitchen by propelling himself on his good leg while the other rested on a chair
on castors, in the style of a skateboarder.
Why Guitton, who has trained with Alain Ducasse and
Joel Robuchon in London and Monte Carlo, is here and in this condition are
closely interlinked. He married Anne, the daughter of the family that has made
wine in the surrounding vineyards for seven generations, and six months ago
they realized their joint dream of opening a restaurant on the property. The
chef then decided to turn his hand to DIY and, while on a stepladder, fell and
broke his heel. Through gritted teeth, he told me that most regrettably he had
to close for 10 days, but now the full kitchen brigade, Guitton himself, is
back to almost full strength. Thanks to his mobile chair.
And, of course, his innate talent and approach that
combined with such limited resources, results in a menu with two choices at
each course that changes every fortnight. Thick slices of citrus-marinated
bream with courgettes and Parmesan; a chilled rocket soup with a tomato tartare
and prawns; lamb with aubergines and piquillo peppers; and a fillet of John
Dory with an infusion of hyssop were all truly first class, the sort of food
that would not be out of place at a very smart address in Paris. His menu also
modestly lists his six major suppliers including a local cheesemonger, Hugues
Bocahut, whose Valencay, Saint Nectaire and 38-month Comte were
among the finest examples of these cheeses I have ever eaten.
Freshness is the key to Guitton’s cooking, an
intangible but essential factor that makes the diner feel even better after the
meal. But this element was crucially missing from the far more intricate
cooking of Mikaël Pihours at Le Gambetta, the long standing one-star
Michelin in the centre of Saumur, despite the attentive presence of his wife, Céline,
in the dining room.
Here is a kitchen trying too hard on all fronts, from
six different amuses-bouches, including a ridiculous concoction of tandoori
spiced popcorn, to a dessert described as ‘Memories of Childhood’ that was just
far too sweet – and was then followed by four different petits fours. The meal
was saved, however, by a well-chosen wine list including a 2009 Saumur
Champigny from Thierry Germain that, in the manner of all well-made red Loires
(and 2009 is an excellent vintage) went extremely well with their
over-elaborate renditions of monkfish and guinea fowl.
While this visit reinforced my faith in Loire wines,
it also made me realize quite how difficult it is to explore its vineyards and
restaurants which are far more spread out than many others, even in France, and
invariably tucked away down winding, narrow country lanes. In the evenings the
police are, justifiably, out in force, but we discovered the taxi drivers of
Saumur all seem to want to be in bed by 9.30pm. A dedicated driver is
Le Pot de Lapin, 35 rue Rabelais, Saumur, 02.41.67.12.86.
Closed Sunday and Monday.
La Table de Bergerie, Layon www.latable-bergerie.fr
Le Gambetta, Saumur www.restaurantlegambetta.com
RSJ, London www.rsj.uk.com [see the members forum for comments on some of the wines sold by RSJ]