If the Berry region is indeed the deepest heart of France, then the village of Vatan is deep in the deepest heart of France. At Hotel de France the doors of the coaching portal still swing in perfect order and unison, and its beacon lamps seem ready to light the way and admit amid much rattling of hooves the mail coach from Orleans. This cobbled passageway leads into a world of folded wisteria, lattices, leisurely dining and a night’s lodging safe from the racket of the highway--or the era.
The fortunes of Berry and Vatan have seemed to recede in inverse proportion to the rise of superhighways and super-railways. Tour de France bicyclists may come to town once a year, and that’s about it.
Meanwhile, a kitchen helper scurries across the cobblestones with a bucket of parsley. On a return trip, he ferries a pail of creme fraiche for the sauces that will blanket the thin slivers of duck breast or the veal medallions.
In this uncrowded heart of France there exists a quiet land of streams and lanes, of fine cuisine and provincial friendliness—a second only to the Loire Valley for the magnificence of its chateau architecture.
Back at Hotel de France it has come time for dinner. The cognac and eaux-de-vie bottles are lined up in military order on the Henri IV sideboard. The gladiolas radiate in mixed purples, golds and salmons.
For dining openers, there is a salad of the breast of fatted goose stuffed with foie gras (salade de magret d’oie farci au foie gras). Or a salad of half-dollar slices of goat cheese warmed on toast and set on a bed of curly endive.
A mix of creme fraiche and cognac now covers the delicate slices of duck (l’aiguillette de canard au cognac). For the most adventuresome, there is the simple but elegant mixture of red wine, snails, mushrooms and garlic cooked into a deep purple stew (cassoulette d’escargot au Chinon). Nearby Valencay has sent its pyramid-shaped goat cheese. For dessert, it is the specialty of floating island—a poached meringue sailing in custard.
For wine we took a step in the direction of the Loire to select Pouilly-fume. A Sancerre would serve just as well. St.-Purcain-sur-Sioule, also represented in this cellar, has gamy reds and Loire-type whites; Reuilly and Quincy, small areas to the east of Bourges, have excellent dry whites.
In the tradition true to the coaching days of highwaymen and other brigands, the village houses in the region are shuttered early. The keys to the dimly lit rooms of Hotel de France are attached to a brass ring and star as big as Wyatt Earp’s. Tomorrow, after all, the town’s flea market will be in operation, where antique carpentry tools go on sale for as little as $2, or antique pitchers at an equal bargain.
It costs that much to buy and mail a postard from Paris.