21 May 2007

Loire Valley food specialties

This weekend we had friends here from California. Since we can't go to restaurants right now, we planned, purchased, and prepared food for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon meals with our visitors.

Why can't we go to restaurants? It's the puppy — we don't want to leave her unsupervised in the house, we don't want to lock her in her kennel for hours while we are out, and we aren't sure she has sufficiently polished restaurant manners at this stage. Well-behaved dogs are admitted in most French restaurants, as you might know.

We thought we'd go with local specialties for the weekend's dinners, and seasonal ones as possible in the case of vegetables and fruits. In the Saint-Aignan area, that means asparagus and strawberries (in season now), along with goat cheeses and rillettes (potted meats), all available year-round.

Peeling white asparagus from the Sologne

The local asparagus, grown in the neighboring region of sandy soil, small lakes, and pine and birch forests that is called La Sologne, are of the white variety. In fact, the white and green asparagus varieties are really the same plant. It's just the way they are grown than differentiates them.

Green asparagus are allowed to grow up out of the soil and be exposed to sunlight. That makes them green. White asparagus are grown under mounded-up soil and sand so that the spears never see the light of day. They stay white. I bought a kilo (2.2 lbs) of white asparagus spears from a farmer's stand at the Saint-Aignan market Saturday morning for four euros ($5.50 at today's rates). That was the best price I found at the farmers' market that morning.

Cooked white asparagus, ready to be seasoned and sauced

I think green and white asparagus are equally good to eat, if they are prepared and cooked appropriately. The main difference is that the white ones need to be peeled before you cook them, and they need to be cooked a little longer than the green ones. If you cook the green ones just a minute or two too long, they turn mushy and strong-tasting; the white ones are less fragile and stand up better in the cooking process. I cook them in a wide, shallow pan of boiling water.

Wrap bundles of cooked asparagus spears in slices of ham.
Place the bundles in a pre-baked pie shell and pour an egg custard
mixture around them. Cook the pie in a hot oven for 20 minutes.

Asparagus are good served hot with melted butter or cold with mayonnaise or vinaigrette. They can be cut into pieces and incorporated into a soup or a risotto. Or they can be cooked in a pie the way Walt does them. Again, cooked properly, they are delicious.

The other plant that grows well in the sandy soil of the Sologne and in the sandy bottom land along the Loire and Cher rivers is the strawberry (la fraise). The season runs from April through June. On Saturday, I bought strawberries from a farmer who sells them at the Saint-Aignan market, along with asparagus and honey. He didn't have any asparagus this week, but the strawberries he was selling looked and smelled delicious.

Loire Valley strawberries

I asked him if he grew the fraises himself and he said he did. I didn't recognize the variety, which was spelled cigualine on his sign but can also spelled cigaline. I have found references to it and other strawberry cultivars on the web (in French). This particular farmer grows cigaline and cireine strawberries, he told me. The varieties I find more often are called gariguette and marat des bois. I like those, but was more than willing to try others.

On the local markets and in the local supermarkets, I also see strawberries that are imported from Spain. They are plump, bright red, generally attractive, and pleasing to the nose. But they are usually spongy in texture and bland on the tongue. I avoid them. They are the same variety that is grown in California, according to what I have read. They have been bred to withstand transcontinental shipping and to last a long time on the shelf. Taste and texture are lower priorities.

The local varieties I've mentioned have a very short shelf-life but they are luscious and sweet. The cigaline strawberries the farmer at Saint-Aignan had grown were a pale red color, verging on pink. They were smaller than Spanish strawberries, and they smelled great. I took the farmer's word for it that they were sweet and juicy, and he didn't lie. He said the other variety he grows, les fraises cireine, are a darker red color but otherwise similar to the fraises cigualine.

I asked the farmer if he was local, and he said not really, His farm, he said, is up near the town of Contres, about 12 miles north of Saint-Aignan! I told him that that qualified as local to my way of thinking. Contres (pop. 3,000) is considered to be in Sologne, while Saint-Aignan is in the Cher River valley and on the edges of three old provinces (La Sologne, La Touraine, and Le Berry) as well as at the point where three "modern" administrative départements meet (Loir-et-Cher, Indre, and Indre-et-Loire).

I paid eight euros for a kilo of fraises cigaline. That would come out to a little less that $5.00 U.S. for a pound (454 grams). I had to throw one strawberry away because it was kind of smushed and had started to grow mold. And I ate two or three while I was rinsing and de-stemming them, because they were a little over-ripe. All the others were pretty much perfect.

Gariguette strawberries from Chouzé-sur-Loire

I didn't take any pictures of the food I was preparing yesterday. All the pictures in this topic are ones that I took back in April but didn't post back then for some reason or other. Above are pictures of some strawberries I bought back then. They were grown in fields along the river at Chouzé-sur-Loire, not far from the wine towns of Bourgueil and Chinon. I guess that could qualify as local; it's about 50 miles west of Saint-Aignan, on the other side of the city of Tours.

I plan to talk about other local foods — goat cheese, roasted peppers, and local potted meats — tomorrow.


  1. You planted some asparagus in your garden a few years ago. Are they doing well?

    I planted two dozen Sequoia strawberries this year and have been enjoying the fruit. Sequoias are supposed to be the ideal non-commercial cultivar, and I like them. They're very different from grocery-store strawberries--softer and very sweet.

  2. Hi Chrissou, do you have sandy soil to grow strawberries in? Oh, that's right, you have those raised beds. Glad the sequoia berries are good.

  3. I love asparagus but prefer eating them hot with cream and a little nutmeg in the sauce, miam miam !!!Bises. Marie

  4. Thanks for that idea, Marie. Il va falloir que je les essaie accommodées de cette façon, nos bonnes asperges solognotes.

  5. A great new discovery of mine is the fruit/vegetable stand less than a mile from where I work in the Coyote Valley of California. The past few weeks I have been buying their strawberries.... they are enormous and plump and juicy and sweet. I'll have to ask what kind of strawberries they are.

    I also bought a tomato last week and it actually tasted like a garden tomato! I mentioned it today and the woman at the store said they were from Mexico. That was surprising to me.

    We're getting very close to cherry season. I can hardly wait!

  6. I go to the farmers' market at the local community college in Monterey. The strawberries I buy are called Galinda. This particular vendor comes from Santa Maria, some hours south of Carmel. They are the sweetest, even better than those grown in Watsonville. I have never tasted better strawberries anywhere. Gabby

  7. I never knew that about white/green asparagus! I learn so much from you, Ken! Merci!


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