I KNOW IT IS HERE SOMEWHERE,” Jacques Thorel says, clicking through photos on his computer ‘‘ I screen. We’re huddled around a desk on the third floor of the chef’s house, surrounded by his vast library of antiquarian cookbooks; anyone wanting a 17th-century edition of La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier François or a 1935 menu from La Pyramide signed by Fernand Point will find it here. But that’s not what we’re looking for. “Ah!” he says, pointing. The photo is a 14-year-old snapshot, now digitized, of a young woman in a suit, dark hair pulled back, black glasses, somehow smiling and looking serious at the same time. Her name is Pascaline Lepeltier. “We’re very happy for her,” says madame Solange Thorel. “And very proud.”
Lepeltier, who’s standing next to me, also studying this photo of herself, responds with a sort of Gallic pff, waving the praise away. But she looks pleased.
There’s plenty to be proud of. In 2018, Lepeltier was the first woman ever to receive the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) recognition as a sommelier, an extraordinary honor. That year she also won the title of best Sommelier de France at the Union de la Sommellerie despite living in New York City, where she runs a world-class wine program at Racine's restaurant. And she’s a Master Sommelier, a degree held by only 256 people in the world. But at the time of that photo on chef Thorel’s computer, she’d only just started working in restaurants. To him, she says, “That was on my first trip ever to Bordeaux. You took me—it was at Château d’Yquem. We had lobster with carrots.”
“Lobster with carrots and spring peas cooked in Yquem!” Thorel leans back and mimes pouring a magnum of Yquem—a wine that costs hundreds of dollars a bottle—directly into a pot. “Glug glug glug! It’s true!”
Out the third-floor windows, the night is dark, but there’s a shimmer through the trees of the waters of the Loire. We’re near the river’s mouth, where it rolls into the gray Atlantic. Here, the Loire is where Lepeltier was born.
TRAVELING THROUGH THE LOIRE with Pascaline Lepeltier is an education in wine, but even more than that, it’s an education in people: her people, specifically—the vignerons she has known for years. After dinner at the Thorels’, the next morning found us standing amidst a stubby forest of clay amphorae in the cellar at Domaine de l’Ecu, in Muscadet. Nine a.m. on a rainy Tuesday. Lepeltier has long been a proponent of natural wines, and L’Ecu’s owners, Fred and Claire Niger, whom she’s known for over a decade, work in that mode: organic viticulture, no additions of any kind in the cellar, no chemicals, no sulfites, and, lately, lots of experimentation with the ancient approach of making wine in big clay urns. Since Fred was in Germany at a trade show, Claire guided us through the wines. Among them was a Chenin Blanc—not a grape the region is known for—from a tiny plot the Nigers refer to as “Pascaline’s parcel.” As Lepeltier swished the wine in her mouth, Claire joked, “No pressure for us!” and mimed talking on her phone: “Oh, Fred? She didn’t like it. Cancel the order for amphorae; we’re throwing the Chenin away!”
“How many amphorae?” Lepeltier asked.
“You’ve got three, darling.”
Lepeltier gave a double thumbs-up and raised her arms in triumph.
At Les Chants d’Avril, a tiny bistro opposite a school in central Nantes that’s a favorite of the Nigers, cold rain sheeted the windows, but the BRIC-a-brac-filled room was warm and cozy, and chef Christophe François’ cooking was sublime. A richly caramelized mango and apple tarte Tatin (recipe p. 109) somehow summoned the sun before we left. “Tarte Tatin was invented in the Loire,” Lepeltier noted casually as we headed out of Nantes. “By the Tatin sisters. Near Cour-Cheverny.”
The Loire Valley, I was learning, is—in addition to being the original source for apple tarts—vast. From the area around Nantes, where Muscadet comes from, it’s more than 250 miles to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the Loire’s most east-lying major appellations. Anger, where Lepeltier grew up, is in between. Grapevines are everywhere, 185,000 acres of them, stretching across 87 appellations. So are orchards—apple, pear, and cherry— and fields of artichokes and sunflowers. “People call the Loire the garden of France,” Lepeltier said as we turned into the nondescript driveway at Domaine des Roches Neuves in Saumur-Champigny.
Thierry Germain, the proprietor, greeted Lepeltier as though she were a much-loved family member just returned from an ocean voyage of many years— basically, the same way everyone we met greeted her. Within moments of our arrival, we were bouncing along in his Jeep as he and Lepeltier animatedly discussed alcohol levels (Germain: “Cabernet Franc after 14 degrees alcohol is no good; the terroir is gone”), the geology of Saumur (Lepeltier: “The ground under Saumur is like a honeycomb, full of galleries, from all the limestone quarrying”), and the evils of sulfur additions (Germain: “Added sulfur is what keeps conventional wines alive; minerality and acidity are what keep real wines alive”). We walked through Germain’s 100-plus-year-old Les Mémoires vineyard, the ancient Cabernet Franc vines knotted and gnarled, a fresh wind biting at us. Later, tasting the wine, the immense personality of the place came through: a coiled intensity, layers of flavor.
Talking about biodynamics and its founder Rudolf Steiner, Germain said, “For me, his main thrust is really inspired by The Metamorphosis of Plants by Goethe. Goethe really makes things concrete; I want people who come to this estate to understand that biodynamics is concrete.” I was reminded that prior to going into wine, Lepeltier received a master’s in philosophy at the University of Nantes. I’d find again and again on this trip that she, and many of the winemakers she loves best, have a fiercely intellectual relationship with wine.
I pondered this a bit further over a plate of Loire eel at La Route du Sel, where chef Marie Monmousseau roasts them over hay, a traditional preparation. A bite proved smoky, faintly grassy, a little chewy, sweet-fleshed; not particularly enlightening in regard to Goethe, but perhaps that’s too much to ask. Loire eels, Lepeltier explained as we ate, are born in the Sargasso Sea, cross the Atlantic to grow up in the Loire, then return to the Sargasso to spawn—unless, of course, they become lunch. I considered my eel with newfound respect. But even so, I preferred chef Monmousseau’s gorgeous Saumurois tart topped with glistening dark cherries (recipe p. 114). And Lepeltier skipped the eel entirely and had a salad.
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