Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2006-06-19
What could be more moving than to explore a forgotten region and discover some gourmet delights? In addition to the famous rillettes, Le Mans and its département, the Sarthe, are full of sometimes undreamed of products and places! From Alain Passard’s fantastic kitchen garden to the exceptional wines of Jasnières, via the rustic poultry of the Ferme du Patis, you will not be disappointed!
Bernard Schwob’s Rillettes du Mans
Originally, rillettes du Mans are said to have been made in the small town of Connerré, 25 km (15.5 miles) away. It was the railway that in the 19th century brought this specialty to Paris, where it was established as the official snack of market porters. For the people of Le Mans, however, the real rillettes du Mans can only be eaten there! (or make sure the cold chain is respected). Unlike many rillettes produced in Brittany, Basque Country or even in Tours and Vouvray, those of Le Mans are made using only pork, not rabbit, goose or duck... The excellent pork butcher Bernard Schwob, for his part, uses only pigs fed year round on cereals. His rillettes au vin de Jasnières, cooked for one whole night, are lean, smooth and flavoured with pepper and cloves. Some people from the Sarthe, it seems, still dunk rillettes on slices of bread in their coffee at breakfast!
The Marché des Jacobins
This is one of the finest markets in France! Set at the foot of Saint Julien’s cathedral, this immense market takes place on Friday and Sunday mornings. Here you will find all the fine products of the Sarthe, Maine and Anjou regions, be it reinettes apples, honey, white asparagus, strawberries, Gélines de Touraine chickens or local goat’s cheeses.
Two stalls merit special attention. The Brisson-Papin fishmonger’s, first of all, sells bright sparkling wild bass, sole, turbot, grey mullet and sea bream, caught by the small boats from the Île d’Yeu, Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, La Turballe and Le Croisic; and superb fresh water fish from the Lac de Grand-Lieu near Nantes.
The other exceptional stall is that of the Ferme du Patis. Pascal and Marie-Agnès breed exquisite rustic chickens that can be found on the menu of two great chefs: Alain Passard (L’Arpège in Paris) and Olivier Boussard (Le Beaulieu in Le Mans). These chickens roam free for five months in a six-hectare (15-acre) meadow, sleep on clean straw and are fed on corn and wheat from the farm. The poulardes (fattened chickens) are particularly pampered with a diet based on cereals, sixty varieties of wild plants (including artemisia) and bread soaked in milk... Their tender, tasty white flesh is enough by itself and can be simply brushed with lemon juice, Sel de Guérande sea salt, pepper and olive oil before cooking. Delicious!
Monsieur Gesland’s goat’s cheeses
From the outside, Aux fromages fins looks like a small, unpretentious boutique. But make no mistake, Monsieur Gesland is a remarkable specialist of unpasteurised goat’s cheeses! In addition to classics such as Clacbitou from Burgundy, Saint-Maure, Chabichou du Poitou or Pyramide de Valencay, he will introduce you to some real treasures made by small producers, such as Bonde de Gatine from the Deux-Sèvres region (a goat’s cheese made using milk from one single milking) or Rouelle, Briquette from the Tarn and delicious fromages frais from Provence, flavoured with rosemary. And be sure to try his sumptuous unpasteurised Normandy butter (slightly salted or salted).
Where to eat
Le Beaulieu is the gourmet restaurant of Le Mans. Its chef, the friendly Olivier Boussard, was just awarded his first star this year. His very pure and tasty cuisine gives pride of place to seafood and produce from the Sarthe region. If you want to find out more, we have devoted an article to him in our "Portraits of chefs" series.
Much more modest, L’épicerie du Pré is a sort of café-canteen set in an attractive traditional house. Here you will find a library where you can borrow books as long as you exchange them for one from your own collection! You can have lunch or dinner in the garden, where strawberries and raspberries grow. The owners are young, friendly and cook preferably organically farmed produce from the Sarthe: fresh butter and cheese, fruit and vegetables, meat and poultry, but also white beer, wines from Touraine and wholemeal bread. The servings are copious, the bill modest, and the atmosphere good-natured. A place that we warmly recommend!
Jacques Bellanger’s chocolates
Trained at Dalloyau and Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Workman in France) 1982 in pastry making and confectionery, Jacques Bellanger is one of the celebrities of Le Mans. In addition to his pretty boutique, nicknamed the “bonbonnière” (sweet box) by the locals, you must visit his laboratory at the city gates. Here you will find a team of great professionals working with the best cocoa beans (such as the Criollo from South America or the Forastero from Africa) and using luxury raw materials. The praline is made in-house using hazelnuts from Piedmont and almonds from Valencia. The Madagascar vanilla is grated by hand and serves as the basis for an absolutely sublime ice cream. If the Aztecs considered chocolate to be the food of the gods, then Jacques Bellanger is its high priest! So try his “bugatise” (a delicate pastry combined with a soft chocolate praline), his “chambord” (an almond and chocolate biscuit soaked in caramel, melt-in-the-mouth ganache and smooth apricot) or even his “rilletées” (orange-flavoured chocolate in a jar, which can be spread on bread or eaten with a spoon...). Jacques Bellanger’s chocolates (70 varieties) are all top quality, finely crafted and intense, and his citronella and fresh raspberry macaroons are exceptional. In short, this place is a must!
Discovering the great wines of Jasnières and Coteaux du Loir: the Domaine de Bellivière
Now forgotten, the wines of the Jasnières and Coteaux du Loir appellations are nonetheless to be ranked among France’s most interesting white wines. The Chenin grape variety, which is widespread throughout the Loire valley, yields wines that are lively and vigorous, yet deep, distinguished and full of elegance. In the village of Lhomme, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Le Mans, Eric Nicolas is an enthusiastic winegrower who has been able to restore to their former glory wines in decline that have been well-known since ancient times. Originally from Picardy, he fell in love with this hilly region, once crossed by Joan of Arc, where amazing troglodyte farms hollowed out of the tuffeau limestone are still to be found. A disciple of organic farming, ploughing and grape picking by hand, Eric Nicolas takes especially great care of his vieilles vignes (old vines), planted in flint-rich soil. He is thus able to express in his wines a minerality that is reflected in a wonderful freshness. Depending on the vintage, his white wines – laden with residual sugars to varying degrees – can be dry, medium dry or really mellow. In every case, we are dealing with very fine wines of straw gold colour, with green glints and a nose of preserved citrus fruit, honey and eglantine. Perfect with asparagus in sauce mousseline, or pikeperch with leeks and spices.
Alain Passard’s kitchen garden
Located 20 km (12.5 miles) from Le Mans (take the N23 and D 156), the village of Fillé was mainly famous up to now for its Madonna painted in the 16th century. Today, gourmets know that here, on the banks of the Sarthe, stretches out one of the finest kitchen gardens in France, that of the great chef Alain Passard! Created in 2002 over an area of 2 ha (5 acres), on the estate of Château du Gros Chesnay, the purpose of this kitchen garden is to produce a great variety of vegetables, fruit and aromatic herbs and spices, some of which have become extremely rare. Alain Passard wanted his two gardeners to work following organic farming standards: no chemical products, therefore, and ploughing is done with carthorses, which have the merit of not pressing down the earth. The fruit and vegetables grown have been selected according to their adaptability to the garden’s soils. “I want to create Grand Cru vegetables, just as there are Grand Cru wines,” explains Monsieur Passard. Indeed, his beetroot, leeks and celery have an intense taste. They are not commercialised but exclusively destined for the L’Arpège restaurant (daily delivery to Paris without refrigeration, in order to preserve the flavour of the produce).
For further information
Rillettes de Bernard Schwob
34, avenue Henri Martin
Tel: 02 43 84 29 09
Ferme du Patis
Coulans sur Gée
Tel: 02 43 88 84 27
Aux fromages fins
7, rue Docteur Leroy
Tel: 02 43 24 45 29
Chocolats Jacques Bellanger
Boutique Béline, 5, place St-Nicolas
Tel: 02 43 28 00 43
Place des Ifs
Tel: 02 43 87 78 37
L’épicerie du pré
31, rue du pré
Tel: 02 43 23 52 51
Domaine de Bellivière
Tel: 02 43 44 59 97
Potager d’Alain Passard