Din­ing with da Vinci

Flavours of the Re­nais­sance in France’s Loire Val­ley

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - JU­DITH ELEN

I’M sit­ting at a sturdy tim­ber ta­ble in a park where Leonardo da Vinci once wan­dered in deep con­ver­sa­tion with the French king. The table­top is scat­tered with rose petals, cin­na­mon sticks and other spices, and I’m about to eat a meal cre­ated by chef Stephane Sausin, who is steeped in the in­tri­ca­cies of Re­nais­sance food in France.

Sausin has been around some fa­mous names him­self, serv­ing such high-fly­ers as Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand, Ge­orge Bush and John Paul II.

He now pre­sides over meals with a 15th-cen­tury flavour, served in Re­nais­sance cos­tume, at L’Au­berge du Prieure, a for­mer pri­ory in the grounds of da Vinci’s fi­nal home, Chateau du Clos Luce, in the Loire Val­ley.

Sip­ping vin d’hypocras from a dark stoneware goblet, I’m look­ing across deep green lawns, past old trees, to a rose-brick pi­geon-house built in the late 1400s by Eti­enne le Loup, war­den of the Am­boise forests. Though da Vinci, a veg­e­tar­ian, would not have eaten birds, the pi­geon­house was an im­por­tant me­dieval sta­tus sym­bol. Pi­geon meat was highly val­ued, cooked on a spit or served in an omelette, and the birds were handy mes­sage-car­ri­ers and fer­tilis­ers of the kitchen gar­dens. Eti­enne le Loup would have sup­plied them for dishes for the court when the king, Fran­cois I, was in res­i­dence.

As the menu im­plies, we, like Re­nais­sance din­ers, are lovers of fine flesh and ar­dent ex­plor­ers of taste. How­ever, we don’t eat pi­geon to­day. In­stead, our sec­ond course is a fat­tened pul­let con­served with le­mon and olives (poularde con­fit au li­mon et olives) served with a melange of aubergine in saf­fron (un gas­tiau d’aubergines safra­nees). The only ref­er­ence I later find on the in­ter­net for gas­tiau is a Welsh word, which trans­lates as shenani­gans (no doubt a lin­guist could ex­plain French-Welsh-Celtic links).

Plump birds are a theme on L’Au­berge du Prieure menus, as are spices, which ap­pear in just about ev­ery course. An­other dish on the lunch menu is de­scribed in English as ‘‘fat chicken con­fit with Am­boise wine and car­rot and clove puree’’. The vin d’hypocras that starts the meal is made from a Re­nais­sance recipe with red wine and cin­na­mon. There is also a white wine ver­sion, made with sage and fresh mint.

Spices were the flavour of the era, as well as be­ing a sym­bol of pros­per­ity. Pep­per, gin­ger, cin­na­mon and cloves were all widely used; saf­fron, as ever, was se­duc­tively ex­pen­sive.

One dish on the menu here fea­tures salmon with a recipe known in 14th-cen­tury Venice, in­volv­ing leek whites boiled, chopped, then fried, served with meat coated in grated, soaked bread, beaten eggs and saf­fron. For dessert, short­bread pas­tries in the shape of fleur de lys, with pear con­fit (more spices, wine and orange). There is also a lus­ciously rich choco­late pud­ding, a straw­berry soup with sweet pep­per comes with brioche per­due (like pain perdu) and a mar­malade of her­itage Reine Claude plums.

A short walk from the for­mer pri­ory, on the op­po­site mar­gins of the park, is da Vinci’s chateau, re­ally a manor house of pink brick and stone built in 1471. Clos Luce (also known as Chateau de Cloux) is now a mu­seum, with fur­nish­ings, ta­pes­tries and mod­els of the artist’s in­ven­tions in the base­ment.

Da Vinci trav­elled here from Italy in 1516, in­vited by Fran­cois I. With a small ret­inue rid­ing mules, he crossed the Alps car­ry­ing his three favourite paint­ings in leather sad­dle­bags. One was the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci died here three years later, aged 67; his tomb is in a chapel at the Chateau Royal d’Am­boise, 400m away. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of RailEu­rope and Chateau du

Clos Luce.

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