Leonardo da Vinci’s little-known project, cut short by his demise, was to transform Romorantin into the “ideal city” and that spirit permeates the city to this day. As it does the Grand Hôtel du Lion d’Or, erected in the days of the Italian genius and designed to make all the senses sing.
In today’s France, our perceptions of geography are radically influenced by the ease and swiftness of travel we now enjoy: The TGV has brought Bordeaux and Marseille closer to Paris, meaning places like Caen or Sologne have lost their character of relative proximity. Such notions come to me in the train on the way to the last of these, as I gaze upon the changing landscape, culture, architecture. In my own way, I intend to honor the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. A journey through both space and time into the Loire Valley that so fascinates me, and not simply because of my passion for its vineyard fruits.
My destination is Romorantin, where I will meet two extraordinary people, Didier and Marie-Christine Clément, a husband-and-wife team that has made the Grand Hôtel du Lion d’Or a gold standard of hospitality in the region. The reputation of Didier’s cuisine, though, reaches far beyond the banks of that royal river, and the wine list is a dream come true for all those who love the Loire and its so-called minor expressions, such as the Romorantin variety, a white grape that prefers to be processed like a red, through pellicular maceration.
The Grand Hôtel is in an exquisite, 16th-century building, a contemporary of François I, the king who brought Leonardo da Vinci to France to transform Romorantin into an “ideal city” – a recurrent urban-planning project during the Renaissance, that era enamored of utopias. Though this ideal city would never see the light of day, Da Vinci’s plans for it would inspire the construction of the Château du Chambord.
But let’s get back to my hosts, through-and-through locals who sing the praises of the land of the Sologne. Didier was several years ahead of the trend in rediscovering heirloom vegetables and herbs and forged lasting collaborations with local market gardeners. His dishes incorporate parsnip, angelica, broad-leaved thyme, Vitelotte potatoes, and the delights of picking, like elderflower, which he utilizes with enlightened perfection. For Didier and Marie-Christine Clément, terroir is a construct of the mind that “takes on geographical, cultural, and imaginary dimensions.” A viewpoint whence one observes and experiences a place other than one’s own, an historical and geographical elsewhere. An elsewhere that gains import by virtue of weighty history, along a river that was a means of communication connecting mountain to ocean, south to north.
Melegueta pepper, also known as Grains of Paradise, is emblematic of how the Cléments approach their vocation. Being enthralled with history and literature (they have written several worthy tomes themselves), Didier and Marie-Christine found this spice regularly cited in the first medieval culinary manuscripts, on which Marie-Christine has written an analysis. Driven by a healthy dose of curiosity, they discovered that the spice was actually of African origin and only joined the Spice Route in the southern Mediterranean ports. Its name was perhaps a declaration of origin: During the Renaissance, a very materialistic period, “Paradise” was thought to be in Equatorial Africa. Though the spice was very popular in France at the time, it gradually disappeared from the edible world and its peppery, lemony notes found new life in perfumery. Didier is helping guide it back into cuisine, thereby bringing together history and imagination.
The next day, I walk in the village of Romorantin, still savoring the gourmet meal of the previous evening, one that enchanted me, but for which I cannot find an adjective that expresses this impression. The dishes were alive, as modern in design and flavor as the conversation I enjoyed with my hosts, focused on the fascinating history of the Sologne. Once again, the Loire – born in Ardèche only to become Breton – comes to my rescue. Etymologically, its name is a nod to lightness. Didier’s cuisine has the gift of lightness, the ability to render complex concoctions satisfyingly simple. In Romorantin, gastronomy is, as is said in Provençal, a gai saber – a gay science.