Eating and Drinking in Chartres, the Breadbasket of France
Kentucky is far from Chartres, but not so far as one might think. Biscuits and cornbread were the bond that held us together in Kentucky; wheatfields and bread do the same in Chartres. We like white gravy; the Chartrains, as they’re called, like sauce. Isn’t white gravy a sauce, after all?
Growing up in Kentucky, I embraced the Slow Food concepts without ever knowing it. Wendell Berry was my breakfast, lunch and supper, after all. The French have never fully embraced the official Slow Food concept of Good, Clean and Fair, since they consider that French cuisine and agriculture already embrace these values and do not need an organization – especially an Italian association with an English name – to teach them about their own time-honored traditions. One might say that the French are arrogant and chauvinist, which I would never totally deny, but it is this very pride that has maintained a high level of quality in the world of artisanal food and agriculture.
I have lived in the Beauce region, the bread basket of France, for over 15 years. The hill of Chartres is surrounded by wheat and grain fields and when you go to the bakers, they actually mark the name of the millers who provided the grain for particular breads. It’s all rather magical for those who have a holistic view of the world. The Beauce is all about farming, in particular, wheat, grain and sugar beets, but also goat cheese, pork products, rabbits, beer, apples and apple cider products, pears, chickens, rapeseed, etc. My goal has been to find all the best producers and growers and support them in every way possible.
There is organic farming, but also agriculture raisonnée, with a balance between economic viability and limited use of pesticides and chemicals, so as to have as little impact on the environment as possible. And of course, GMO is illegal in France. In my twice-yearly tasting Taste Unlocked workshops, I use only local products and have researched the time-worn recipes of the peasants and farmers of the region. My wine merchant, who has lived his whole life in Chartres, laughs, saying it takes an American to teach him about Beauce cuisine.
Food History of the Chartres Region
The concept of “Good, Clean and Fair” is part of French tradition; it is in their genes and part of their history. Some say that the French are arrogant and chauvinist, but it is this very pride that has maintained a high level of quality in the world of artisanal food and agriculture, and Chartres is a perfect example. Since the time of the Carnutes, the original Gallic tribe, their diet is thought to have been centered on grains, in particular wheat, millet and barley, and perhaps even bread. In fact, artisans of every kind flourished in this Druid city, which served as a religious, political and military capital, and which managed to maintain its own system of government even under the Romans. Christianization started even before the fall of the Roman Empire, and in the fifth and six centuries, craftsmen came from all over Europe to the sacred city of Chartres, handing themselves and their families over as slaves to the canon. This tradition eventually led to guilds in many artisanal fields beginning as early as the ninth century, even before the cathedral was built. This spirit lives on in the farmers, producers and craftsmen today. The spirit of Slow is not new here. The city and its cathedral have survived it all, and continue to do so.
Chartrains’ roots are in the land, as they always have been. Living in a place where the very earth is considered sacred changes one’s relationship to the earth. It is treated with respect; it is seen as a partner in life, instead of something to be exploited. The land is said to be telluric and to emit positive energy to all those who live and work here: the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker all work hard and in harmony with the citoyens.
Daily life is centered around planting, harvest, slaughtering, hunting, and Catholic holidays, as well as around summer solstice and autumn equinox. It resonates with the Slow Food concept of Good, Clean and Fair without their even being conscious of it.
Chartres and Beauce Farmers and Producers
Family operations practicing organic or raisonnée farming is practiced by these farmers and producers.
Jean-François Billard, Rucher Billard, beekeeper
There is a long tradition of beekeeping in the Beauce.
- Honey from different seasons and origins
- Candles and wax
Marie-Odile Challier, Ferme des Bonshommes, pig breeders
There is a long tradition of raising pigs in the Beauce.
- Charcuterie with sel de Guérande
- No artificial colors
- No preservatives
Martine Bossard, Verger de St Victor, apple orchard
There is a long tradition of growing apples in the Beauce.
- Revival of antique apples
- More natural methods
- Apple juice
- Fresh apples
Bruno Debray, chicken breeder
There is a long tradition of raising chickens in the Beauce.
- Traditionally, on all farms; now, specialized productions
- Return to free range and Label Rouge and other quality labels
- Eggs, rillettes, terrine, poule au pot
Laure Poirier, Goat Cheese Maker
There is a long tradition of raising goats and making goat cheese in the Beauce.
- Raw milk goat cheese and curds
Le Pélerin cake, Nathalie Jallerat and Nicolas Mendès
Cake made from Beauce shortbread (a specialty of Chartres), Bruno Debray eggs, apples from Jardins d’Imbermais orchards, rapeseed oil from Philippe Gourci, honey from Rucher Billard, Beauce flour and Toury beet sugar.
Monsieur Pinson is 85 years old. He works according to traditional butchering methods, ageing his meat in coolers (rassir).
Poissonnerie A La Fine Marée
Chartre’s last fishmonger, Pascal Bataille, passionate about his trade.
Despite the Russian name, Mentchikoffs are a specialty of Chartres. There are only four or five chocolatiers who still make them because the process is time-consuming. They have a praline and chocolate center and a crunchy dried Swiss-style meringue coating and are said to have been invented by a famous confectioner named Dausmenil in 1893 in the rue de la Pie in Chartres. They are now made by the pastry chef Ioos and a few other chocolatiers.
Noirjean, Rétrodor and Retro Graines
Rétrodor is a baguette made with untreated flour from the local mill Viron. It is crispy on the outside and has a light yellow crumb in the middle.
The St-Brice vineyard – the only one in Chartres — was revived in 2003, bringing back the former monastery’s tradition dating from the Middle Ages. It is used for educational purposes, but the whole region celebrates its grape harvest at a festival at the end of September.
Sugar beet and wheat fields
There are 600,000 hectares of wheat fields in the Beauce, the region around Chartres. The Centre region produces 66% of the beets used to make sugar in France (the British cut off the French supply of sugarcane from the West Indies during the Napoleonic Wars, thus starting this tradition).
- Henri IV and Poule au Pot, end of February, in celebration of fact that Henri IV was the only king crowned in France.
- Chartres en Lumières, 26 monuments lighted from Easter until October. History of light show and local engineer who invented the technique. There are special recipes for Summer Solstice.
- St John’s Festival in April, festival of Neptune, now St. John, festival of herbs. Farmers traditionally celebrated by people who work the land. Traditional recipes were soups made with seasonal herbs, including nettle soup.
- Gallo-Roman festival, beginning of July, milling and ruins, Carnute tribe, with an emphasis on bread.
- Bastille Day. Pigeon is traditionally eaten at this time.
- Assumption (August 15). Because of the heat, meat was not traditionally eaten until September. Spring chickens, which were raised on almost every farm, were slaughtered instead, as well as cakes and pastries made with last year’s flour, using also apricots, peaches, Mirabelle or other plums, and raspberries.
- Fêtes des Moissons or harvest festival, July or August; often celebrated at the same time as Assumption. If hunting season is open, hare or venison stew is served. Otherwise, chicken with green beans, tomatoes au gratin and sometimes peas.
- Fête des Vendanges, end of September, harvest festival, celebrated at the only vineyard in Chartres, St. Brice. It’s once again meat season with lapin à la moutarde or rabbit in mustard sauce, chicken rillettes and potato tourte.
- All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Hunting season is in full swing and the cold and grey of winter have often set in, so meals traditionally include venison, pumpkin and chestnuts.
- La Fête du Boudin: November-December, annual slaughtering of pigs to make blood pudding and other pork products. Blood pudding, slow-cooked pork jowls and dandelion greens with sautéed pork morsels are among the traditional dishes served.
Pâté de Chartres, pâté en croute with foie gras in the middle, traditionally made with partridge.
Rétrodor, baguette made with local flour
Poule au Pot, chicken stewed with root vegetables
Sablé de Beauce shortbread
Cochelin, medieval pastry made from puff pastry in the shape of a gingerbread man
Eurélienne beer, natural fermentation in bottle, made from wheat, barley, rapeseed, peas and potatoes
Beauce Cola, made with beetroot sugar
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She writes for In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.