Nantes — This is the place to start if you visit France in the cold and dark of January. Of course this capital of Brittany ought to be on your itinerary any time of year although it rarely is. A shame. This little city is a lovey example of something we don’t have in the US: modest urban centers that are proud, lively and thriving, complete with handsome neoclassic downtown, moated castle and busy boulevards of fashion boutiques and all linked by a sleek tram system.
But I am here, as are most wine people for two reasons, muscadet and oysters, which are almost the same thing here in Brittany on the cold salty edge of the north Atlantic…And to begin a two-week wine buying trip. Muscadet and oysters come together spectacularly at a grand old brasserie on the square at the top of downtown Nantes across from Musee Graslin.
La Cigale is in mint 1895 condition, with more moscaic tiles, art nouveaux paintings and odalisques than if Tampa’s Columbia were in the middle of the Gare d’Orsay. La Cigale is a classic brasserie with plateaux of shellfish loaded down with the catch just hauled in from the Atlantic. To add to the visual appeal, the cook shucking the nights catch works on the sidewalk outfront.
The shucker works with five varieties of oysters, and we will have to try them all. The best is the Gillardeau, today’s designer oyster across France, but they are indeed the essence of succulence. Salty of course, moist and substantive flesh but not watery; its flavor of laser-sharp focus, with a long pleasing finish. Nothing metallic or sloppy, pure oysterlicious. Next best and the only possible rival are the Quiberons, long sharp clean oysters from a special corner or the Breton coast.
They are as good as they should be. The bigger surprises are that coquilles st jacques are as exquisite as the oysters (thinking
of coquilles as “”scallops in a sauce” is a horrible misunderstanding) and the chef’s contemporary skills. He could rest on old brasserie tradition and none would complain but he goes the extra length to source locally and naturally and season globally. Especially with the coquilles as sashimi in a stacked salad of greens, harcot vert, tat soi and chicken. Or a classic raspberry macaroon update with prune filling and szechuan peppercorns.
The wine for oysters is muscadet. Has to be. The crisp white wine squeezed from an odd grape called melon de bourgogne is the nearly universal grape in the vineyards here at the mouth of the Loire. It is as typical of this rocky coast as oysters, clean and as minerally as the oysters but with a tart counterpoint that pierces the plumpest taste of the sea.
There are hundreds of small producers here, of whom our special guest and host is Eric Chevalier. Like many young French, he
found the family vineyards struggling and has rescued the family domaine with energy and contemporary style. He’s thin and agile; his red cheeks framed by spiky hair and an unfinished beard that resemble the barren tree on his labels. Yet after dinner he invites us to a movable after party through Nantes at night as much a boulevardier as Maurice, a Chevalier of another time.
Tomorrow we head up the Loire River, the unsung third valley of France, on the path blazed by the intrepid Kermit Lynch, the Berkeley importer, raconteur and explorer of France’s once forgotten appellations, and the surprising future of their humble grapes, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.