The Sologne region, east of the Loire River, has not always been wet, but it's always been wild. Often called the unknown France because most foreign visitors are distracted by the castles of the nearby Loire Valley, the Sologne is just two hours southeast of Paris by car. The Sologne's low-lying terrain, soaked by a network of ponds and streams, remains in a mostly natural state or is farmed by small landholders who produce such gourmet gems as asparagus and foie gras. But the big carrot for locals, who are used to splendid fresh food, is hunting the wild forests and fishing the Sologne's 10,000 ponds.
Whatever the season, you're certain to see the fur, fin and feather crowd studying the rivers and the woods of the Sologne. Once the autumn mists roll in, gunshots ring in the distance. People dress in thigh-high Wellies, dark green hunting knickers or mottled designer cammies. If they're toting a rifle, it'll be zipped up in a fancy leather bag--no gun racks in pickup trucks here. The French take their hunting rights seriously. In 1998, some 130,000 French hunters demonstrated angrily against European Union rules that would limit the game bird shooting season.
In a way, for some French people in the country, hunting and fishing are an extension of the general cultural preoccupation with eating. The Sologne's freshwater fish, game and foraged mushrooms turn up on local menus along with the cultivated white asparagus for which the region is famous. Americans who plod the Stairmaster after a trip to France know that food--the preparation, shopping, fantasizing, planning, cooking and finally eating--dominates French daily life. But there's no need to be a hook-and-bullet type to enjoy the Sologne.
As a visitor, I was on the fringe of the food preparation chain. With advice from a friend, who was working at Chateau Chambord, I took pleasure considering where to eat while in the region and sought out farms to visit. You could say I hunted for memorable meals. There was the three-hour splurge of a lunch at Bernard Robin's Le Relais de Bracieux, a country restaurant graced with an impressive four Michelin stars (and prices to match) serving cuisine culled from the forest. I had been hiking and was none too elegantly dressed, but I was well seated and patiently served. Then there was the weekend lunch en plein aire with well-behaved children at nearly every table at La Grenouillere in Chaumont-sur-Tharonne. Kids and adults watched ducks paddle in the pond. There was a dinner at La Balanne, a small table d'hote where you felt like an invited guest.
A dedicated gourmet might visit the chateau at La Ferte Saint Aubin, where the owners have restored the original ancient kitchen and created a living-history museum. Cooks demonstrate how various regional specialties were prepared centuries ago. The chateau is not a restaurant, but lucky visitors might get a sample of food pulled from the fireplace or bread oven.
Fishing the local ponds is part of the food-gathering culture here. In every village, we saw families and groups of pensioners meditating over long fishing canes. Occasionally, visitors are invited to a peche d'etang, where the community gathers to harvest the pike and carp from a local pond.
This area may be the French equivalent of the land of a thousand lakes. Incremental changes in climate soaked the flat forests that the Roman invaders found in the Sologne. Throughout the region, depressions filled with water are ringed with spongey edges. Nearly every turn of the road exposes a mirrored patch of water reflecting the clouds and sky. Then the sudden plunge of a fish or a slithering eel creases the surface of the water. Over the centuries, there have been hare-brained engineering schemes to reroute or drain the ponds into ditches or canals, plant trees and reclaim the wetlands for industrial agriculture. But the Sologne remains wet and wild, and the small artisanal farmers remain in charge of the region's mystique.
Since the terrain is flat, it's ideal for bicyclists recovering from multicourse meals. Pedaling along the country roads, we saw golden broom bushes define the background, while red paintbrush plants contrasted with the yellow and green. Higher ground is used for grazing sheep.
One day I went out walking in a hunting preserve. The day was bright, birds sang and wildflowers nodded in the breeze. The silver birch and oaks gave way to open space defined by clumps of marsh grasses and wild blackberry bushes in bloom. But a persistent gutteral animal call gave rise to fearful speculation. Surely not a sanglier (wild boar), I thought. They rarely venture forth during the day. Suddenly I was up to my knees in marsh muck. Worrying about the boar, I forgot to watch where I was going and the forest had given way to shallow pools hidden under brush. Blackbirds screeched, probably with laughter. I still don't know what made that threatening sound.
Other days, we hunted for farms producing gourmet products. You would expect the French farm artisans to be creative in their kitchens, and we were not disappointed at their wooden display stands. Homey jars of wine jelly and bottles of strawberry liqueur labeled with obviously handwritten descriptions made by local farmers were on the shelves in the local grocery shops. Perfect for savoring the Sologne back home. Often these products don't reach the larger market towns, so you have to find them in the region where they are produced. To find the farms, look for signs on the road marked artisanal producteurs or similar phrases, which point the way to fresh foie gras, goat cheese, fruit, honey, jam, asparagus, mushrooms and liquors.
Late one afternoon, we headed for Cheverny, a privately owned hunting lodge open to the public and renowned for its kennels. We planned to arrive at feeding time (5 p.m. sharp during the spring and summer). The din of 100 howling hunting dogs should give you a shiver like it did us. The hounds, a cross between the English foxhound and French Poitevin, yelp and yowl until their blue-smocked, whip-wielding keeper dishes out the chow and opens the gates.
The dogs jump over one another to position their snouts in the mush and slurp up their ration while tourists' cameras click. Too soon, the troughs are licked clean and the keeper chases the high-class mutts into another pen. We wanted to try out Cheverny's helium balloon, which the lodge claims is the biggest in the world and carries 30 passengers, but the sky threatened rain and the balloon was tethered for the day.
Romorantin-Lanthenay, unofficial capital of the Sologne and home to the region's most famous and expensive restaurant, Le Lion d'Or, straddles the banks of the Sauldre River. Along the riverside plaza, the usual war memorials mark youth's sacrifice, while above the mill rush, children squeal on swings and rides. Where two rivulets converge at the Sauldre, people sit fishing, poised in time as if they stepped from a Cezanne painting.
The streets are crooked and lined with half-timbered houses accented with stylish red brick patterns, typical of the architecture of the region, displayed most vividly by the facade of the nearby Chateau du Moulin, which is open to the public. The main church in town is 1,100 years old. Its dank interior testifying to those centuries pushed me back into the sunshine where a convocation of hefty motorcycle riders from all over Europe was roaring into town for the weekend.
All the meals tightened waistbands. Near Chaumont-sur-Tharonne and close to the town of Lamotte Beuvron, there's a nature preserve with a horse trail also used by cyclists and walkers. A family pedaled up, front wheels wobbling in the sandy path. The father asked, full of anxiety, if there was a main road nearby.
"We have to get out of the forest," he said in French. I had just eaten at La Grenouillere, which was on the road they needed. So, just like a native, I gave them directions with the restaurant as a landmark.
Perhaps they were afraid of missing dinner.
DETAILS: Touring the Sologne
GETTING THERE: Air France and United offer nonstop service from Dulles to Paris; fares start at about $445, with restrictions. From Paris, either rent a car and drive south on the A10 (a very rapid autoroute with tolls) or take the train to Orleans or Blois from Gare d'Austerlitz; rail fares start at $54 round trip.
WHERE TO STAY:
* Hotel Grand St. Michel (Chambord, telephone 011-33-2-54-20-31-31, fax 011-33-2-54-20-36-40) is 100 yards from the Chateau Chambord. Rates are 290 to 450 francs.
* Maison de la Rive Gauche (Selles-sur-Cher, telephone 011-33-2-54-97-63-85) is a three-story, six-bedroom town house in the old quarter of Selles-sur-Cher. Rates start at about $1,500 for the week.
WHERE TO EAT:
* La Grenouillere (Chaumont-sur-Tharonne, telephone 011-33-2-54-88-50-71). $75 per person.
* Le Relais de Bracieux (Bracieux, telephone 011-33-2-54-46-41-22). $100 or more per person.
* Le Lion d'Or (Romorantin-Lanthenay, telephone 011-33-2-54-94-15-15. Four Michelin stars and the best restaurant in the region. $100 per person.
* La Balanne (La Balanne les Martinieres, Billy, telephone 011-33-2-54-97-61-47. Family fare at an old farm. $25 per person.
INFORMATION: French Government Tourist Office, 410-286-8310, www.francetourism.com.