Rediscovering Renaissance delights

Just a couple of hours drive from Paris is the charming town of Amboise in the Loire Valley, the perfect spot for lovers of all things Renaissance.

Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, steps back in time with a visit to the picturesque city of Amboise, where Renaissance-style dining and chateaux tours are the call of the day.

Do you ever get food anxiety before you head off to destinations unknown? Do you feel the need to arm yourself with a vending machine item that you would normally eschew but now gratefully punch buttons for? Heading off on the Rail Europe regional TER train we are seated in the first class compartment which is thankfully quite empty and I have two seats on which to stretch out. I’m armed with a waffle from the vending machine for the princely sum of €1 and we take the three hour journey to Tours.

I admit I was so tired that I slept soundly the entire way only to be awoken as we approached Tours. Amboise is actually just a couple of hours from Paris by train or car. The drive from Tours to the picturesque and pretty town of Amboise reminds me why discovering these little cities reminds me of picking a chocolate from a box. Every one is unique and worth every bite, every moment savoured.

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The town is delightful to look at, multi faceted and also small enough to explore easily by foot. It holds many treasures inside it with chteaux, wine tastings, third generation chocolatiers as well as the Chateau Royal d’Amboise, which is where Leonardo Da Vinci is buried and the Chateau du Clos Luce where he spent his final three years. Not only that, another castle (yes there is no shortage of castles) has a Renaissance chef who specialises in making food from the Renaissance period (stay tuned for that!).

We arrive at our hotel for the evening, Le Pavilion des Lys, an elegant 18th century residence owned by chef Sbastien Bgouin. The salon or living room is welcoming but stylish and the seven rooms up the winding staircase are all individually decorated....

I love the romance and drama of a castle or and for the castle lover, the Loire Valley has 19 castles to visit on a castle trail. You can choose the castles that you want to visit based on different factors and one of the most popular for art lovers is the one that Leonardo Da Vinci lived in. Tickets to the museum range from €11 to €13.50 depending on high or low season. You can also download an iPhone guide for the museum.

In 1515, at the age of 63, Leonardo Da Vinci moved to Amboise at the invitation of the French king Francis I. He brought three key paintings with him: the Mona Lisa, St John the Baptist and the virgin Saint Anne. At Chateau Le Clos Luc, he stayed with his entourage – including his lover – and lived out his final years there without any pressure to produce any works of art.

Chateau Le Clos Luc was originally built by Etienne le Loup who originally worked as a kitchenhand in the king’s kitchen. The legend goes that King Francis I liked to be anonymous and when he went downstairs to the kitchen and asked the young le Loup how much money he made. Le Loup answered "As much as the King.” When asked what he meant by this he explained that he earns what he spends. The king, liking the mysterious response, made le Loup a counsellor and gave him money so that he could have his own chteau. It was then bought by the royal family in 1490.

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When Da Vinci arrived he had paralysis in his right hand and worked slowly, as was his custom. The bed in his bedroom still sits in its canopied dark velvet glory and to the left sits a copy of a painting of his last days where he lies in the bed in the arms of King Francis I, his long white hair trailing onto the pillow.

Downstairs in the gardens and the museum are many of his inventions brought to life. None of the machines from his sketches were built during his time and some include the multiple shooting machine gun, the tank which was designed and rendered in wood with several guns coming out from under the hood. The design for the tank actually had such a crucial flaw that they supposed that it was done on purpose in case the designs fell into the wrong hands.

There are interactive versions of his designs as well as large representations of the sketches. Which brings us to the Renaissance lunch where chef Sieur Sausin recreates food from the renaissance period after researching the subject in depth.

Renaissance food is interesting because it straddles the late middle ages and early modern and it was a time where spices were introduced to French cuisine. Spices were a costly addition to a meal and they explain to us why the upper class used to eat food with their pinkies extended. The pinkie was to taste the spices without contaminating them with saliva. It was a three year return trip by sea to India for the spices so they were very expensive.

Sieur’s wife, who serves us in period costume, also tells us that people used to share the same drinking vessel and that spoons were the only implement on the table. Two pronged forks were only to be used in the kitchen and not on the table as it reminded people too much of the devil’s pitchfork. This changed in 1550 when Catherine de Medici arrived from Italy where they were more evolved with the table customs and she brought the habit of eating with a fork and knife at the table. This also helped with the fashion at the time which was the stiff collar and the fork prevented the collar from getting dirty...

We start with some wine and there are two to choose from: a white wine with sage, sugar and mint called "Vin de sauge” which is actually very pleasant. The red wine is a sweet mulled wine called hypocras which is sweet and drinkable-dangerous in other words! ;) ....

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