A pearl in the midst of French hay fields
There are great travel writers like Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux, then there are entertaining restaurant reviewers like Michael Winner and Nicholas Lander. But aside from TV celebrities like the “Two Fat Ladies”, no print journalist springs readily to mind who combines both travel and food. Indulge me.
Once upon a time, taking a trip through France was simply a case of buying the latest Michelin Guide and keeping a copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking handy. However, in the age of the information overload that is the Internet, the traveler risks drowning in a sea of opinion.
That does not mean that any of the online reviewers are any more reliable than the recommendation of a trusted friend or acquaintance. But one’s choice is still a bit hit or miss, or perhaps I should say “suck it and see”.
Setting out from Cherbourg en route to Spain, there are several itineraries, including night stops in either the Burgundy or Bordeaux region. But for reasons that now escape me, I found my eye fixing on L’Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud in the Saumur region.
Motoring through Normandy always evokes memories of the D-Day landings as one passes giant billboards proclaiming Utah and Omaha beaches and the village of Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American paratrooper landed on the steeple of the church.
The sky was overcast but the car’s top was down – what’s the point of a convertible with the roof up? Defying the occasional shower, we persisted and enjoyed the sense of being part of the landscape. And what a landscape.
Boundless hectares of stubble punctuated with the freshly cut hay rolled into sections like giant yellow Swiss rolls and then the very spirit of Vincent van Gogh as field after field of sunflowers checkered the ground.
Driving through this land is a constant reminder of the economic power of the French farmers, though sightings of human beings were as rare as the snow leopard. The incongruous thought occurred to me that there is a shortage of homes in so many parts of the world and yet there are endless tracts of land available. Mankind does not organize things well at all.
Despite the way in which Google Maps’ voice directions massacre the language into barely intelligible Americanese, we turned into the picaresque village of Fontevraud-l’Abbaye and found the Rue de Jean de L’Habit, a narrow stone-wall-lined street that ended in large and anachronistic modern iron gates.
A voice welcomed us over the intercom announcing that the car would have to be parked in the outer circle and that she was on her way. The golf cart only had room for one passenger plus luggage, so we followed on foot into the inner courtyard.
The architecture could well have inspired Disney, a collection of buildings in an almost luminous white stone with circular turrets and small gray-slate roof tiles, all bearing witness to the recent reformation of the various structures that comprise the Abbey. Both interior and exterior suffused with a silent choir of historical connections.
It houses the tombs of King Henry II and his wife Elinor of Aquitaine. A remarkable woman, queen of both England and France, she even went on a Crusade, and she it was who carried the silver ransom to free Richard the Lionheart.
In 1814 Napoleon turned it into a prison, which is what it remained until 1963. But the atmosphere is decidedly ecclesiastical; indeed, one expected to bump into a monk or two at every turn.
The bedroom was under the eaves on the third floor with a mansard window that looked out toward more buildings being renovated. It was an unusually hot night but the Dyson fan kept the room comfortable. The rooms are small, consistent with the monks’ cells that once they were, but the solid wooden furnishings are superb in their simplicity and craftsmanship.
The receptionist informed us that as we had not pre-booked for dinner, the restaurant was full, but the village offered a variety of good places to eat. Setting off for the village, we peeped into the bar that adjoins the restaurant and asked the bar manager if it was true that the restaurant was full. He confirmed this but then informed us that there was room for two.
The configuration of the restaurant is a series of tall open verandas surrounding a rectangular herb garden, which creates a gentle stillness and suggests the inspiration behind the cuisine.
There were three choices of menu gastronomique priced at €58, €85 (US$100) and €108. We opted for the five-course mid-range. The menu designed by the young Michelin-starred chef Thibaut Ruggeri is constructed around the very comprehensive range of herbs and vegetables grown within the grounds of the Abbaye.
A delicate puréed soup was inspired by the initiative of past prisoners, whose invention was only bounded by the variety of herbs and vegetables that they could grow.
The next course challenged my innate impatience with chef’s confections that owe more to Jackson Pollock than culinary creation. Different smoothly creamed vegetables in a double circle containing a translucent gel of herb with small vegetable bouquets with which to mop up the liquids soothed the soul.
The principal course of pigeon breast disguised as lobster and a fat sliver of genuine lobster rolled in bay leaf evidenced chef Thibaut’s tasteful imagination.
The wine list pays homage to the Loire-Saumur region, with which I have had little previous knowledge. However, every sip of the Clef de Terre Dieu that I selected was a joy.
The digestif, l’Élixir de l’Abbé Thibaut, was an infusion of spices with rosemary, sage, lemon thyme, parsley, lovage, borage and honey. How better to capture the essence of this rural gem.
Despite its impeccable aristocratic lineage, there is nothing pretentious about Fontevraud L’Abbaye Royale. The staff manage that essential balance between helpfulness and enthusiasm with the confidence born of security in their product.
We shall return.