By Rick Steves
Coming from a picnicking, backpacker travel heritage, it has taken me decades to recognize the value of a fine meal.
Now I can enthusiastically embrace a long, drawn-out “splurge meal” as a wonderful investment in time and money.
Nowhere is this truer than in France. French cuisine is sightseeing for your taste buds. You’re not just paying for the food, it’s a three-hour joyride for the senses.
Some Americans are intimidated when they go to a fine French restaurant, but they needn’t be. Many waiters speak English and are used to tourists.
Here’s what my friend and co-author, Steve Smith, and I recently experienced at a fine restaurant in Amboise, in France’s Loire Valley.
French restaurants usually open for dinner at 7 p.m. and are typically most crowded at about 8:30. It’s smart to make a reservation for your splurge meal, which we did the day before.
In France, you can order off the menu, which is called a carte, or you can order a multicourse, fixed-price meal, which, confusingly, is called a menu. Steve ordered a basic menu and I went top end, ordering off the carte.
French service is polished, professional and polite, but not chummy. Waiters are professionals who see it as their job to help you order properly for the best possible dining experience.
Aurore, our waitress, smiled as I ordered escargot (snails) for my first course. Getting a full dozen escargot rather than the typical six snails doubles the joy. My crust of bread lapped up the garlic-and-herb sauce.
In France, slow service is good service (fast service would rush the diners and their digestion). After a pleasant pause, my main course arrived: tender beef with beans wrapped in bacon. A sip of wine, after a bite of beef, seemed like an incoming tide washing the flavor farther ashore.
My crust of bread was called into action for a swipe of sauce. France is proudly the land of sauces. Thanks to the bread, I enjoyed one last encore of the meat and vegetables I’d just savored.
The next course was a selection of fine cheeses, a festival of mold on a rustic board; the vibrant-yet-mellow colors promising a vibrant array of tastes. With the cheeses there was a special extra item: raisins soaked in Armagnac brandy.
Then came dessert. Mine was a tender crepe papoose of cinnamon-flavored baked apple with butterscotch ice cream, garnished with a slice of kiwi. That didn’t keep me from reaching over for a snip of Steve’s lemon tart with raspberry sauce.
Even though we’d finished our dessert, Aurore didn’t rush us. In France your waiter will not bring your bill until you ask for it.
Our entire meal cost us about $60 each. You could call it $20 for nourishment and $40 for three hours of bliss.
Even if you’re not a “foodie,” I can’t imagine a richer sightseeing experience, one that brings together an unforgettable ensemble of local ingredients, culture, pride and people.
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© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.