After a slow morning in the hotel, we headed out for breakfast from a pâtisserie we had passed and ogled on our way to the restaurant the night before. Mom had been talking about having a pain au chocolat* for a few days now, but I had my eye on the chauson aux pruneaux:
Chausons aux pommes, flaky pastries like croissants but also wrapped around some apple compote, are found all over France. Containing pruneaux, or prunes, however, is distinctly Touraine. In the US, prunes have a reputation for being less than delicious, commonly thought of in juice form accompanying a bran muffin in a breakfast for the elderly. But not surprisingly, the French, as usual, know what they're doing. Pruneaux de Tours are made from dried damson plums, and the prune compote in my chauson was deep and rich and sweet and immensely flavorful. My only quibble is that I didn't have enough of the prune compote to balance the flaky, buttery pastry!
To eat our breakfast, we headed to the banks of the Loire river, just next to pont (bridge) Wilson, built in 1918 and named for American President Woodrow Wilson in honor of the Americans' presence in Tours during the first world war and, undoubtedly, to recognize that Wilson was an illustrious alumnus of the Johns Hopkins University (holler!).
It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we took some time to appreciate the stately river as she wended her way to the Atlantic.
After a while, we wandered around until we found a postcard shop located just on the edge of the picturesque and much-photographed Place Plumereau:
At the heart of the Old Town which survived the bombing raids of the second world war, the Place is lined with half-timbered buildings and filled with café and bistro tables. We paused for un café:
I tried to get a photograph with the café in the foreground and the iconic Place in the background, but there was too much noise in the way for it to be clear... Or was there?
After our caffeine break, we set out to wander a bit. On the northern end of the Place, a stony arched hallway led to a small park marking the remnants of Gallo-Roman habitation at Tours, including a residence in the wall on the lower right that date from the second century CE:
There are a ton of adorable streets just waiting to be discovered in Tours.
After a few hours of wandering and photographing, we decided it was time for lunch. I selected D'Ici et D'Ailleurs, a restaurant featuring two menus: one d'ici (from here) with super traditional Touraine fare, and the other d'ailleurs (from elsewhere) that had other French regional options as well as a few global choices. I went with the tourte Tourangelle:
A tourte, as you may recall, is essentially a meat pie. In Tours, the tourte Tourangelle is a pie filled with rillons and sainte-maure cheese. Having had rillons and sainte-maure individually the night before, it was great to see how they come together. The tang of the goat cheese balanced nicely with the smoky, chewy rillons, and the delicate pastry crust was flaky and excellent. It would have been even better with a few slices of crisp, tart apple as a counterpoint to the richness of the meat and cheese, but instead it came with a pleasant, light, vinegary salad. To go with my meal, I had a glass of 2005 Chinon rouge, a nice, light wine with hints of prune and dried fruit.
My mom ordered the crème brulée aux asperges avec poudre de lard, which can be seen in the background of the picture above, after verifying with the waiter that it was a savory dish. The delicate custard had a light asparagus flavor, but the poudre de lard - literally, lard powder - stole the show. It was basically bacon in powdered form, and it added smoke and crunch to the otherwise silky smooth custard. The flavors were nice, but the textures really made the dish - they were outstanding.
And a quick digression before we move on from this photo - note that the salt is pink. When we were in La Rochelle, we stopped in a souvenir shop that had dozens of kinds of salt: salt with "quatre algues" (four algaes), salt with piment d'espelette, salt with herbes de Provence, salt with Bordelaise wine. The wine salt had a pink color similar to the one on the table here, but if there was any wine added to this salt, I couldn't taste it - it just tasted like salt.
At the end of the daily specials board, for dessert they had listed a brioche perdue aux mirabelles:
Brioche is an eggy bread similar to challah. Perdue means lost, and in the context of pain (bread) perdu, it means stale bread that has been salvaged as French toast. Mirabelles are small yellow plums that were at the height of their season in early September. They had been cooked into a sweet, bold, tart, almost grassy compote. There were a few groseilles, or red currants, tossed on top for good measure. When it arrived, I thought it would be good, but I was wrong. It was magnificent. The tart currants and warm mirabelle compote were utter heaven on the unbelievably smooth, creamy, custardy brioche that was warm and rich with butter and cinnamon. Superlatives don't exist to describe how good this dish was. I started whimpering with each bite I swallowed. In my notes, written as I slowly savored a tender, flavorful mouthful, I declared it to be "SO GOOD," preceded by an additional eight "SOs." Whoever said you can't buy happiness has clearly never had this brioche perdue. If you go to Tours, you must eat at D'Ici et D'Ailleurs, and if brioche perdue isn't on the menu, beg them to make it anyway.
Sadly, eventually we finished eating dessert. We dropped off a few items at the hotel, then headed out toward Les Halles. We had planned to go in the morning, but one thing lead to another and we didn't get there until almost 4:00. On our way there, we were distracted once again by some of the lovely sights.
On the way, we stopped in the Basilique Saint-Martin:
The interior of the basilica is unlike that of the cathedral with a gorgeous dark wood beamed ceiling.
When we finally made it to les Halles, we found that Thursday afternoon isn't a particularly hopping time for the market, and many of the vendor stalls were unmanned. The few that were there, however, had some excellent produce, cheese, charcuterie, and breads for sale. We picked up some apples, some plums, and a few breads from Hardouin, a superb boulangerie that offers baskets upon baskets with samples of their breads and pastries. We chose a quarter section of an enormous tourte paysanne for a basic bread, with a very dark crust and a rich, wheaty flavor:
Mom chose a couronne Alsacienne, a bagel-shaped loaf filled with bits of bacon and walnuts and topped with melted cheese:
For a little something sweet, I got a brioche cannellée, an oblong twisted loaf of brioche dusted with sugar and cinnamon.
After picking up our breads, we stopped for another quick café at the Place Plumereau, and then headed back to the hotel room for a dinner of breads, yogurt, rhubarb-applesauce, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I spent the evening catching up on writing in my journal while watching some excellent French game shows - Mot de Passe is a great choice for a non-native speaker because everyone enunciates carefully and only says one word at a time.
Coming soon: What would a visit to the Loire be without seeing a château or two?
*This past summer, Fatal Bazooka's ironic Ce Matin Va Etre Une Pure Soirée was big. Even if you don't speak French, it's worth a watch for the ridiculous antics and Big Ali's verse in English. And you know, if you ever run into me in a boulangerie and you feel like buying me a pain au chocolat, I'm all for it. Just sayin'.