Boy, do I need some coffee today! The night was far too short.
We arrive at breakfast, only to find that all tables are occupied. We try to sit at a table with some non-tour-members, but are rebuffed, saying that they are also a tour, and have members coming soon. When I ask Laurent (a co-manager of the hotel) for a space, he points back to the table that rejected us, and we explain the problem. Laurent reasons with the fellow, and they accept us to their table. It turns out that these are wine-lovers from all around Sweden, on a Loire Valley wine tasting tour. They're very pleasant table companions, once they've accepted the situation.
Breakfast consists of yogurt of various flavors (Mon Dieu! The yogurt IS fat free!) -- I have an interesting variety today: grapefruit. Not bad, but it still has that bitter, oxidized grapefruit flavor. There are also bananas, some "swiss" cheese, and foil-wrapped pats of cream cheese. There's a small glass of orange juice at the table setting. And, of course, coffee. The most interesting thing at petit dejeuner chez Hotel Diderot (200 years old, by the way) are the accompaniments to the ever-present baguettes and croissant: The hotel is famous for its home-made preserves! We sample plum, apple with sweet spices jelly, orange marmalade, and orange/apple/kiwi jam. Tomorrow, I have to try the pineapple (ananas) jam!
Today is bike-riding day, in the Loire Valley! The riders (all but three of our group) rendezvous in the courtyard, and then onto the bus. We meet the bike rental truck in front of the Château Ussé. According to Kristen, there's little point in going into the château. The external view of this "sleeping beauty" castle is really the only interesting thing about it -- the interior, she says, is not much to see. After passing out helmets to the wimps (number Brig and me among that group), we're off on the road to Château Langeais. The road is very lightly travelled, and we have no problems with traffic. Furthermore, it parallels the Loire, which means there are absolutely no hills with which to contend. After a brief stop for coffee and pee-pee, we continue our journey. Things get slightly dicey on the bridge into the town of Langeais. It's very busy, and there's no shoulder to speak of. We make it across, but not without some jangled nerves. Getting from the bridge to the château, we end up travelling the wrong way on a narrow, one way street. I convince Brig to dismount and we walk the rest of the way (about a quarter mile). What I find most interesting about the château is that tapestries and furniture that are 400+ years old are left exposed to the air and the visitors. Chairs are always roped off so that nobody tries to sit in them, but nothing prevents you from touching the tapestries, which are well within reach. I refrain, of course, and even know to turn off the flash before taking a photo. (Later on, Brig spies a well-hidden sign that requests you to avoid flash photography.) After a nice, short visit, the bike caravan restarts, and we retrace our route back to the other side of the Loire. This time, we walk across the bridge on the narrow footpath. No complaints from the majority, who cycled across, and are waiting for us on the other side.
We continue on down the Loire, to Villandry, where we enjoy a very leisurely dejeuner (lunch) of
€26. A leetle pricey for ze lunch!
Then it's on to the exquisite reproduction of a Rennaisance garden, on the grounds of the Château de Villandry. The recommendation is to focus on the gardens, as the château is nothing out of the ordinary. Indeed, the gardens are SPECTACULAR. I particularly enjoy the incredible produce gardens, which take ingenious advantage of the wide range of colors to make beautiful patterns out of: bell peppers, swiss chard, rhubarb chard, beets, all kinds of mustard greens and cabbage and kale varieties...
There are also flower-based gardens, of course; and culinary and medicinal herb gardens. There are grape arbors everywhere, with plenty of grapes to savor by eye and tongue. And there are even some fruit trees (okay, I'll admit it, we snitched a beautiful granny smith). Brig wants to try out a "maze". A sign at the entrance indicates the way that takes you quickly to the center, and we follow the arrow. Bad news: someone switched the direction of that arrow! Good news: this isn't a maze at all. It's a folded path, with no decisions except that single one at the beginning. We quickly reach the center, and then bug out.
Back to the hotel for a brief French lesson and a degustation (wine tasting) hosted by Laurent.
On our way from the bus, it occurs to me that there might be another use for the footrest that Brigid designed for this trip (it turns out to be useful to her only on the plane trips, since our Heidebloem bus is equipped with built-in footrests). It makes a perfect keyboard rest for my journalling sessions! I really shouldn't have given her so much crap about dragging this lovely device around France with us. Now I feel doubly bad about it!
Kristen conducts a brief (half-hour) lesson on introductory French, in the front courtyard, under increasingly threatening clouds. She covers the basic salutations, French cultural standards of politeness, the ways of asking for things (to purchase), and how to ask or respond to questions on one's facility in English or French. It was certainly helpful to Brigid. (My classes in the fourth through six grades by Mrs. Berman kept me well past this lesson. Merci beaucoup, Madame Berman, wherever you are!
Laurent then comes out to invite us into the breakfast room, for the wine tasting. This is anything but a sales job, other than to help us appreciate Chinon's wines as well as others from the Loire Valley. These wines are from Laurent's private cellar, the keeping of which has been taught from father to child for at least three generations in his family. Laurent mentioned that he has put away some wines that he hopes he can share with, and leave to, his children. (He is, by the way, a member of the "order of the painted cave", a relatively prestigious, by-invitation-only wine appreciation fraternity in Chinon. It's been around a little while -- A Rabelais quote that refers to it is posted on a plaque nearby their headquarters. (Rabelais is a favorite son of Chinon.)
Laurent is an enthusiastic and entertaining fellow. He offers us 4 wines, the first three of which are from Chinon, and all of which are from the Loire Valley:
The first is a chenin blanc, as are all white wines from Chinon (everybody must know that -- because varietal designations are never printed on French wine bottles, unless they are for export. It truly is assumed that you already know what grape varieties are grown in any given region -- perhaps it's taught in school? Anyway, this white is a beautiful straw color, with a wonderfully floral aroma, and with hints of lemon (due to the humidity of that year, Laurent claims). It's very light, with no oakey notes at all. I can see why he might like it. Along with this, Laurent serves thin slices of a very fresh goat cheese (chèvre), sprinkled with chive bits. I absolutely love it. Brigid ordinarily despises chèvre -- and this time is no exception, even though it's an exceedingly mild cheese. This means that I get her portions -- Yay! I probably don't want to know the details of its fat content or composition...
Next, he serves a more typical Chinon wine, a cabernet franc (red, of course!). The CF variety is one of the oldest used in winemaking, he says. I smell chocolatey notes in the wine. Brigid doesn't agree, but we both enjoy the wine -- and I get to finish hers! This wine is served with a thick, slightly stringy paté of pig trotters. No, it tastes far better than it sounds -- it's very rich and flavorful.
The last red wine we sample is a 90% CF/10% CS blend. To retain the governmental "A.O.C." approval, Chinon's red wines are permitted no more than 10% of cabernet sauvignon grapes. Laurent pronounces this a "happy" wine, because when he invites friends over, and opens a bottle, they quickly become very happy! I find this one a little lighter than the previous, pure CF wine, and it does seem very easy and enjoyable to drink... Along with this, he serves tasty tidbits of a local ham, with thick ribbons of fat.
For his last trick, Laurent produces two bottles of a late-harvest white wine, manufactured approximately 100 km from Chinon, at Château de Putille, in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley. This wine has an incredibly fruity aroma, and it's amazingly sweet for a French wine. Honestly, I didn't think that the French bothered with sweet wines, but this one really works for Brigid. I like it as a dessert wine. I don't know that I go along with the pre-meal aperitif concept, but that's the role suggested by Laurent. After the tasting, Brigid sought to convince Laurent to part with a couple bottles of this nectar, and she succeeded. Would you believe €7 apiece?
Some brief introductions to the Hotel Diderot's cast of characters:
Rachel and Laurent run the place. Rachel is a lovely, petite woman, who is very helpful and accommodating.
You have already heard about Laurent.
While negotiating with Laurent for the late harvest wine from Anjou, Brigid meets Nunuche. Nunuche is an extremely friendly and trusting tabby tomcat of some 13 years. He is happy to be petted by strangers, and rubs heads with Brigid at the slightest provocation. It's going to be tough for her to say au revoir to Nunuche!
And then there's Theo, a grey-haired Greek fellow in his 70's... There are two stories about Theo and the Hotel Diderot. According to Rachel, Theo owns the hotel, while she and Laurent (who are not a "couple") just run the place for him. The other story (told by a nameless, but reliable source) is that Theo very recently sold the Hotel Diderot to Laurent! The reason for this change is that Theo lost his wife in the last six months. Theo's wife was solely responsible for the hotel's famous jams and jellies. I tried to convince the person who related this version of the story that this might not be the case. We had already spied the hotel's kitchen, and noticed a table packed with upside-down jars, each filled with a jam or jelly. An upside-down jar tends to suggest that the preserves have just come out of the steamer, and are starting to cool down. My Reliable Source suggests that these preserves, and those served at breakfast, are leftover stock from when Theo's wife was still around. It's possible, I suppose. Perhaps nobody has touched this kitchen in months, but that sounds too spooky for anything but a movie!
Okay, here's the real story, obtained several months later, by email from Laurent: Laurent and his sister, Francoise, are in the process of purchasing the hotel, in early 2003. Laurent admonishes us to keep drinking red wine, especially those from Chinon!
Rob invites us to join him for dinner. We accept, and bolt to our room to squirrel away the wine.
We accompany Molly, Rob, Judy, & Jerry to La Boule D'Or. Brigid is not terribly hungry. She chooses an entrée (a "starter") that's a fish ravioli, garnished with prawns, and served with a vodka sauce -- and yes, it was delicious.
I start with a "Charles VII" aperitif -- a rosé wine with a little strawberry liquer, and the rim is ringed with beautiful blue-colored sugar crystals.
I then choose an €21.70 "menu" meal. A menu, by the way, is not the list of things the restaurant is offering. That's the "carte". A menu is a fixed-price meal. My meal is:
Pickled herring roulades, accompanied by cuke, carrot, and celery strips, woven into a pattern. It's complemented by a delicately sweet and citrusy sauce. The herring is INTENSE, but exquisite, and of the perfect texture. Yum!
Next, I am served my "sea wolf", a delicate white fish, served with a Veuvray sauce, replete with shallots, and accompanied by a wild/white rice puck. A puff-pastry crescent is standing watch on the plate. The dish is delightful.
The dessert is flambeed apples on pastry crusts (they don't feel the need to show the flame), swimming in a luscious caramel cream sauce. Very light and refreshing.
Service at La Boule D'Or is slightly sullen. Perhaps they don't like the fact that we are taking a flash photos (my suspicion), or maybe it's that we didn't immediately take our server's suggestion to sit inside, to avoid the impending downpour (which did indeed arrive within a few minutes). Also, the restaurant charged us €0.80 for each of two small carafes of tap water!
Back in the hotel, Brigid chats with Laurent, as an excuse to play with Nunuche for awhile. Eventually, I manage to tear her away from both fellows, and we're back in our room. After some more journaling, Brig falls asleep to my key clicks, and I nearly nosedive into the keyboard as well!