A Michelin-starred chef makes the Loire the capital of sustainable food
Sitting at a picnic table along the A10 highway, somewhere between Paris and Orléans, some writer friends and I enjoy an incredible dish – a bento box with a big French culinary difference.
Chic bento box by Gaëtan Evrard. Photo: Tamara Thiessen
The chic black containers unstack to reveal a colorful meal featuring a creamy salad of zucchini and nasturtium curry, quinoa and salmon also topped with orange blossoms and chocolate mousse to die for.
There is enough to feed a small army.
It’s the classiest snack – a quick bite along the way – I’ve never seen.
Nature and terroir in the Loire
The gourmet Bento box is the creation of the young starred chef Gaëtan Evrard, a self-proclaimed lover of nature and its land.
He is one of the many chefs from the Centre-Val de Loire who are making the Center region of France a hub of sustainable gastronomy.
These so-called environmentally friendly cooks want to grow their ingredients, buy at source from local farmers, and revive lost traditions.
Organic and creative
“The earth, the forest, the garden, the harvest, the spray, the farms, the orchards are my playgrounds,” says Mr. Evrard. “They are my sources of inspiration.”
The menus of his restaurant, l’Evidence dans l’Indre, are composed of seasonal “moments” with poetic names: Spring, Spray, Land and Sea.
The dishes are characterized by their freshness, their organic shapes, their abundance of intense colors and the cachet of French culinary creativity.
Today, however, he has turned to a whole new venture in Indre-et-Loire.
New tree house business
Loire Valley Lodges comprises 18 suites perched in the trees of 750 hectares of woodland – oaks, Douglas firs, chestnuts and sophoras – where wild boar, deer, egrets and herons roam.
Loire Valley Lodges tree view with garden fresh ingredients. Photo: Lodges of the Loire Valley
“The DNA of the place is nature, the forest, the earth, the garden, the crops and the orchards”, explains the owner Anne-Caroline Frey.
She wants guests, who can expect to pay between €400 and €500 a night for a two-person lodge including breakfast, to be able to experience its “raw natural beauty”.
The food is primitive
With Gaëtan Evrard, she seems to have found the perfect accomplice to embody this philosophy at the lodge restaurant, Ardent.
Cooking over a wood fire allows him to offer what he calls “an immersive and primitive cuisine”.
My main course of carrots and purple artichokes certainly taste deep and rich, fresh from the garden.
Just like the lemons, tomatoes and basil in the virgin sauce that accompanies it.
Local or homemade
Mr. Evrard’s emphasis on short food supply chains works well here.
He sources his ingredients from a number of local growers and farmers and makes his own products, including beer, wine and honey.
Breakfast, delivered in a basket hanging at the foot of my stairs, includes local yogurt, cheese, milk, butter and garden fresh cucumbers, celery, kale and apple juice.
Plastics and other packaging waste are remarkably absent.
Everything is served in bowls or biodegradable bags.
The Loire becomes an eco-hotel hub
Over the next two days, the environmentally friendly the ground swell is palpable elsewhere in the Loire Valley, from restaurants to bed and breakfasts.
Bolthole in Orleans, the Empreinte Hôtel du quai de Châtelet, for example, has the eco-accommodation label, while Martin-Pouret Maître Vinaigrier on rue Jeanne d’Arc promotes tradition and sustainable consumption.
Provenance is everything
Co-owner Paul-Olivier Claudepierre brags boldly that the house makes better mustard than Dijon, using French mustard seeds ground with a stone grinder.
Paul-Olivier Claudepierre is proud of his vinegar. Photo: Tamara Thiessen
“Our production chain is 100% French, with mustard seeds grown in Pithiviers, and not in Canada like most Dijon mustards.”
Quality products, from Indian spice mustard to raspberry vinegar aged in oak barrels for 13 months, have seen business boom during the pandemic.
“The agri-food industry did relatively well because more French people were cooking at home,” explains Claudepierre.
“Our products fit perfectly into the niche of eating better, less and responsibly, which the public is increasingly looking for.”
Local gastronomic cruise on the Loire
In the evening, we board a beautiful wooden boat, the Epinoche, for a culinary cruise on the Loire, the last wild river in France.
Chef Ludovic Baubert is also passionate about bringing cooks, producers and other players in the region’s tourism back to basics.
“We only cook with local products. The idea is to limit the food supply within a radius of 40 km. So we use fish from the Loire, local cheeses – even these little carrots come from a neighboring farm.
Without forgetting the superb wines of the Loire Valley which accompany our meal.
The chefs use the market gardens of the Château de Chambord
Mr. Baubert reveals how he picks ingredients for his meals and his catering business from the market gardens of the Château de Chambord.
And he is not alone. Many chefs in the region do the same.
“The Vegetable Gardens of Chambord are part of a perspective of agricultural renewal with the development of organic, ecological and soil regenerating agriculture”, specifies the castle.
“Short circuit fruit and vegetable production (more than 40 varieties) is part of a territorial dynamic.
“The care taken in every aspect of production gives the vegetables exceptional flavors, nutrients, colors and textures.”
The Loire Valley in eco-food and heritage effervescence
The castle adds that its “spirit of eco-responsibility” and sustainable development contributes to the preservation of the historical and natural heritage of the estate.
The fields of the Prairie des Casernes have been vegetable gardens since the 17th century.
If the chefs and producers of the Loire Valley are not the only ones in France to defend these philosophies, they seem to be among the most visible.
Loire Chef of the Year 2021
Local boy Christophe Hay, who also happens to be the 2021 French Chef of the Year, is a good example.
Chef Christophe Hay says the Loire is its cornerstone. Photo: Christophe Hay
He regularly visits the producers of his native land of Loir-et-Cher to stock up on ingredients – from the prized chicken of the Gélines de Touraine to beef, including asparagus, honey and caviar – and even leaves with fishermen on their boats.
Eco-chefs join forces
A proud terroiristhe has been passionate about supporting small food industries here since returning to the Loire six years ago.
Mr Hay is recognized by Michelin not only for his culinary prowess but also for his sustainable gastronomy.
He runs an association called L’R Durable (sustainable restoration) – a group of chefs committed to sustainable catering.
The products of the Loire region are essential
The menu of its new launch gourmet house in Blois, the Fleur de Loire, like that of its former two-star Michelin restaurant La Maison d’à Côté, revolves around local products and ingredients from its own garden.
The Loire is its lifeblood, he says: “The river, the waterways and the ponds, the forests, the fields and the gardens, the castles, the farms, the vineyards, the wild fauna and flora.
It’s no surprise that the land of food and culinary arts regularly tops the global charts for sustainable food production.
Michelin-starred chef and educator
France’s measures to combat food waste, promote healthy lifestyles and adopt ecological farming techniques have put it at the top of the list in the past, although it slipped slightly last year.
As “chef ambassador” for the Val de Loire region, Mr. Hay is also involved in educating children about good eating habits, from primary school onwards.
His efforts, he says, are geared “to the importance of healthy eating, but also environmental awareness – to not put too much on your plate, to avoid wasting food”.
Kitchen and Community Awards at Arthurian Bistro
It’s a similar story at Lancelot, a chic and rustic bistro in a once abandoned farmhouse in the village of Chilleurs-aux-Bois.
Chef-owner Catherine Delacoute received the National Order of Merit for her service to the kitchen and to the community.
“The gourmet bistro the menu is 100% Loiret,” she says proudly.
The restaurant offers trout from the Loire, lamb from Sologne and the famous almond cakes drizzled with lemon from the region, the fondant from Pithiviers.
The golden age of the Loire terroirs
Over a meal in the Salon du Roi Arthur, Marc Richet, head of the Centre-Val de Loire Regional Tourism Committee, explains why the restaurants in this region are so well placed to pave the way for sustainable food.
“Because there are still a lot of small agricultural producers, and a young generation who wants organic and local short circuits, restaurateurs have an extraordinary offer at their fingertips,” he says.
“It’s the golden age of regional cuisine in the Loire.
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