“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
- John Hope Franklin

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Chenonceau, Crêpes & Les Jardins Botaniques

It's been a busy past few days here for me in Tours! I'll try to keep this brief, but I have lots to share!

On Wednesday, we attended a French cooking class at a local woman's gorgeous home. It was a mansion by American standards & thus a château by French standards! Marie showed us how to make Tarte Tatin, a simple & delicious dessert particular to the Loire Valley region of France where we're living. Although it doesn't really compare, it's essentially an upside-down, one-crust apple pie. After cooking up some fresh caramel & putting it in the pie plate, you place apples that have been cut in half round-side down in the caramel and then top it with a pie crust. After it bakes for half an hour, you carefully flip it out onto a serving platter & top it with some cinnamon & sugar laced crème fraîche. Then go sit in a lovely backyard filled with fruit trees, a lot of cats and some alcoholic apple cider and you've got yourself an afternoon! It was fun and delicious and made for a great afternoon.

Mmmm...Tarte Tatin!
Thursday, we hopped on a train after class and headed to Château Chenonceau, a 30 minute ride from downtown. The structure which stands today was built during the 16th century on the site of an older mill and fort dating from the 15th century, all spanning the Cher river. Originally a possession of King Francois Ier, Chenonceau was later offered by King Henri II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. The Queen was obviously jealous that her husband gave such a great house to his mistress instead of his wife, so upon his death Catherine de' Medici had Diane kicked out & took over the château for herself.

Voilà! Château Chenonceau spanning the Cher River
When you superimpose the H and the two C's on top of each other, you can see a big H and two interlaced D's (for Diane)...Henri knew what he was doing!
Portrait of Catherine de' Medici hanging above the mantle, with H's for Henri II and interlaced C's for Catherine below
Another highlight of Chenonceau is its massive Gallery Ball Room. This is the part of the château that actually sticks out across the river, and it has played a big part in history. Aside from being a great place to throw galas during the Renaissance, this hall served as a hospital during World War I, treating 2,254 during the course of the conflict. Even more interesting, though, was its function during World War II. The Cher River served as the boundary between the Northern Occupied Zone of France and the Southern Free Zone. Since the entrance to the château was in the Occupied Zone, and the far end of the gallery opened out onto the Free Zone, people would actually pass through this part of the château to gain freedom south of the Cher.

The Gallery Ballroom
I always love discovering the origins of words and phrases, and my visit to Chenonceau afforded me the chance to add yet another piece of useless knowledge to my collection... Did you know "barbecue" came from France? The word came about as a result of one of the many quarrels between the French and British, who historically have not often seen eye-to-eye. The French were known for only cooking their meat over a fire rotisserie-style, and the British would only ever boil their meat in a big pot. When the British observed the "bizarre" custom of the French rotisserie, they remarked (in French!) that the animals had been skewered "de la barbe au cul" (or, "from beard to ass," pardon my French!) and thus the "barbecue" was born. Just something to think about next time you have a cookout!

Chenonceau's kitchen, complete with a triple rotisserie and complicated mechanisms at right to keep them turning

The Jardin de Diane de Poitiers, one of the many intricately designed gardens on the royal grounds

Chenonceau, with its original tower on the right
Thursday after class, a few of us headed to a cool-looking restaurant we had seen a few days before called Mamie Bigoude's. We were initially drawn in by the Andy Warhol-esque art of an older woman with her tongue sticking out which decorates the exterior, and upon heading inside we found out how cool it really was! Set up like a giant dollhouse and painted every neon color you can imagine, we were seated in the laundry room where we ate our crêpes off of a table made from washing machines! I enjoyed a delicious mojito & a Christophe Colomb galette (savory crêpe filled with curried chicken) and would definitely recommend the place to anyone in the area - super cute, delicious, & fairly priced!

Nothing says "Happy Friday!" like a drink with lunch!
After lunch, we found the Jardin Botanique on the other side of town where you can see all sorts of trees, plants and flowers from all over the world. Not only were there flowers, but also all sorts of animals - some more exotic than others!



Little French kids petting goats! (finding out that this is pretty typical of this region...)

Wallabys! In France? I have to admit I was quite surprised.
And the best part? All of this was free! We were almost ready to leave the garden when we happened to see the area where all the animals were & had lots of fun checking them out - always nice to work something unexpected into the day!
Patrick, our caviste (wine expert) & comedian...he kept us laughing the whole time!
And to finish off the day, as well as the first week of intro classes here in Tours, I attended an amazing wine and cheese tasting. We sampled 5 wines and 5 cheeses and learned lots about how to determine all sorts of characteristics of the wine before even tasting it. Besides it all being delicious, the girl I happened to sit next to was not a big fan of wine and ended up giving me all of hers too! Needless to say I had a great day :)

Why can't I do this every Friday??