Dining with da Vinci
Flavours of the Renaissance in France’s Loire Valley
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