18 October 2008

Gentle landscapes

How do you capture the soft, gentle landscapes of the Loire Valley — the Cher Valley, actually, around Saint-Aignan — in photos? It's like taking pictures of... nothing. But it's not nothing. It's an atmosphere, « un feeling », as we say in 21st-century French.

Fields and trees in the Cher Valley near Saint-Aignan

It's now autumn, so colors can be part of the interest of landscape photos. The Loire Valley colors are not the kind that knock your eyes out, though — with the exeption of the grape leaves. Even in winter, the local countryside is beautiful, as Walt noticed and pointed out when we first arrived here. "It's pretty country in winter," he said, "so you know it's going to be really nice in spring, summer, and fall."

In Touraine, the woods are not dark
and threatening, but quiet and inviting.

I've been looking at Waverly Root's book The Food of France. Root, who died in 1982, was the Paris correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and then for the Washington Post. He had a food and restaurant column in the International Herald Tribune that I used to read when I lived in Paris in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Even in fall and winter, big parts of
the Touraine landscape stay bright green.

Root writes that the Touraine, which is at the heart of what we call the Loire Valley and is centered on the city of Tours, is also the heartland of France. It is in Touraine that the French language developed and where, they say, "the best French" is spoken. People in Touraine aren't considered to have a regional accent the way people in Paris, Provence, Alsace, and the French Southwest do.

The tender, smiling Touraine countryside

Touraine also don't have a regional cuisine. Touraine food is purely French, and Touraine is the garden of France. It's a soft, gentle style of cooking that shuns strong flavors and depends on fresh produce. The only stinky cheeses in the Loire Valley are goat cheeses, and they are often eaten when they are fresh and mild. Garlic and onions have only a muted presence.

French food and the French language are obviously two of France's glories, and they help define what France is. Root writes that "when one considers the extent of the debt that France owes to the Touraine, it seems almost accidental that the land of France is not called Touraine" and "that the capital of France is not Tours."

Dogs enjoy sniffing around in the local woods.
Saint-Aignan is on the far southeastern edge of Touraine.

He goes on to point out that France encompasses the sharp bare rocks of the Alps, the mountains that meet the sea "in a clash of hot colors" along the Mediterranean coast, the great chalk cliffs along the English Channel, and the rocky headlands of Brittany, pounded by heavy waves. But none of those are what you think of when you use the words "the French countryside."

Instead, you envision green fields, poplars lining long roads, agricultural country, "smiling and tender." The Touraine "is the epitome of this landscape," Root says.

Soft and gentle even describes back yards around Saint-Aignan.
The tarps cover leaves and wood that we will burn in November.

I like that expression. "Tender and smiling." I wrote "soft and gentle." But Root's language is better. Tender and smiling are adjectives you could apply to the language, and food, and the landscapes of the Loire and Cher Valleys from Saumur to Tours to Saint-Aignan.


  1. One of your best posts ever! What you/Walt/Waverley Root say about the Touraine is so true. What with this and Henri Proust over on Le Blog de l'Eminence Rouge quoting Henry James on the Touraine, I feel an attack of plagiarism coming on :-)

  2. Beautiful :) I feel transported :)


  3. "Smiling" as a description of the Touraine countryside is a direct translation from the French souriant or riant — I'm sure that's where James and Root both got it. If plagiarism there be, both and many more are guilty. I think souriant in this context is actually a cliché, a lieu commun. That doesn't make it any less accurate — au contraire.

    I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it was Rabelais or Ronsard who first used the term souriant in writing to describe Touraine's landscapes. Ronsard's contemporary Du Bellay is famous for his expression la douceur angevine, which is similar.

    The concept of plagiarism came in with the romantics in the early 19th century. The Renaissance knew better.

  4. What I meant was that everyone else has written so beautifully on the Touraine I will have to steal some of it for our blog.

  5. This is such a wonderful post. The mood of your writing, the photos, show your love of your home, your connection to the countryside, your appreciation for the whole way of life based on this peaceful, productive landscape. You make us feel it too, through you. Thanks.

  6. Susan, oops. What I said stands, though. In my former career as a technical editor, I always encouraged writers to plagiarize freely. That applies to you too. But it is amazing that H. James and W. Root wrote of Touraine using such similar language. I'm sure they both were translating from the French. Maybe Balzac in part.

    Carolyn, thanks. We really do believe we have landed in just the right place for us.

  7. 'Tis a wise man who truly knows his place and a lucky one who finds it. Dunno who I'm quoting, but it's so nice that you're both. We missed you at Barb's on Saturday. It was the kind of afternoon/evening you would have enjoyed, burnt offerings to the god of the pizza oven notwithstanding.



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