A Self-Catered Vacation in Tours, France

Relaxing in a park in Tours, France.
Relaxing in a park in Tours, France.
Enjoying a park in Tours France
Enjoying a park in Tours France

Budget Travel:

Cooking for Yourself in an Apartment in France

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

I rented a small apartment in Tours, a city of about 70,000, two hours south of Paris on the Loire River. I had been here twenty years ago when my wife and I took our first ever trip to France.

France back then was magical; we enjoyed the excitement of having our first European rental car, driving those glorious hills and riverside vistas of this Loire Valley, dining in a restaurant right next to the river and discovering Vouvray wine.

After a week of eating in the finest restaurants of the Loire Valley, being presented nightly with filet of beef topped with huge slices of fois gras, plates of sumptuous appetizers filled with goat cheese and never-empty glasses of wine, it was time to bring myself back to earth and begin again to eat like I do at home.

Learning to make macarons in Tours, France. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Learning to make macarons in Tours, France. photos by Max Hartshorne.

Besides, with an exchange rate like this (July 2006), it’s nearly impossible to afford eating out every night here in lovely France.

I am here today again, older, balder and wiser, but this time I’m staying in a furnished apartment on the third floor on a major city boulevard. It’s time to see if I can save some money, have some fun, and cook for myself for a while here in France.

The digs are located right near the central train station, an easy walk from the center of the city. The cost was hard to beat: 55 euros per night, or 70 euros for two, with free Wi-Fi in the apartment.

Tap Water, Not Wine

Nobody can complain about the generous and exquisite food served all over the Loire Valley, and all over France, but it felt damn good to make a sandwich at my kitchen table and eat it while I sipped Tours tap water, instead of wine.

My little apartment kitchen had all I needed to cook my own dinners in France.My little apartment kitchen had all I needed to cook my own dinners in France.

My landlord for the next four days is Marinette. She doesn’t speak any English and was positively beaming when she heard me answer her in my rudimentary, yet determined, version of French. Her Chambre D’hote, or B&B, has three single rooms plus this third floor apartment, and she provides the typical French breakfast of coffee, juice, bread and jam downstairs in the sunny breakfast patio.

She showed me the room, everything was here, and my plates, my pots, my stove, and my little fridge…except the one thing I had thought about bringing over with me: a proper kitchen knife. I asked her about something to ‘couper’ with, making gestures with my hands, something to couper mon legumes avec. I needed a good knife.

Oh yes, she said, pas de probleme. Then she directed me to the neighborhood boulangerie, charcuterie, and alimentation generale. The neighborhood had everything I could want. All five minutes to the left. I set off.

A homemade lunch in my apartment in Tours.A homemade lunch in my apartment in Tours.

Each one of these shops was tiny, and staffed by just one person. The first stop was the grocer, the alimentation, which was really more of a convenience store, but the apples and pears outside caught my eye. I looked around and found a can of sardines and picked up a

big cucumber. I love these salty little fish, and my significant other, Cindy doesn’t, so it was the perfect choice for my lunch sandwich. But I needed more… I gestured to the friendly man, showing him that I needed lettuce; vert was all I could think of, to go with the sardines. Voila! He found me a head.

Then I paid him 4.85 euros and made my way over to the boulangerie. Every sandwich needs a crusty loaf of French bread, the French national currency, and I got one for 1.03 euros. (This is perhaps the only thing in France that doesn’t cost a fortune yet.) Then I popped back to another little store called a superette to find mayonnaise and some fine looking peaches for dessert.

Just under eight euros was the total for my fine little spread. Everything was in order and upon my return, Marinette provided me with a rack of knives, including a few big ones that will work splendidly for preparing my meals for the next three nights. Only one thing left that I can’t do without is a cutting board, a planche couper. I’ll find that and with some paper towels I should be in good shape to whip up something wonderful tonight. Ahh, dining alone. Love it!

Vincent Careme, maker of fine white and sparkling wines in the Loire Valley.
Vincent Careme, maker of fine white and sparkling wines in the Loire Valley.

Meeting an Organic Winemaker

That afternoon, I got a chance to meet an up-and-coming winemaker named Vincent Careme, who has been in the business since age 21. He runs a vineyard in the village of Vernous Sur Brenne, about fifteen miles up the Loire River from Tours. He grows all organic vines, a rarity in France, and his white and sparkling wines are in demand after tourists sample them in fine restaurants and come to visit him at the winery.

If you like the idea of hand-picked organic wines, give him a call and you can visit their winery and meet their friendly yellow lab named Provence, and maybe even meet their infant son Pierre. Both Vincent and his wife Tania speak English and are friendly and happy to talk about their winemaking techniques and share their fine whites and sparkling wines with visitors. Email them

After my winery visit, it was getting late. Here in France it has a habit of doing that, since it doesn’t get fully dark until at least 10:00 pm from May to September. It was 7:30 and I began thinking about dinner…and that charcuterie I visited today with those lovely rotisserie chickens out front.

Rotisserie chicken at Les Halles, the big market in the center of Tours, France.Rotisserie chicken at Les Halles, the big market in the center of Tours, France.

I made my way over to the shops and of course they were all out of chickens, so I picked out some nice looking fresh saucissons (sausages) from the case. Then, I walked across the street to my superette for some small, white fingerling potatoes. These would go well with that mayo I had bought for lunch, and I had picked up a bottle of Vincent’s wine, so I was just about set. One essential, I knew I had to bring home was another loaf, after seeing a man walk down the street with his loaf tucked under his arm.

The stove presented my first roadblock of the trip. How do you get this little gizmo to go on? It was an electric two-burner range with a flat cook top. I’d hit the buttons and little lights would come on but nothing got hot. I finally figured out that it needed to have a pot

on the burner to get hot, a safety feature I can appreciate now. I was in business.

Magret de Canard, rich duck meat that I bought to cook in my apartment in Tours.
Magret de Canard, rich duck meat that I bought to cook in my apartment in Tours.

Dinner was simply the fingerling potatoes, boiled, the fresh bread with some of the olive oil and salt I found in the cupboard, and a dash of the basil I bought at the superette. The leftover lettuce and cukes made an easy quick salad, tossed with olive oil and some vinegar I found. The sausages cooked up nicely and I added a dab of that mayonnaise. Lovely!

A Bike With a Rack

Tomorrow I would be presented with more food challenges. In fact the biggest problem was deciding what to buy, and remembering that I was only cooking for me. I was off to Place des Halles, the covered market in downtown Tours. This large market is open seven days a week. There is a second, smaller market in the neighborhood called Marche Velpeau that’s open on Mondays and Sundays.

With a sturdy rented bike with upright handlebars and a strong rack, I was all set to bring back whatever the market offered. A Michelin-starred chef who had taught me a cooking lesson said that the market, indeed, is what determines the menu, not the other way

around. He also said that butter is the secret to gastronomy, and that butter called Echire was the world’s finest, because of its low water content compared with all other butters. I made mental note to find this Echire stuff.

Strawberry seller at the Les Halles Market, Tours France. Strawberry seller at the Les Halles Market, Tours France.

A guide at the tourist office advised me that the produce was best outside, but that inside the large Les Halles building I would find the seafood, produce, meat and cheese stalls. He said that in this part of France, many fish come from the Loire, like the sandre, a flat fish. He said that it’s rare to find these in the market since the restaurants all snap them up as soon as they are caught.

I asked a poissonier about this, and he concurred. It wasn’t the right season and nobody sells this delicious river fish at Les Halles to consumers anyway.

I walked the crowded outdoor market, shaded by large trees, and full of every kind of vegetable and fruit in France. Incredibly ripe, red strawberries caught my eye, and then I glanced back at another stack of the same berries, which were pale and unappealing–right across the aisle.

Shopkeeper in Tours, everyone was friendly and helpful, even if they didn't speak any English.
Shopkeeper in Tours, everyone was friendly and helpful, even if they didn’t speak any English.

I asked a woman vendor why that was. She said it was because her stall is manned by a grower, and the other guy is, how you say, a vendre. I got the drift, understanding what two or three layers of different middlemen would do to the quality. A half pint of the very red fraises was two euros.

Les Halles

Then I thought again about my cooking lesson, and knew that I had to have some shallots. The tough part is that I am only cooking for one, so I have to remember not to load up on quantities as I would at home when leftovers and family keep us all cooking like an army barracks. No, here in France, just three of these little shallots will do.

Full stocked for my produce side of the meal, I ventured into Les Halles covered market.I passed some of the largest artichokes I’ve ever seen. The sign said Loire Artichote, so for one euro I picked up one of these.

The first thing I ran into was a poissonier, who confirmed the story that there would be no sandre available here today. So I kept walking, talking and shooting photos till I found a cheese vendor who had the precious Echire butter on their shelves. I shuddered to think how much it would cost, since it was considered the world’s best…but the two sticks were only 1.15 euros.

Then it was a toss-up, meat or fish. I had no oven, so I decided that fish might be a tough cook, and I went with duck. I saw a beautiful magret de carnard in a case, and asked if they could cut it in two. No dice.

But they pointed to another row of duck, smaller pieces of what looked like the same meat, that dark, almost beef-like look of the duck breast. I asked her to measure out just enough for one, and for 4.30 euros I was all set.

Shallots Lemon and Butter

My sauce would be shallots, lemon and butter. My appetizer would be this giant artichoke, with copious amounts of butter of course. And I’d have the duck with the sauce and my loaf of French bread and the lovely strawberries for dessert.

It all made for a great dinner, but it was sad in a way, because I was dining by myself. I like cooking for Cindy or my family better than just for me.

Over the next two days, I explored more markets, and ate every meal in my little apartment. I even got into the familiar rhythm of doing the dishes the morning after, leaving them in a pile while I read my book and listened to music on the iPod.

Though it’s funny to think that doing dishes gives pleasure, that little chore did make me feel more relaxed, as if I were at home in this apartment, instead of just visiting.

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