Noshing through Nantes

The quaint French town of Nantes is home to a sumptuous selection of wine, seafood and desserts.

Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott goes on a culinary rampage through Nantes, sampling a wide range of fresh seafood.

Our small group of travel writers is on the final leg of our Hidden France trip with Rail Europe. Our penultimate destination is Nantes, the lovely town by the Loire River just a couple of hours away from Paris by train in Western France. We make our way to the train station at Tours and catch the regional TER train, which affords us comfortable views of the Loire River.

Snacks are bought before the ride and before we know it, the train pulls into Nantes and our taxi takes us to the Hotel Pommeraye right in the centre of Nantes the town. The hotel is in various stages of construction. I’m lucky enough to get a room where there isn’t much construction activity and the room is simple in features. The location however, is the key here and you walk right out into the thick of things. The service is also excellent.

A quick change act is needed and then we are dining at one of the most well known restaurants in Nantes called La Cigalle, named after the cicada that adorns the logo. Walking into the quintessential Nantes brasserie is a visual experience. It was opened on the April 1, 1895 and was designed by ceramacist Emile Libaudire. The elaborate walls are covered with an aquatic and floral theme with a multitude of patterns and colours.

Interwoven with the oceanic theme is the cigale or cicada in the traditional Breton dress. On this Monday evening, the atmosphere is buzzing and it is full of patrons enjoying towers of seafood. Nantes is close to the Atlantic Ocean and it is one of France’s main ports.

The menu has an emphasis on seafood and outside is an iced display of sea treasures including a fantastic range of oysters. We are ordering from the three course set menu at a very reasonable €26.50, but just for research purposes, a few of us try the oyster degustation. There are five different types of oysters from the surrounding region including Quiberon Bretange, Vendee Bouin, Cancale (channel oysters), Prat ar Coum Madec and Gillardeau. The favourites are the Quiberon and Cancale, which were full of flavour.

The oysters are served with a round rye bread and a shallot vinaigrette. The butter, a Brittany hand pressed butter is wonderfully creamy and salty (butter and salt being particularly good in the region of Brittany).

The escargot are garlicky and tender inside. Sometimes I find they can be tough and chewy like squid, but these are not at all.

For the main we ordered what was considered to be their specialty. The lieu is a white fish with large panels of flesh and is pan fried and served with a beurre blanc and a ratatouille. The fish itself needed a lot more seasoning and the beurre blanc sauce was really needed to give the fish flavour. The ratatouille was very strong in comparison and dominated the dish. Perhaps we should have taken the cue from fellow diners and ordered a fresh seafood platter as many other tables around us had.

The creme brulee was divine with an appealingly thin crackly crust and a rich, smooth texture.

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Strawberry cake

The strawberry cake was a slender slice of cream filled joconde sponge with fresh strawberries, a thin layer of strawberry gelee on top and a scoop of divine strawberry sorbet.

After a short sleep, the next morning we are back into the swing of things and out exploring Nantes…

For those after some liquid purchases, wine tastings that cover the Loire Valley’s length and breadth of different wine types can be had a Carte des Vins de Loire. Each region of the Loire grows different grapes and specialises in different wines.

The most well known grape in the area is the muscadet. Tasting of up to three glasses are free and you can also book in for wine and cheese tasting classes here.

Before we know it, it is lunchtime and we make our way across on the navibus which is a short trip to La Civelle, a restaurant with local specialties like eel and seafood. La Civelle is only open for lunch and the atmosphere is warm and inviting with warm woods and leather chairs setting the tone. South African head chef Warren Speirs' menu is focused on local specialties.

The oyster degustation had three different types of oysters: a Plate de Bretagne-flat like a plate, said to be the best available oysters of the day as well as Gillardeau the fattest oysters, and Bretonnes. The oysters are well worth trying and a real highlight, with each oyster tasting quite different to each other.

The tarte tatin with tomatoes is a savoury version of the tarte tatin using tomatoes, instead of apples, on puff pastry. It is served with a side salad of dressed leaves and juicy prawns on top. The prawns were particularly good with a fresh texture to them.

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Le Poelee Royal €29.50

The most popular main at Le Civelle is the Le Poelee Royal which is served in a large copper pan and has a mix of fresh, seasonal seafood including half a lobster, four prawns, scallops and seasonal vegetables like potatoes, mushrooms and broccoli with a browned butter sauce. The seafood is cooked beautifully and it is a very generous serve and almost impossible to finish no matter how much you want to.

The baby eel, a specialty of the area, is dusted in flour and then pan fried with the bones still inside. It is served with green beans, potatoes and mushrooms. The bones are still quite crunchy and there is an almost grainy texture to the eel. You can of course cut out the backbone of the eel or some pieces have smaller bones bits that you can crunch on although this is a fiddly dish that didn’t win some over.

NQN travelled as a guest of Rail Europe.

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