The Loire Valley, with it’s grey-stoned and magnificent chateaux, lives up to expectatations. I particularly enjoy the Chateau d’Ambroise, in the picturesque little town of Ambroise. What passes for the chateau today is a fragment of what it was under Charles XVII when it was originally rebuilt as a royal residence. Fire, neglect, time reduced it to a human scale. Today it is a living entity, its bedrooms furnished right down to fresh flower bouquets, its views of the Loire River unobstructed.
Loches, another sweet little town not far from Ambroise, satisfies in a more touristy way. I loved the winding streets bordered by high stone walls that enclose private gardens. Ienjoyed a tasty lunch at a fine salon de thé called Cake-Thé (6, Grand Rue, Loches 36700 Tel: 02.47.59.39.35), a play on words for caqueter, or chat.
But what I loved most was the gateau St. Antoine from the bakery right outside the walls of old Loches, Les Macarons de Martine. There, head baker Mariano Gonzalez turns out an impressive array of crisp crusted breads, and a few traditional cakes. The St. Antoine is, for me, his chef d’oeuvre (though I didn’t try his admirable looking tarte tatin, for which he was inducted into the Lichonneaux de Tarte Tatin, an honorary society for makers of Tarte Tatin).
The St. Antoine is a loaf-shaped marvel, enrobed in tender pate sucree spread with a layer of candied orange peel , filled with lighter-than-air cinnamon cake then crowned with meringue. Sound sweet? It is, but not too much.
The Loire Valley, noted as the Jardin de la France, or the garden of France, hosts market farms and gardens on every spare patch of soil (in between vast fields of wheat, soy, and canola of course). We picked our own eggplants and beef heart tomatoes, and I turned these into what I think you’ll find a truly happy meal. The recipe is below.
Whether it be in the Loire Valley or elsewhere, whether the sun shines brilliantly or not, summer is heaven, isn’t it?
Quick Sautéed Eggplant and Beef Heart Tomatoes
Tender and flavorful, the eggplant and tomatoes are a warm, cinnamon-scented foil for the fat, juicy slices of fresh beef heart tomato and goat cheese. Serve this as a main course with plenty of delicious bread, or as a first-course.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium eggplant, rinsed, trimmed, and cubed
1 very large beef heart (or 2 medium) tomatoes, peeled and cut in thick slices
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cumin
4 ounces slightly aged goat cheese (St. Maur is the best known and easiest to find), sliced in thin rounds
1 small bunch basil
1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
2. Cut one slice of tomato into cubes.
3. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the eggplant, the cubed tomato slice and the shallot, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with the cinnamon and cumin. Cook, stirring and shaking the pan, until the eggplant is soft and golden, about 8 minutes.
4. While the eggplant is cooking, arrange the remaining tomato slices in the center of four plates. Drizzle with olive oil.
5. Pluck 1/2 cup basil leaves.
6. Coarsely chop the basil, and sprinkle atop the tomatoes. Drizzle with a bit more oil, season with salt and pepper, and top each plate with an equal number of goat cheese slices.
7. When the eggplant is cooked and golden, sprinkle it atop the tomatoes and goat cheese, drizzle with oil, garnish with basil sprigs and serve.
4 generous servings