DISCOVERING NANTES & HER FOOD
Mention France to anyone outside of the country and Paris will immediately jump to mind: the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, her panoply of restaurants, the Mona Lisa and Romance with a capital R. Or Provence with her fields of fragrant lavender, her quaint villages and her rich, vivacious garlic-kissed Mediterranean cuisine. Short on time and dollars, few tourists venture outside of these well known, well-trod vacation spots. But France is a network of wonderful cities all connected by the greatest train system in the world, and each city, town or village offers some hidden beauty, a wonderful mystery and a fabulous story.
Mention French food to anyone and watch his or her face light up, hear a sigh escape from his or her lips. How many come to France to discover her treasure trove of culinary delights, revel in her gastronomic pleasures? Just get them started and they’ll talk about beouf bourguignon or blanquette de veau, those hearty, long-simmering stews full of homey warmth and rich flavors. Or steak frîtes, that all-time favorite of both locals and visitors, synonymous with Paris itself. Tangy bouillabaisse from the south, snails bathed in garlicky butter or a quenelle de brochet from the gastronomic capital of France, Lyon, brings a smile to their faces and the memories spill out. They’ll tell you about the first flakey, golden croissant or pain au chocolat they ate while strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens or where to find the best chocolate éclair, mille-feuille or Tarte Tatin.
But mention Nantes and you may just find yourself confronted with a blank face, a questioning stare. Few know this city in which I have lived for the past seven years and even fewer are familiar with her hidden local pleasures. Comparatively quiet and small town to roaring, bustling Paris, Nantes is France’s sixth largest city and a mere two-hour TGV trip west. It is a fascinating city rich in history, former capital of Brittany, the signature city of Henri IV’s famous Edict in 1598, an order of tolerance and religious freedom, the birthplace of our favorite son, Jules Verne, writer and visionary. Nantes’ stunning chateau, majestic gothic cathedral and elegant stone Old World apartment buildings stand proudly between a splendid array of wildly contemporary buildings in steel, glass and exotic wood dressed in all the gorgeous colors of the rainbow, breathing new life into this once staid, utterly bourgeois town. Home of the world-famous Royal Deluxe street theater or La Folle Journée classical music festival, Nantes is a culturally rich city filled with music, art and cinema all year ‘round.
And like every other French city, Nantes has her gastronomic treasures! A short stay is all it takes to discover a wonderful culinary tradition, a cornucopia of products that enrich the pleasures of the palate. Nantes’ cuisine is unique: neither rich, hearty nor particularly luxurious, it is light and elegant, a subtle blending of the river, the ocean and the land, a true cuisine du terroir. The simplicity of la cuisine nantaise is based on the freshness and delicate flavors of the raw products, the seafood, meat or produce, allowing them to shine through.
Nantes is a city snuggled between the river Loire and the Atlantic Ocean, and our larders are influenced by both and by everything in between. Her cuisine is a perfect blending of fresh water, salt water and terroir, the land: oysters and mussels, sea scallops, perch, pike and eel, whelks, lobster, crabs and clams are our treasures of the waters served raw or steamed in fruity white Muscadet, a wine unique to the Loire valley. Or enjoy fish or chicken in our own local beurre blanc, the creamy, light sauce tangy with shallots and vinegar and infused by more Muscadet. Our markets are a cornucopia of local mâche, lamb’s lettuce, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, leeks, a bounty of potatoes including tiny ratte fingerlings, only a handful of the fruits and vegetables that famously thrive in the soil around Nantes (not covered by grape vines) and happily find themselves on our table. But nothing, not a meal, not one dish is complete without salt or our own beurre salé, salted butter: Nantes is knee deep in salt marshes and is famous for the local fleur de sel. One finds it for sale in tiny little plastic sachets snowy white and smelling of the sea or blended with herbs or spices, the better to add a special flavor and fragrance to any dish, both savory and sweet. And out of her tumultuous past has emerged something beautiful: because of Nantes’ long ago connection with plantations in the French West Indies, we are now a city of spices, vanilla and rum, all of which jazz up the local cuisine.
And sweets? Home of the world-famous LU cookies (chocolate-topped Le Petit Ecolier imprinted with “The Little Schoolboy”, the light, airy, luscious, raspberry jam-filled Paille d’Or or our own Petit Beurre butter cookies) , the Biscuiterie Nantaise (jam or chocolate-filled smiling faces!) and the fruit-filled, pillow-shaped Rigolettes candy, we have a small but wonderful array of local desserts, simple and delicate like our cuisine. While the local treats have nothing rich and gooey about them, don’t be surprised by the bite of rum or Muscadet or the intriguing zip of sea salt, both in the cakes and in our stunning, decadent caramel au beurre salé, both a salted butter caramel sauce and a candy. La Fouace Nantaise, a star-shaped, rum-spiked, butter and egg rich brioche-type bread eaten with a glass of Muscadet, or les bottereaux nantais, tiny rectangular fried donuts made from a rum-flavored risen batter and eaten during Lent or delicate petits sablés, butter cookies made with salted butter, are only a few of the sweet treats enjoyed in Nantes.
Here I offer you two unusual recipes pretty much unknown outside of Nantes. Both of these local specialties are intriguing, both addictive and both quite easy to make. Surprise your friends and enjoy a slice of Nantes!
CURE NANTAIS ICE CREAM
Curé Nantais is a local cheese invented in the 19th century by a Curé, a parish priest, from St Julien de Concelles, a small town nestled in the vineyards outside of Nantes on the bank of the Loire River. A pale straw yellow with an orangey-brown crust or rind, the Curé Nantais is a soft, smooth, tender, cow’s milk cheese, delicately flavored, found both “au naturel” or washed with the local Muscadet wine to heighten the flavor. Served either warm or at room temperature, the Curé Nantais is often found meltingly smooth in fish dishes, melted over apples or pears, in tarts or gratins or, of course, simply as part of a cheese platter. And it is always accompanied by a glass of chilled Muscadet or Gros Plant, our local white wines.
This ice cream is easy to make and an intriguing end to any meal. The cheese creates a grainy quality to the icy smoothness of the ice cream, but this only increases the unusual quality of the dessert. Incredibly addictive, I recently served this to company and the guests declared the Curé Nantais Ice Cream to be spectacular!
1 – 7 oz (200 gram) natural Curé Nantais cheese (not washed in Muscadet)
4 large egg yolks
2 cups (500 ml) whole milk or half milk, half cream (for a richer ice cream)
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
Remove the rind from the Curé Nantais using either a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler. You can then use a teaspoon to scrape all of the cheese from the trimmed pieces of rind to get every ounce. Cut the cheese into cubes.
Heat the milk and the cheese together in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together until well blended. It should be rather thick. Do not do this in advance as sugar left on egg yolks too long can burn the yolks.
Once the cheese is melted and the milk comes just to the boil, carefully and slowly pour the hot liquid over the egg yolk/sugar mixture, whisking or stirring constantly so the yolks don’t cook. Once the hot liquid is incorporated into the yolks/sugar, pour all of it back into the saucepan and, stirring constantly, cook over medium-low heat until it thickens enough to coat a spoon.
Strain the Curé Nantais Ice Cream liquid into a clean bowl. Chill until cool enough to pour into your ice cream freezer. I made the ice cream in my hand-churn ice cream maker and it worked wonderfully. Don’t worry if the smooth liquid becomes slightly grainy: this is the cheese, but it tastes wonderful!
Serve as is, with fresh or cooked fruit (works well with pears, apples or raspberries) and a glass of white Muscadet or Gros Plant.
LE GATEAU NANTAIS
Cloaked under its familiar, elegant white icing, the Gâteau Nantais has been pleasing the locals since the 18th Century when rum was king with its intriguing flavor and drunken bite. At that time, Nantes was one of Europe’s major port cities, welcoming ships from the French West Indies who would unload their cargo of exotic spices, fruits, almonds, vanilla and rum onto her quays. Intrigued and fascinated, the locals quickly incorporated these delicacies into their local cuisine. The Nantes’ Cake, le Gâteau Nantais, is an invitation to travel, a densely satisfying cake drenched in West Indian rum, kissed by a subtle hint of almond and sweet with the perfume of the South Seas. Sweet and sassy to be eaten just a sliver at a time, the Gâteau Nantais quickly becomes addictive.
125 g (9 Tbs) salted butter, softened to room temperature (make sure it is salted butter!)
150 g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
125 g (5/8 cup) ground almonds
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
40 g (1/3 cup) flour
100 ml (3/8 liquid cup) rum
100 g (7/8 cup, 3.5 oz) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
1 cup syrup *
* Syrup: Place 75 g (6 Tbs) granulated sugar + 155 ml (2/3 liquid cup) water into a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and, over medium heat, bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. As soon as the liquid comes to a rolling boil, remove the pan from the heat, fit the lid on the pot and set aside until cooled to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter a 22 cm (8 ½ inch) cake pan (no bigger, no smaller, it must be 22 cm), line with a circle of parchment paper then butter the paper lightly.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the softened butter with the granulated sugar with an electric beater until blended, light and fluffy. Add and beat in the ground almonds. Beat in the beaten eggs in 3 or 4 additions until well blended. Add the flour and 1/3 of the rum to the batter and beat just until smooth and blended.
Pour and spread into the prepared pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Cover lightly with a sheet of aluminum foil during the last 10 or 15 minutes if the cake looks to be browning a bit too quickly. The finished cake should be a deep blond/golden color and set in the center.
Your sugar syrup should now be cool. Stir 4 tablespoons of the remaining rum into the syrup.
As soon as you remove the cake from the oven, slide a knife around the edge to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan then carefully turn out onto a rack, peel off the parchment paper then flip upright onto another cooling rack. Immediately brush generously with about half of the rum-spiked sugar syrup. Allow the cake to cool completely.
Once the cake is cool, brush again with the remaining rum-spiked sugar syrup.
To make the icing, simply stir the rest of the rum into the powdered/confectioner’s sugar until very smooth. Using a spatula spread the icing over the top of the cake, allowing it to run down the sides if you like. Allow the Gâteau Nantais to sit and macerate, the icing solidifying, for a day before enjoying. If you can wait that long.