Mushrooms (champignons de Paris) are grown in huge quantities in the chilly troglodyte caves around Saumur, and have been flourishing here for over 100 years. The city’s underground galleries offer all the ideal conditions for the growth of over 50% of France’s button mushrooms. Visit the Musée du Champignon in Saumur, founded in 1978 in a vast underground gallery, and visit mushroom farmer Jacky Roulleau in 16th-century troglodyte dwellings. Galipettes (large button mushrooms) are typically cooked in a bread oven and enjoyed with pâté, Andouille sausages, salmon, snails and fresh goats’ cheese.
The department of Mayenne produces apples in abundance, sun-ripened to perfection and added to a wealth of dishes as well as being transformed into juice and cider. The local answer to the UK pork-and-apple combo is boudin noir aux pommes, a blood sausage served with stewed or puréed apples and a generous dash of Calvados. Mayenne has also kept the cider tradition alive – for those who prefer pears, the local perry is equally delicious – and apples are used in the Maine Pommeau apple AOC liqueur, containing 70% apples with a drop of apple brandy and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 18 months.
Perhaps surprisingly, strawberries are big business in Pornic on the Atlantic coast. Although La Fraiseraie (a family-run strawberry firm trading for the past 40 years) offers strawberry picking, it’s most famous for its delicious ice creams. It also turns its strawberries into jams, confectionery and even a strawberry liqueur known as Gosier des Chouans. The firm has 10 shops and tea rooms along the Atlantic coast from La Bernerie-en-Retz to Guérande, as well as in Nantes.
An unmistakeable taste of the sea, oysters can be found in delicious abundance along the coast of Pays de la Loire. A staggering 13,000 tonnes of oysters are produced each year from the Loire estuary to the Bay of Aiguillon, spread along almost 80km of coastline. There are three major oyster-farming areas: the Bay of Bourgneuf-Noirmoutier, Talmont Saint-Hilaire and the Bay of Aiguillon. Between the marshes and the ocean, embark on a real journey of discovery to learn the different types and sizes of oysters, how they grow and develop, and what makes them so unique. Oyster farmers will explain their way of life and the expertise passed down from generation to generation, giving you the chance to explore all the facets of this demanding profession. Working in the oyster beds, you’re at the hands of the challenges of nature and the rhythm of the seasons and tides.
Taste the region’s oysters either raw or cooked. If eaten raw, the traditional dressing in Pays de la Loire is white wine vinegar and finely chopped shallots, and accompanied by a dry white wine from the region. Alternatively they’re grilled, again with a few chopped shallots plus some butter and a grind of black pepper. They should be cooked just until the meat detaches itself from the shell.
No French region would be complete without its cheese choices – and Pays de la Loire has its fair share to offer. Curé Nantais from Nantes is a real symbol of the city, nicknamed ‘Brittany’s first cheese’ as Nantes was once part of this more northerly region. It’s a soft, supple cheese often used in tarts and gratins or served with pears and apples. You can’t miss the distinctive orange rind of a wheel of Port Salut, originally made by monks at the Port-du-Salut abbey in Mayenne – although its flavour is milder than its appearance. Saint-Paulin is another mild, creamy local variation. Slightly salty Trappe de la Coudre hails from Laval, handmade on site at the Abbaye de la Coudre with cow’s milk sourced from local farmers.
Local cakes: Gâteau Nantais & Brioche Vendéenne
Sweet tooth? The local gâteau Nantais is a moreish almond and rum sponge cake with a white sugar glaze, invented in the 1820s when France was importing exotic specialities from the West Indies. Or try Vendée’s own brioche, flavoured with brandy, orange flower water or a mixture of the two. Brioche Vendéenne was made for family celebrations such as weddings and communions; at weddings, the bride’s godparents would typically give the newlyweds a 20-30kg brioche as a gift.
Gâche,younger relative of the brioche, is more often made during Easter celebrations, to a slightly different recipe: more sugar and with the addition of crème fraîche, making it more dense. Brioches and gâches from Vendée are now protected by an IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée).
Head to medieval Guérande in Loire-Atlantique to fill your nose with the distinctive smell of sea salt, carried on the wind from the seven square miles of surrounding marshes. Around 10,000 tonnes of coarse salt is produced each year but only 300 tonnes of the delicate fleur de sel, highly prized by chefs. To find out about this fascinating industry head to Terre de Sel in Pradel; here you can learn about salt harvesting and visit a salt pond with a paludier (salt harvester) before buying some goodies to take home from the on-site shop. If your legs are weary, take a marsh tour in a horse-drawn carriage. Guérande itself is a beautiful medieval town, near Nantes and surrounded by wonderful landscapes created by the salt marshes. At 1,343 metres long, its fortified town wall is one of the best preserved in France.
This famous orange liqueur has been produced in Angers since 1849. The Carré Cointreau on the town’s outskirts is the place to go to indulge yourself – as well as learn about its history, of course. The Cointreau brand represents the best of all that’s French: strong family heritage, a pioneering spirit and a focus on pleasure. The packaging and recipe have barely changed in generations and, in spite of having trademarked its square amber-coloured glass bottle in 1885, it’s the most copied liqueur in the world with more than 1,000 similarly packaged competitors. Visitors to the Carré Cointreau are allocated intimate tables in its funky bar area, where the barman gives a cocktail demonstration and leads a tasting. The experience is interactive as visitors are involved in adding different ingredients to‘finish’ the cocktails. Cointreau is an incredibly versatile liqueur: try a classic Margarita and a Cosmopolitan, but also the more macho Sidecar combining two signature brands, Cointreau and Cognac. The guided tour is available in English and French by appointment only.