The city of Tours located in the centre west of France, offers foodies all sorts of gastronomic delights. Capital of the Touraine region and straddling the river Loire, the university town is only an hour by train from Paris and, conveniently for us Brits, a short flight from London Stanstead airport. This part of France is probably most famous for the dry, vibrant and refreshing white wines of the Loire valley such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The area is also home to some of the finest goats’ cheese, having a total of six Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) regions.
The goats’ cheese
Apparently, the origins of cheese making in the area began after the Battle of Tours in 732, when the defeated Arabs left behind their goats! The AOCs names to look out for are Valençay, Crottin de Chevignol, Chabichou du Poutou, Pouligny St. Pierre, Selles-sur-Cher and Sainte-Maure de Touraine.
The Valençay is easily recognised by its pyramid shape. An apocryphal explanation to its shape is that Napoleon, returning from defeat in Egypt stopped off at the castle in Valençay. The local cheese reminded him of the pyramids of Egypt, and so he lopped the top off the cheese with his sword, leaving the shape as it is today.
Most of the goats’ cheeses are eaten relatively young. They have a mild salty sweet citrusy and grassy taste, with a creamy, sometime crumbly texture. Unsurprisingly, these cheeses pair well with the wines of the region. Many of the restaurants in Tours offer an assiette de fromage régionale as part of their set menus, which is a good opportunity to try the varieties of cheese.
The Loire valley runs from the Atlantic coast near Nantes, to the centre of France. The wine regions travelling from west to east along the valley include Muscadet, Anjou, Saumur, Chinon, Touraine, Vouvray, Sancerre, and Pouilly-Fumé. Tours is ideally located in the centre of these wine regions. The climate in this part of France is relatively cool, and the white wines are generally fresh and crisp (particularly when drunk young) with fine minerality. The main white grape varieties in this area are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne.
The red wines produced in the area are mostly made from Cabernet Franc, with Chinon being the major region of production – although there are some plantings of Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir in the Loire valley. The reds are quite light, with bright red fruit acidity (raspberry, cherry, redcurrants), herbiness, with slight wet gravel/granite notes – and are usually best drunk cool.
Loire wines often make great food pairings as they are light, soft and tend not to be too fruity. The whites make good pairings to shellfish, and the reds pair nicely with fatty pork dishes and game.
In Tours, the excellent Les Belles Caves wine merchant is well worth a visit to pick up a few bottles, and they also have a good range of Bordeaux and Burgundies.
Tours has many street markets on every day of the week (except Mondays), for a full listing, see the following link. If you are lucky enough to be visiting on the first Friday in any month, then there is a special gourmet market at Place de la Résistance from 4pm to 10pm. Beyond the famous cheese, local products to look out for are Touraine foie gras, black truffles, and Rivarennes pears (pears that have been dried whole and flattened, from the nearby village of Rivarennes).
A must visit for a foodie is Les Halles – a large covered food market with
approximately 40 shops including butchershops (boucherie), fruit and
vegetable grocers, fishmongers (poissonnerie), cheeseshops (fromagerie), pastries and cakes (pâtisserie), fine food grocery (epicerie fine), preserved or cooked meats and sausages (charcuteries), chocolate shops (chocolaterie), and wine (cave à vins).
One of the additional pleasures at Les Halles, is an oyster bar where you can sample different varieties of oysters and smoked fish, accompanied with a cool glass of white wine. A perfect Sunday brunch alternative!
Bars and Restaurants
Tours has a large array of bars and restaurants. If the weather is good, head over to Place Plumereau in the heart of the medieval quarter. The small square, surrounded by the old timber and brick buildings is lined with bars and restaurants, where you can sit outside and watch the world go by.
If you love your cheese, then a good lunch option is to visit La Souris Gourmande (The Greedy Mouse) restaurant. Here they serve cheese crepes, cheese salads, cheese omelettes, cheese pies, raclette, and fondues. With its quirky cheese-themed interior and reasonable prices, its location is conveniently near the city’s cathedral.
Running from Place Plumereau, the street Rue du Grand Marché has many bistro-style restaurants, where you can enjoy some traditional hearty French dishes. We visited Le Rond de Serviette for dinner, which was like stepping back in time with its old fashioned interior.
The staff made no attempt to speak to us in English (and why should they?), but were very friendly and welcoming. Our basic language skills ensured that we ordered a delicious meal of pork rillons and rillettes, followed by onglet steak, accompanied with a fine bottle of red. We hadn’t booked and were lucky to secure a table, as the restaurant seemed to be a firm favourite with locals. Pork rillons and rillettes are a French speciality, common in this area of France (Rillettes de Tours has a IGP – Indication géographique protégée), and are delicious with fresh bread and cornichons. We also noted that they also serve the somewhat infamous sausage Andouillette (5 AAAAA), another favourite in this region.
Having never tried Andouillette, I was very keen to taste the delicacy (particularly having recently read Jay Rayner’s description in The 10 Food Commandments) – however I was unsure whether I could manage a whole one, especially if I found it too unpleasant. Why so? Because it notoriously smells like faeces, being made from various lower intenstinal components. Luckily, the restaurant La Plume Blanche (also on Rue du Grand Marché) served an entrée of tartine d’andouillette, pavé de Loire et oignons rouges, which gave me the perfect opportunity.
Smartly presented, this dish looked far more appealing than a whole thick sausage. I couldn’t decide if the melted cheese on top helped to mask or actually accentuated the slightly offensive odour. With a little apprehension, I tucked into the tartine and with a little surprise, found it to be delicious! It is a little difficult to describe, intensely piggy and pungent with a soft texture that went well with the crisp bread. If you are a fan of strongly flavoured food, like well-hung game, liver and kidneys, funky fermented asian fish sauce, and stinky and sweaty cheese (as I am), then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give it a try.
To continue my adventurous dinning streak, I followed this by ordering the Tours speciality, Beuchelle Tourangelle. This consists of lamb’s kidneys and sweetbreads sautéed with mushrooms, in a cream and mustard sauce. This was served on a bed of tagliatelle pasta, and very tasty it was too.
Tours is easy to travel to from England, with the budget airline Ryanair flying scheduled flights from London Stanstead. The airport is relatively close to the city, being a 20 minute taxi ride to the centre. Alternatively, there is a tram that runs from a stop 10 minutes walk from the airport, straight into the city centre. We also found the accommodation to be of good value, booking ahead using booking.com.
When not eating and drinking, the fashion shopping in Tours is good, the Cathedral is spectacular, and the banks of the Loire offer a very pleasant walk if the weather is good.
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