Eat: Nantes

This French city may not have the star quality of Paris or Lyon, but sandwiched between Brittany, the Vendée and the Loire, it's perfectly located to make the very best of its spectacular natural larder

By Audrey Gillan
Published 2 Apr 2019, 14:55 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 10:05 BST

Langoustines writhe furiously, their tails flapping in defiance as chef Nicolas Bourget picks up a box full of them. It's 8am in Nantes' Talensac market and Bourget shakes the hand of his fishmonger, Thierry Corbineau, who has been to Le Croisic harbour, an hour and a half away, to buy straight from the boats. There's monkfish, sea bass, red mullet and, laughs the chef, 'Local langoustines, not imported from Scotland, still alive, still thrashing around, not sleeping in ice'.

Eyeing up a mackerel so sparkling, it dances with irridescence, he adds: "We only use seasonal fish. We're very strict about that at the restaurant."

Ebullient and charming, Bourget, owner of La Raffinerie in the Madeleines area of this north-western city, shows me fat radishes at a stall where the sweet smell of Gariguette strawberries prompts a kind of Pavlovian pulling of purses from pockets. There's white and green asparagus, peas, artichokes and lettuces, and herbs of almost every denomination. Across the way is Beillevaire, famous for its beurre salé (salty butter) and local cheeses, such as Machecoulais and lingot cendré.

Unlike Lyon or Marseille, France's sixth-largest city is not known as a gastronomic destination, nor does it have a signature dish. But it's perfectly located for the best of France's larder, at the crossroads of sea and land, sandwiched between Brittany, the Vendée and the Loire. And with its history as the biggest slaving port in France (more than 2,000 slave ships left Nantes for the Guinean coast, Haiti and the West Indies), its cuisine is influenced by the goods brought back as profit. Sugar, vanilla and rum are an obvious reminder of a trade that, until just a few decades ago, Nantes tried to pretend didn't exist. It's obvious too in the Ile Feydeau quay and its extravagant limestone merchants' houses, as well as the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery with its commemorative plaques naming every slave ship that ever left Nantes.

Cakes and biscuits were developed to last the long sea journeys — gateau nantais, a mixture of brown cane sugar, flour, eggs and is sometimes laced heavily with rum from the Antilles. Inside the glorious Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, a long-lasting passion for biscuits, canning and jam making is on display. Nearby is the historic LU (short for Lefèvre-Utile) factory, now a funky arts space but once the producer of the famous petit-beurre butter biscuit created in 1886.

Meanwhile, at Vins de Loire, Solène Franquet teaches us that muscadet is a wine of far greater variety than we'd rather ignorantly assumed.  We taste an example that's vivid and fresh, with an air of the sea, and another that's more viscose, a 'third level' crus communaux distinguished by its candied fruits and honey.

"There are 600 wine growers of muscadet, most of them in Sèvre et Maine, but the soil is very different so you can have very different tastes," says Franquet. "A young muscadet makes little pearls on the tongue, while a crus communaux has a very special soil and is aged for 18 months."

Promoting muscadet is one of the aims of Les Tables de Nantes, a neat little guidebook produced by Le Voyage à Nantes, the tourist office. Richard Baussau, the city's director of culinary promotion, explains that the restaurants featured are selected by a jury of 20 and each of them must serve a good selection of muscadet.

"Nantes is not a Michelin-starred city (there's only one starred restaurant) but we have a lot of restaurants that offer high quality and good value with creativity. Nantes is a city where you can have fun with food and wine," Bassau says.

"The cuisine celebrates Nantes' local produce, which is abundant in its variety and quality. We have a wide network of producers, gardeners, fishermen, farmers, refiners and winemakers of high quality. Our chefs often collaborate, buying a pig or a cow and sharing it. Nantes has developed its own bistronomy."

That bistronomy is before us on the table at La Raffinerie. The morning's langoustines have been roasted and served with asparagus and broad beans, with a butter sauce and fennel puree — it's a divine dish. And we find it at Pickles, a sweet little bistro gourmande run by Newcastle-born Dominic Quirke, a former IT geek turned chef. His blue cheese crème brûlée with perfectly-dressed green and red endive is fabulous.

"We came to Nantes from Paris because we wanted to be in a city that's open-minded and changing," he says. "Somewhere vibrant, not all starry and stuffy; somewhere with truly great produce, where people appreciate creativity."

Jules Vernes, born in Nantes in 1828, wrote: "Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real." In the kitchens of Nantes, and the vineyards of the Loire Valley, they're imagining great things and making them real.

Five Nantes food finds

Gateau Nantais
Developed to last the lengthy sea voyages, this iced cake is made from rum, brown cane sugar, flour, eggs and sometimes butter.

This legendary locavore butter and cheesemaker (using only raw milk) takes salt from the Guerande to produce the famous Nantes butter.

Les Rigolettes Nantaises
Hard-boiled sweets with a tangy soft centre of pineapple, cherry, raspberry, mandarin or lemon.

Vincent Guerlais
A refined chocolate maker, with four head-turning shops. Check out his macarons, including the exotic calamansi (citrus fruit) flavour.

Petit-Beurre Nantes
The famous butter biscuit of Nantes, crispy and simple and moreish. Try a later version that's topped with chocolate.

Four places for a taste of Nantes

Bistro cuisine embracing the market and the terroir (locale) is at the heart of this restaurant run by chef Dominic Quirke. Seeking out the best producers, his menu changes according to what they can offer him and when. There's a pig of the week — on our visit it's cochon Gascon-Bayeux, slow-cooked and served with orange-scented risotto, leek and chicken jus. Dessert is a rhubarb vanilla tartelette with fine, crumbly pastry and a hay ice cream.
How much: Lunch is €18.50 (£13.29) for two courses and a glass of wine. Dinner for three courses, €28 (£20.12) per person.

La Civelle
Take the ferry along the Loire to the brightly-painted village of Trentemoult. With its view of the river, La Civelle combines untreated wood and industrial lamps with a kind of ocean liner chic. Match oysters from Marennes-Oleron with a glass of salty muscadet; and sole from the Loire comes with melted Beillevaire beurre salé, plus there are seafood platters with lobster, prawns, scallops and seasonal vegetables.
How much: Three-course dinner from £23 per person.

Another of the city's new bistros serving just three choices for each course, this small affair is owned by chef Yann Le Brazidec who cooks from an open kitchen. The menu is seasonal — on my visit there are tender langoustines, encased in brik pastry and served with baby gem lettuce. A confit of lamb is soft to the fork but crispy on the outside and served with mash and a rich jus.
How much: Three-course dinner from £23 per person.

La Raffinerie
With the menu changing twice daily, chef Nicolas Bourget cooks according to the season and local availability, and offers a choice of four dishes for each course. The menu tells you it's called 'the refinery' because it 'transform the raw materials to create finished products of higher value'. There's a mackerel fillet, lightly-cooked with yoghurt and rocket pesto, langoustine with buttersoft broadbeans and fresh asparagus, and a dessert of Gariguette strawberries plus fantastic cheeses from Fromagerie Le Coq.
How much: Three-course dinner from £23 per person.

Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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