Rémy Giraud, the two Michelin star chef at the Domaine des Hauts de Loire, introduces us to a dry bean called the Comtesse de Chambord, and the grower who brought it back to the market, Robert Albezard.
In 2016, Relais & Châteaux lent its support to the work of the French Slow Food network in identifying endangered plant and animal species and artisanal expertise. This support also took the practical form of involving its network of chefs, inviting them to express and interpret the distinctive gastronomic identity of their region through their dishes.
Producing an inventory of endangered biodiversity... that's the purpose and philosophy of the Slow Food Arche du Goût project. The project is designed to sound the alarm to highlight the fact that the loss of cultural and agricultural biodiversity is permanent: once a skill, seed or species disappears it cannot be brought back. Around 300 French products are now onboard the ark of this deliciously smart initiative, and more than two-thirds of that total are now protected thanks directly to the support of Relais & Châteaux and the involvement of talented chefs like Rémy Giraud.
The Comtesse de Chambord is one of so many vegetables to have disappeared from French plates having previously played a key role in the national diet for centuries. What we are talking about here is a very small, round white bean (also known as the dwarf rice bean). The thin skin of this melt-in-mouth bean makes it easier to cook (but avoid cooking it over a high heat, because it will disintegrate); it is also very easily digested and not at all ‘floury’. “It's a little jewel” says Rémy Giraud.
Pioneering producer Robert Albezard found some seeds for this variety from a venerable farmer some thirty years ago around the time he left the world of IT to become a market gardener. His mother cooked the beans, and he loved the taste. He’s been growing and breeding them ever since. Now saved from oblivion, the Comtesse de Chambord is the de facto emblem for Les Jardins du Perche, his farm in Romilly-du-Perche where hedges enclose the fields that typify the landscape and protect crops from the wind, erosion and disease.
Over the years, this producer has become an institution in the markets of the Vendôme, but the memory of the battles he had when he first began is still fresh in his mind... The battle to explain his organic philosophy. The battle that involved giving skeptical customers parsnips to convince them that they had a purpose other than to feed pigs. A passionate evangelist for old varieties — often the tastiest and most resilient, but less prolific —, he clearly loves swimming against the tide, just like all those with a passion to blaze new trails. He now sells all his produce direct, and the good work is set to continue, thanks to the involvement of Robert's daughter Nathalie.
"Around 300 French products are now onboard the ark of this deliciously smart initiative, and more than two-thirds of that total are now protected thanks directly to the support of Relais & Châteaux and the involvement of talented chefs."
This story told to us with real pride and no little irony by Robert Albezard himself is very familiar to Rémy Giraud. As we walk the fields, he is constantly asking questions about vegetable varieties and growing techniques. This chef with his feet planted square and deep in the land is just as passionate about the Domaine des Hauts de Loire vegetable garden, which supplies his kitchens.
So engrossing is our visit that we nearly forget the original reason for it: the Comtesse de Chambord bean. So to taste it, we visit the chef at Le Domaine des Hauts de Loire in Onzain, between Blois and Tours. This majestic edifice stands imperious on the slopes of a hill surrounded by 70 hectares of wooded parkland. There’s no doubt about it: we are well and truly among the Châteaux of the Loire.
Rémy Giraud is keen first to introduce us to his cookery school, where he delights in passing on his insatiable appetite for good things, and tips and technique that make apparently difficult things simple, and make all the difference on the plate.
We then move on to the beautiful dining room decorated with just enough references to classicism. Service is friendly and professional, but never pompous. Which comes as a nice surprise, as does the food we find on the plate.
At last, our dwarf rice beans arrive, in a bouillabaisse of fish fresh from the River Loire. The entire dish is a tribute to the terroir of the Loire region and the fishery run by Philippe Boisneau, another committed die-hard who continues to fish the royal river professionally. Here, the Countess replaces the potato. It’s a delight. It also underlines the fact that Rémy Giraud is a man committed to serving and celebrating his region. He works with local produce whenever possible, treating it with real respect and simplicity that is clear to see on the plate. His is a gastronomic style committed to promoting biodiversity through fine dining.