Growing up in Boston, I was always infatuated by l’art de vivre and the French idea of one’s gracious country home. My house is in a very rural, unpretentious part of the Loire Valley, called Cher, and my partner Jamie and I frequently have guests; weekends here are about food, friends and family. It’s where I reconnect with what’s essential.
Saturday morning begins with an early stop at Vailly-sur-Sauldre for Boulangerie Leclerc’s exceptional brioche. Then it’s off to the farmers’ market in Aubigny-sur-Nère, a charming town of half-timber medieval houses and cobblestone streets. The market has fantastic local, fragrant produce – gariguette strawberries in summer, chanterelles in autumn and plump asparagus in spring. I usually don’t know what I’m going to cook and it’s fun to be inspired. The area is also known for chèvre cheese, and I always stop at Romecrot farm’s truck for a few varieties, plus its decadent crème au chocolat. Before I head home, I’ll stop at Pâtisserie Prieuré, run by ex-Parisians Jean-Luc Baron and his wife, who make incredible ice cream from the mint in their garden.
Saturday afternoon is dedicated to lunch at home – the chèvre, with a green mustard salad and walnuts – then a wine tasting. Of the region’s many options – Menetou-Salon, Pouilly-sur-Loire, Sancerre – my favourite is the family-run Vincent Pinard estate in Bué, near Sancerre. Its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are excellent. Many people overlook reds in Sancerre, but the climate is similar to nearby Burgundy. Tasting is in M Pinard’s cave, where his sons Clement and Florent will happily explain the process.
Another favourite Bué producer is Lucien Crochet, or we may visit Vacheron Vignerons in Sancerre. If we’re in Menetou-Salon, which has excellent lesser-known wines, we’ll go to the lovely 13th-century château, then stop at C’heu l’Zib for its hearty, traditional food. Recently, I ordered a charlotte for dessert and the entire cake was placed on the table to serve oneself à volonté.
For a classic French château experience, I take guests to Château de Chambord – it has a Da Vinci-influenced double-helix staircase – or the 16th-century jewel, Château de Chenonceau, which was once a hunting refuge for the noblewoman Diane de Poitiers. I love the rooms filled with fresh flowers and the formal gardens.
In the evening, I’ll either cook a simple dinner followed by films and games, or we’ll head to a restaurant. A favourite for a light take on French classics is Les Rives des l’Oizenotte in Oizon, which has the look of a boat – we watch the ducks float by and breathe in the country air; or for fine dining, the Michelin-starred-but-cosy La Tour, opposite a 14th-century tower in Sancerre; it’s particularly charming in late autumn, as it has a big stone fireplace and serves local game.
On Sunday morning, breakfast goes on till midday. People in this house tend to sleep; a guest once said the place is like a cocoon. If we’re feeling adventurous in the afternoon, we’ll canoe or kayak on the Loire. Loire Nature Découverte, a friendly rental place for boats, bikes and horses, will drop you close to Pouilly. We’ll finish in Saint-Satur and have a glass of wine.
Local stops may also include the beautifully restored Galerie Capazza, a great place for modern art and sculpture. Or we’ll visit the town of La Borne, famous for its pottery, and go to see the exhibitions at the Centre of Contemporary Ceramics. My favourite artist there is Nadia Pasquer, whose work is very sculptural.
By Sunday evening, most of my guests have left and I’ll have time to read or take a bath. My bathroom is built into the house’s grenier, giving it an enveloping, cosy feel. I always feel recharged afterwards.